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    Saturday, October 01, 2022

    Alex Jones’ $49.3M verdict and the future of misinformation

    Alex Jones attempts to answer questions about his text messages asked by Mark Bankston, lawyer for Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, during a trial at the Travis County Courthouse in Austin, Wednesday Aug. 3, 2022. Jones testified Wednesday that he now understands it was irresponsible of him to declare the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre a hoax and that he now believes it was “100% real." (Briana Sanchez/Austin American-Statesman via AP, Pool)

    Alex Jones is facing a hefty price tag for his lies about the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre — $49.3 million in damages, and counting, for claiming the nation’s deadliest school shooting was a hoax — a punishing salvo in a fledgling war on harmful misinformation.

    But what does this week’s verdict, the first of three Sandy Hook-related cases against Jones to be decided, mean for the larger misinformation ecosystem, a social media-fueled world of election denial, COVID-19 skepticism and other dubious claims that the Infowars conspiracy theorist helped build?

    “I think a lot of people are thinking of this as sort of a blow against fake news, and it’s important to realize that libel law deals with a very particular kind of fake news,” said Eugene Volokh, a First Amendment professor at the UCLA School of Law.

    U.S. courts have long held that defamatory statements — falsehoods damaging the reputation of a person or a business — aren't protected as free speech, but lies about other subjects, like science, history or the government, are. For example, saying COVID-19 isn't real is not defamatory, but spreading lies about a doctor treating coronavirus patients is.

    That distinction is why Jones, who attacked the parents of Sandy Hook victims and claimed the 2012 shooting was staged with actors to increase gun control, is being forced to pay up while Holocaust deniers, flat-earthers and vaccine skeptics are free to post their theories without much fear of a multimillion-dollar court judgment.

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