Watershed moment in the fight against misinformation

An Austin, Texas, jury had an opportunity this week to deal a significant blow to the spreading of toxic conspiracy theories by forcing Alex Jones, arguably the world’s best known purveyor of said theories, to pay significant damages in a defamation suit. On Thursday, they took a small step toward accomplishing that goal.

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Opinion

An Austin, Texas, jury had an opportunity this week to deal a significant blow to the spreading of toxic conspiracy theories by forcing Alex Jones, arguably the world’s best known purveyor of said theories, to pay significant damages in a defamation suit. On Thursday, they took a small step toward accomplishing that goal.

The jury awarded the parents of a child killed in the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School US$4 million in compensatory damages for being defamed by Mr. Jones, who for years claimed the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, was a hoax engineered by gun-control advocates.

Jones told the millions of people who follow InfoWars, his conspiracy theory-laden website and podcast, the families of the child victims were actors and the incident was a “false flag” incident designed to trigger the elimination of certain constitutional liberties, including the right to own firearms.

Millions of Mr. Jones’ followers still believe his nonsense theory, and have continually threatened and harassed the Sandy Hook families. Eventually, 10 of the victims’ families sued Mr. Jones for defamation. After refusing to participate in the legal proceedings, he was found guilty in four separate default judgments. Now, three of those judgments have proceeded to trial to determine whether damages should be paid.

JOSE LUIS MAGANA / ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES

Infowars host Alex Jones

The first action was brought by Scarlett Lewis and Neil Heslin, whose six-year-old son Jesse was among the 20 first-graders and six educators killed in the massacre. They had asked the jury to award them $150 million in compensatory damages, a reasonable sum when you consider that Mr. Jones’ expansive Infowars empire reportedly earns more than US$50 million annually, most from the sale of conspiracy-themed products aimed at the survivalist crowd.

Although the $4 million award for compensatory damages fell short of that request, this is the first in a two-stage process to determine Mr. Jones’ liability. Now, the jury will consider evidence of Mr. Jones’ net worth to determine how much, if anything, he should pay in punitive damages.

The jury is, in essence, being asked to complete a gargantuan task: determine whether conspiracy theorists such as Mr. Jones should enjoy any protected freedom of expression. Although he has been consistent in asserting Sandy Hook was a hoax, at trial he was forced to admit the massacre was “100 per cent real,” and that the families are not actors. Still, he claims his constitutional right to freedom of expression allows him to say whatever he wants.

On the positive side, this verdict does confirm that Mr. Jones and his ilk do not enjoy unfettered constitutional protection to knowingly spread falsehoods. Emphasis on “knowingly.”

On the positive side, this verdict does confirm that Mr. Jones and his ilk do not enjoy unfettered constitutional protection to knowingly spread falsehoods. Emphasis on “knowingly.”

During the trial, the plaintiffs’ lawyer submitted a digital record of texts and emails from Mr. Jones’ smartphone. The source of this disclosure was, remarkably, Mr. Jones’ lawyers, who inadvertently sent a sizeable digital dump from Mr. Jones’ phone to the plaintiff’s legal team.

In cross-examination, Mr. Jones was forced to admit his years-long assertion he had no texts or emails related to the Sandy Hook massacre was, in fact, another lie. He may very well face perjury charges as a result.

It seems unlikely damages of just $4 million would dissuade Mr. Jones and others from spreading toxic lies. It is not hard to imagine Mr. Jones playing the victim before his InfoWars audience in order to crowd-source the cash needed to cover Thursday’s relatively modest award.

In the punitive-damages stage, one hopes the Austin jury members will summon their collective resolve and impose a penalty that cannot be easily ignored or overcome.

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