Anyone could have seen the blow coming. What the world didn’t expect was quite how much Alex Jones would have to pay for weaponizing disinformation and piling misery onto the Sandy Hook families as they mourned their lost loved ones.
Jones was found liable for defaming the parents of children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary almost a year ago, in November 2021, when Connecticut judge Barbara Bellis issued a default judgment against the world’s most notorious shock jock and conspiracy theorist. In reality, most knew Jones had crossed a line after he floated the idea that the 2012 mass murder of 20 children, six educators, and the attacker’s mother was a “government operation” while speaking on an Infowars broadcast in April 2013. It would be the first of many times he repeated the lie. Yesterday, the Connecticut jury decided it would cost him everything.
Decisions against Jones in Texas and Connecticut courts add up to $1.014 billion in damages to the families of Sandy Hook victims and an FBI agent who responded to the shooting at the elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut—with attorney fees to be added to that total in a month. Jones is rapidly learning the cost of “free speech” that allowed him to warp reality in a web of lies—and it’s a staggering sum. But there may also be lessons for the platforms that for years enabled Jones’ rise—and potential consequences for them too.
“By any standard, this is an enormous jury award in a defamation case,” says Lyrissa Lidsky, a US constitutional law scholar at the University of Florida Law School. “It seems to reflect the jury’s outrage over Jones’ behavior in profiting from lies about murdered children.”
The judgment also sends a message to anyone thinking of deliberately deploying disinformation to disrupt people’s lives for financial gain: Think twice—or risk being hit with a similarly large damages payment. “There has to be some message sent here to people like him that this is simply not acceptable in a civilized society,” says Stephen D. Solomon, a journalism professor at New York University and the founding editor of online news and educational resource site First Amendment Watch.
The jury that decided Jones’ level of financial punishment certainly seems to have taken to heart the words of Christopher Mattei, a lawyer representing the Sandy Hook families in Connecticut. “It is your job to make sure he understands the extent of the wreckage that he caused,” Mattei said in his closing argument, “because you know damn well he doesn’t get it.”
This decision could mark the end of a decade of users spreading disinformation on social media with few consequences, as platforms were reluctant to step in and censure them.
It took more than five years for Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Apple, and Spotify to ban Jones for spreading wild conspiracy theories to his audience of millions. One report at the time covered social media’s inaction as “a timeline of vacillation.” By the time platforms acted, Jones had already built Infowars into an alternative media powerhouse, and his army of adherents was prepared to follow him to fringe social media platforms. Court documents surfaced in a concurrent trial in Texas showed that at his peak in 2018, Jones was making $800,000 a day from his Infowars acolytes, and at one point he paid himself $6 million a year. That cash was—of course—built on falsehoods and enabled by social media platforms that turned a blind eye because it brought them their most prized metric: attention. Jones put a particular focus on the families of Sandy Hook victims, claiming without any evidence or credibility that their children were crisis actors and the losses were not real. Jones turned his mass audience against them in perpetual campaigns of harassment that denied their children’s existence, even as they tried to grieve their losses.