Alex Jones’s job consists of profiting off of formulating outlandish conspiracy theories, exploiting national tragedies, and eliciting emotions such as fear and anger in his audience. But it’s all a harmless business endeavor, right? Wrong. His extremist conspiracy theories have affected the lives of real people, encouraging some to partake in violent acts and putting others at risk of serious danger. The New York Times Article, “Alex Jones’s Infowars Files for Bankruptcy” by Derrick Bryson Taylor informs about how Alex Jones’s business, Infowars, as well as two other Jones-affiliated companies have filed for bankruptcy- or more specifically Chapter 11 protection (Taylor, 2022).
Jones lost two defamation lawsuits in 2021 and is currently faced with multiple more. The broadcaster brought these lawsuits onto himself by spreading conspiracy theories about the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, a tragedy that stole the lives of twenty elementary school students and six staff members. Taylor shares how after the shooting, the broadcaster shared false theories that the shooting was staged and a ploy by the government to confiscate firearms from Americans, claiming that the families of the victims were actors in the strategy (Taylor, 2022). Based on this collection of calamity inflicted by Jones, I strive to argue in this paper that conspiracist Alex Jones is a villainous demagogue who poses a danger to democracy by using misinformation to fortify extreme populist ideologies into the government at the expense of innocent people.
Believers in Jones’s theory have since then targeted the families of the Sandy Hook victims through both social media and in person. Jones caused his listeners to perceive a threat to their second amendment right, which stirred fear and anger in believers. These two emotions have been observed to germinate mobilization (Mutz, 2018). The theory portrayed the tragedy as a political threat, and those who were and still are mobilized by fear and anger see their violent acts as a civil duty. Levitsky and Ziblatt identify the toleration or encouragement of political violence as a key identifier in a populist, which is exactly what Alex Jones has done by spreading dangerously false information which has mobilized his fans to partake in violent acts (Levitsky & Ziblatt, 2018).
Alex Jones similarly portrays the description of a villainous demagogue: one who rejects or denies democratic rules, encourages violence, and denies the legitimacy of opposition. Villainous demagogues use polarizing rhetoric to their own benefit (Mercieca, 2019). Jones’s villainization of the government creates a great phenomenon of democratic distrust in the eyes of fellow conspiracists. Foa and Mounk identify distrust in liberal institutions as an indicator of democratic deconsolidation. The reason for this is that the distrust makes citizens more open to and supportive of non-democratic political systems (Foa & Mounk, 2017). In this case, the dissatisfaction stems from the perception that the government has failed to fulfill the promises of the constitution by covertly trying to violate their right to bear arms.
Gaining Support for Populist Ideologies
Not only does Jones capitalize off of his conspiracies, but he also benefits by manipulating his followers into bolstering his own extremist populist political beliefs. For example, Alex Jones can be identified as a far-right voter and a strong supporter of the populist former president, Donald Trump. Jones continuously uses his platform to make people believe in conspiracy theories that go against organizations and political figures who represent political ideologies that oppose his conservative views. Ironically, studies show that conservatives are more attracted to science denial and conspiracy theory endorsement, specifically conservatives who have a high level of knowledge and low trust. Listeners are more likely to believe in Jones’s conspiracy theories due to motivated reasoning: the concept that people are more likely to endorse reasoning that aligns with their previously held beliefs (Miller et al., 2016). Alex Jones’s conspiracy theories – the Sandy Hook theory among others – have infamously demonized the government and democratic figures and has therefore caused a crisis of confidence. Alex Jones diminishing the public’s confidence in liberal institutions is dangerous to the integrity of America’s democracy by causing listeners to become more attracted to the authoritarian leaders whom he supports. Authoritarian leaders are known to similarly use propaganda to dramatize the fear that citizens have to turn them further against democratic means of governance. Populist leaders often rise to power by advertising the idea that they can solve the dissatisfaction that people have with the government. This rise to power ultimately allows the populist leader to slowly disassemble democracy by bringing like-minded people into office and creating anti-democratic policies (Foa & Mounk, 2017).
The news of the lawsuits filed against Alex Jones is brilliant in terms of resistance from democratic erosion. In his article, Derrick Bryson Taylor shows how the lawsuits have shone a light to the lack of confidence that Alex Jones has in his own theories. Taylor speaks on how Jones has disputed the claims of the Sandy Hook families to the public, however he has failed to provide the court with sufficient records on multiple occasions that would support his self-proclaimed innocence (Taylor, 2022). In a sworn deposition that Alex Jones attended for one of his past lawsuits, he claimed that the false information he spread in his Sandy Hook shooting conspiracies was caused by a “psychosis” and admitted to the legitimacy of the tragedy. The publicity of these lawsuits is positive because one of the major ways to mitigate and contain conspiracism-caused disorientation is by speaking truth to conspiracy (Muirhead & Rosenblum, 2019). If approved, the companies that filed for Chapter 11 protection would be able to reorganize and continue to run their businesses that support the spread of misinformation which is worsened as Jones’s media platform grows. However, the lawsuits help to diffuse the pandemonium caused by these organizations by educating the public on the truth behind Alex Jones’s lies and motives whilst simultaneously bringing some justice to the families of the victims of the 2021 Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting.
Foa, R. S., & Mounk, Y. (2017). The Signs of Deconsolidation. Journal of Democracy, 28(1), 5-16.
Levitsky, S., & Ziblatt, D. (2018). How Democracies Die. Crown.
Mercieca, J. R. (2019). Dangerous Demagogues and Weaponized Communication. Rhetoric Society quarterly, 49(3), 264-279.
Miller, J., Farnhart, C., & Saunders, K. (2016). Conspiracy Endorsement as Motivated Reasoning: The Moderating Roles of Political Knowledge and Trust. American Journal of Political Science, 60(4), 824-844.
Muirhead, R., & Rosenblum, N. L. (2019). A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy. Princeton University Press.
Mutz, D. C. (2018). Status threat, not economic hardship, explains the 2016 presidential vote. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(19), 1-10.Taylor, D. B. (2022, April 18). Alex Jones’s Infowars Files for Bankruptcy. The New York Times. Retrieved April 20, 2022, from https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/18/us/alex-jones-infowars-bankruptcy.html
I loved your paper! I think it’s interesting to think about the roles that tech and media companies play in promoting and benefiting from figures like Alex Jones, creating a larger pattern that intensifies polarization and disseminates misinformation, contributing to overall democratic erosion. While Alex Jones himself obviously is a conservative figurehead that has done a lot of damage through various misinformation campaigns, he seems symbolic of a bigger problem of how far-right, extremist content has been brought to the screens through algorithms that have proven to push people towards figures like Alex Jones on Youtube. Because figures like Alex Jones are so mobilizing and manipulative, they help generate clicks and views that media companies are incentivized to encourage.
Tiffany this is such an interesting read, and it will be fascinating to see how this matter changes with the future trials, lawsuits, etc. Jones has used so many tactics to weaponize his base of followers, and I wonder what it will take for his influence on the public to face. As someone who is intertwined with the Sandy Hook Community, I know there is no plan to stop pursuing legal action against him, as it is about more than just stopping his lies on Sandy Hook. His influence is detrimental no matter what issue he discusses, as he has again and again turned to mobilize efforts to benefit him personally rather than the public and it’s wellbeing.