This past summer, I was headed to a friend’s family BBQ, sitting shotgun with a bowl of potato salad in my lap. He was giving me the rundown on who would be there: His cousin who just returned from a mysterious weekend trip to Ottawa that turned into three years, his brother’s new girlfriend who hated his kids, his mom who would laden us with leftovers as we tried to leave. “Try not to engage with my uncle,” he said. “He’s an Alex Jones type.”
This summer, Alex Jones was ordered to pay $45.2 million for defaming the Sandy Hook victims’ families and spreading fraudulent theories that the shooting had been part of a government plot to confiscate Americans’ firearms. Many hope that this large settlement could chip away at the disinformation empire built by Jones and truncate its reach.
Jones began his personality-driven career in the mid-90’s, launching Infowars and it’s connected programming in the early 2000’s. He’s promoted conspiracy theories around the Oklahoma City bombing, Waco, 9/11, President Obama’s birth certificate, the moon landing, and, well, just about everything else. He’s not very discerning.
By 2017, the Infowars website was getting more than 10 million monthly views, far more than most mainstream news websites (Quantcast, Dec 2017). When Trump was elected in 2016, Jones’ radio show was syndicated to 129 stations with 5 million daily listeners and his video streams were reaching 80 million viewers every month (Washington Post, Nov 2016). Even as Facebook, YouTube, and other platforms have removed his content for terms of service violations, Jones continues to be promoted by everyone from Roger Stone to the internet’s ubiquitous Russian bots.
The impact reaches beyond theatrics. Not only did misinformation and disinformation cause countless avoidable pandemic deaths, but it also sank the United States below Argentina and Mongolia on the rankings of stable democracies (Freedom House, 2021). Furthermore, on the receiving end of Jones’ media antics are millions and millions of very real families like my friend’s who are navigating losing their loved one’s minds to conspiracy theories and disinformation.
But there is a major difference between Alex Jones and my friend’s annoying uncle: $270 million.
Alex Jones is worth between $135 and $270 million dollars (CNN, Aug 2022), but he has been busy hiding and transferring assets during the Sandy Hook trials. He has moved multiple properties to his current wife while his company, Free Speech Systems, has been transferring up to $11,000 a day to PQPR, a company owned by his parents (CNN, Aug 2022).
None of this is surprising. Infowars is built like a pyramid scheme where the currency is not free speech but Jones’ financial gain. Not only does Infowars host “money bomb” telethons (styled like a charity except donations go to a for-profit company), but they also hock a huge array of dietary supplements and prepper gear.. Beginning in September 2015, Jones made $165 million over three years from the Infowars store (Huff Post, Jan 2022). His mercantile choices are grossly transparent: Jones helps create the market for prepper gear as he actively promotes paranoia, and he is exploiting our country’s lack of affordable healthcare by peddling remedies like an old timey traveling medicine show.
Jones’ business plan is so lucrative, he’s created a blueprint for the far-right. Provocateur Mike Chernovich and Jordan Peterson have gotten into the snake oil game, and the neo-Nazi group Patriot Front charges for the stickers, flyers, and propaganda their members are required to distribute weekly to maintain good standing (The Guardian, Sept 2022). Money, not “truth bombs,” is the clear motivator for all these individuals and movements. In fact, many don’t appear to have full allegiance to their own message. Proud Boy’s leader Enrique Tarrio seems to be highly motivated to spread the group’s neo-fascist gospel all while directing people to his t-shirt line. Click on the link and you will find that he sells not only official Proud Boy merchandise, but also Black Lives Matter apparel — because no business man can resist a hot market trend.
Like all pyramid schemes, these systems exploit relationships. No mid-level-marketing venture works without manipulating someone to buy in, usually using their physical needs and vulnerabilities to get them to make the commitment. Frighteningly, this commitment for many has gone beyond just making donations or purchasing pseudo scientific remedies, and has now sent adherents to prison (Guy Reffit and many others convicted for the January 6th insurrection), or even gotten them killed (Rosanne Boyland and Ashli Babbitt).
While my friend’s uncle was indeed very annoying, I couldn’t help but feel empathy for him. As he lectured those of us standing around the pit barrel cooker about Hunter Biden’s laptop, I wondered how much money he had been grifted out of and who would do that to this otherwise very gentle seeming man? His uncle seemed lonely and vulnerable and more in need of someone to lean in and pull him out of his rabbit hole than to seal off the opening and leave him to the wolves.
I hope this upcoming election season, as misinformation and disinformation around voting, the economy, our schools and more abounds, we will engage with instead of back away from our crazy uncles. At the end of the day, the only crisis actor is Alex Jones begging his followers to keep him afloat.
The conspiracy is real– Let’s do what we can to protect each other from this harm.