Infowars founder Alex Jones listens to a supporter at the Texas State Capital building on April 18, 2020 in Austin, Texas. The protest was organized by Infowars host Owen Shroyer who is joining other protesters across the country in taking to the streets to call for the country to be opened up despite the risk of the COVID-19. Photo via
Before he stepped foot in an Austin, Texas courtroom this week, Alex Jones had already lost. Jones, the waning king of American conspiracy theories, and Free Speech Systems, the company that owns his InfoWars empire, have already lost several civil cases by default, in Texas and in Connecticut, brought by parents of children killed at Sandy Hook, who sued him for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. This week, at long last, after years of increasingly baroque legal wrangling and a conveniently-timed chapter 11 bankruptcy protection filing by InfoWars earlier this year, the trial to determine damages began in the first Texas case. (Holding companies linked to InfoWars agreed to dismiss the bankruptcy filing in June.) Now, the only remaining question is how much his losses will cost him.
Jury selection began in the trial on Monday morning, and proved tricky, in that many prospective jurors had trouble understanding that Jones had already lost by default, and that they were only there to determine damages. Once they miraculously managed to empanel a jury comprising locals who didn’t yet have opinions about Alex Jones, one of Austin’s more prominent residents, both sides settled in for what promises to be at least two weeks of argument about Jones’ impact on public discourse and his place in the conspiracy ecosystem. Jones is set for a lot of time in court: a second damages trial, for the other plaintiffs, Veronique and Lenny Posner, whose son Noah was Sandy Hook’s youngest victim, is scheduled to begin in September, followed by another damages trial in Connecticut. (Disclosure: Both Bankston and Norm Pattis, a longtime attorney for Jones and InfoWars, informally asked me if I would consider acting as an expert witness on conspiracy theories in the case; in both instances I declined.) Mark Bankston, an attorney for Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, whose son Jesse was murdered at Sandy Hook, told the jury that Jones and InfoWars had engaged in “a massive campaign of lies” and should be held responsible financially. In response, an attorney for Jones, Federico Reynal, argued, in essence, that Bankston was spinning a conspiracy theory himself, and that Jones had been ensnared by cancel culture for engaging in his constitutional right to free speech. (Reynal also moved for a mistrial, outside the presence of the jury, which Judge Maya Guerra Gamble instantly denied.)
Bankston played multiple clips from InfoWars for the jury, showing Jones calling Sandy Hook a “massive hoax,” and his incredibly half-hearted apology, from around 2016, in which he told his viewers, “If children were lost in Sandy Hook, my heart goes out to each and every one of those parents and the people who say they’re parents that I see on the news. The only problem is I've watched a lot of soap operas and I’ve seen actors before. I know when I’m watching a movie and I know when I’m watching something real.”Bankston described Jones as a “nearly exclusive driver” of Sandy Hook conspiracy theories and the subsequent harassment of families, something Jones’ attorneys will likely dispute. Bankston argued that without Jones, Sandy Hook conspiracy theories would not have extended outside “those crazy places on the internet.” “What we heard is a conspiracy of lies,” Reynal told the jury, referring to Bankston’s opening statement. He said he was “honored” to represent Jones because “I believe in every American’s right to choose what they watch and what they listen to and what they believe.” Reynal also sought to downplay the influence of InfoWars, which was, Reynal said, “completely deplatformed” in 2018. (InfoWars and Jones personally were removed from most major social media platforms between 2018 and 2019, but Jones began spreading lies about Sandy Hook the day the massacre occurred, in 2012, and continued for years thereafter.)
“Mr. Jones has been canceled,” Reynal declared. “Punished for statements connected to this case. Statements we don’t dispute were wrong.”Reynal argued that the “truth community”—the designation Sandy Hook deniers prefer to use for themselves—gathered in the hundreds of thousands on social media to discuss the shooting, and allowed that “some of these people are very, very extreme,” like James Tracy, Jim Fetzer, and Wolfgang Halbig, three prominent Sandy Hook deniers (who have also been guests on InfoWars.) Jones, Reynal argued, is not one of those very extreme people.“Alex Jones was wrong to believe these people,” he said. “But he didn’t do it out of spite. The evidence will show that he did it, because he believed it, because he thought it was important coverage.” He also said that Jones has “apologized repeatedly” for his coverage of Sandy Hook, and that he’d been an “outsider” critically covering the country’s “elites” for decades, and had become “biased” in the process, convinced of multiple coverups. “He was looking at the world through dirty glasses,” Reynal said. Reynal also argued that Jones ceased talking about Sandy Hook several years ago, describing it as “less than one half of one percent” of Infowars’ coverage in recent years. He also argued that by the time Jones sat for a disastrous-on-both-sides interview with Megyn Kelly, he was admitting that shooter Adam Lanza perpetrated the massacre.
Jones has “apologized repeatedly,” Reynal argued, and has “already been punished. “Because of this case, he lost all his access to the internet. Millions of dollars.” (Jones still has his own constellation of websites.) “He regrets what he did, and he’s still paying a price for it today.” He claimed that Jones has been “chased on the street” and had coffee thrown on him over his Sandy Hook claims. “Because he’s been canceled, nobody can hear his side of the story,” Reynal claimed, ludicrously. He dismissed the case as “a cynical attempt by personal injury lawyers to enrich themselves” and said it posed a danger to the First Amendment. In fact, Jones has continued vigorously exercising his First Amendment rights; the day before jury selection began, Jones was the guest of honor at a screening of a new documentary about him, by sympathetic filmmaker Alex Lee Moyer. At the screening, Jones was interviewed by Glenn Greenwald; they discussed Sandy Hook and what Greenwald called Jones’ “soulful” self-reflection on his “mistakes” related to Sandy Hook. “Think of this as like a 1,000-page book,” Jones told Greenwald. “Sandy Hook in my life is like a quarter page.” In an unbearably apt bit of metaphor, as the damages trial goes on, an alternate reality is playing out on InfoWars. There, two right wing attorneys, Robert Barnes and David Freiheit—who uses the stage name “Viva Frei”—are calling the trial “the Big Lie” and claiming it’s “meant to end the First Amendment by using the bodies of children as the trigger,” as a video caption claims. Barnes, who isn’t present in the courtroom, delivered what InfoWars called “an opening statement” in Jones’ defense. In it, Barnes presented the company’s claims about the case for the most important and lucrative viewers of all: InfoWars’ remaining audience, who can perhaps be counted on to suspend their disbelief—and keep spending their money—for just a little longer.