Infowars’ school shooting lies cost Alex Jones, put extremists on alert
Last week, conspiracy theorist Alex Jones lost by default judgment two libel lawsuits brought in by parents of children killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, after he did not respond to a judge’s request for information. For years, Jones has repeatedly told his Infowars backers that the attack, which killed 20 children and six adults, was a hoax and a ‘false flag’ run by ‘crisis actors’ – leading harassment, criminal harassment and death threats against victims. families. The case shows that the courts can be a powerful tool in tackling the disinformation and conspiracy campaigns and the online harassment they fuel.
Courts can be a powerful tool in combating disinformation and conspiracy campaigns.
This is good news because there is no shortage of support for disinformation and conspiracies in the United States. More than half of Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory – including unsubstantiated speculation about who killed President John F. Kennedy and QAnon-fueled fictions about child trafficking. The rise of conspiratorial thinking has been made possible by social media and fueled by the easy spread of fake news, some of which comes from content producers, such as Jones, who use podcasts, viral memes and ad stunts to insert marginal ideas into the mainstream.
The combination of a wide online dissemination of conspiracies and an already receptive American audience was the recipe for a disinformation disaster even before Covid-19. But pandemic conditions made matters worse. Conspiracy theories are psychologically rewarding in times of uncertainty, as they offer easy, black-and-white explanations for complicated or inexplicable events, blaming the orchestrated efforts of an elite in ways that make the world more stable. . The insecurity and fear of the past 18 months have had devastating effects in that they have spawned the growth of conspiracies and increased their impact globally.
To make matters worse, recent conspiracy theories were legitimized by elected officials who say some allegations that they “could” be true. When plots circulated that falsely suspected Democrats fabricated violence at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Idaho, Rep. Bryan Zollinger, a Republican, posted on social media that even s ‘he wasn’t saying the theory was true, it was “quite plausible. After then-President Donald Trump claimed that ‘unknown Middle Easterners’ were mixed with migrant caravans on the southern border of the United States, he later admitted that there were was “no evidence” that there was any at our border, but noted “there could very well be. “
These tactics have challenged the very notion of observed reality that people experience, making it more difficult to understand the line between fact and fiction and to determine what is real and what is not. Conspiracies undermine belief in science, destabilize people’s sense of truth, fuel polarization, and identify “key enemies” working “against us”. They can also mobilize violent actions, as we have seen in recent conspiratorial attempts to save the children of an alleged pedophile ring, or protect white populations from a alleged immigrant invasion. A 2019 FBI newsletter noted that conspiracy theories most likely inspire domestic terrorists, and the bulletin predicts that this phenomenon will evolve and expand.
Under these conditions, it is not difficult to see how widespread conspiratorial disinformation about the 2020 presidential election led to a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol. But while the attack was directly motivated by electoral fraud plots and other false information, many attackers believe themselves to be the courageous revolutionary actors who save democracy. Conspiracies create strong believers in false realities.
There are few options available to stop the spread of conspiracy theories. Attempts to refute them can backfire and strengthen people’s faith in false information. Logical or factual arguments also do not go against conspiracy thought, for even established facts are often read by believers as confirmation that someone is trying to hide the truth. More traditional counter-extremism strategies are even less suited to tackling the damage caused by viral conspiracy theories. Law enforcement approaches are better aligned with organized groups that can be watched or infiltrated, not conspiracy theories that spread virally online.
Online misinformation about voter fraud declined 73% after Trump was banned from Twitter.
Removing the worst offenders from social media or other online platforms has helped reduce the spread of false information. The circulation of online disinformation about electoral fraud decreased by 73 percent, for example, after Trump was banned from Twitter after the Jan.6 attack on Capitol Hill. But removing the platform from individual users is a final solution as it requires violators to violate companies’ terms of service. By then, the misinformation is already there and causing damage.
The lack of effective counter-strategies means that we need all the tools available to stop the creation, circulation and amplification of conspiracy theories and false information. Defamation suits and other civil lawsuits turn out to be one such strategy. Coming on the heels of another success lawsuits demanding accountability from extremists who instigated harassment or violence – and less than a month before trial in the lawsuit against two dozen leaders of white supremacist and extremist groups for allegedly plotted a plot which led to violence at the Charlottesville rally – successful legal action against conspiracy theories propagator sends a strong message that courts are a serious option to challenge dangerous and false information.
The only thing better than stopping the unhindered spread of disinformation, propaganda, and conspiracies would be to live in a world where no one produced it in the first place. But until that world comes along, the Sandy Hook School Massacre trial is a step forward in the fight to protect the one we live in now.