A former staffer for the conspiracy site Infowars wants to repent for peddling nonsense and harassing residents of a Muslim community in upstate New York.
Josh Owens offered a peek behind the tin-foil curtain for The New York Times Magazine on Thursday, detailing how an occasionally drunk and violent Alex Jones pushed employees to churn out viral content detached from reality.
“I was to blame for my actions, unequivocally,” writes Owens, who worked for the site from 2012 to 2017. “[A]nd yet I resented Jones for creating an environment of rage, fear and confusion that diminished discernment, increased self-doubt and left me feeling as if my brain had short-circuited.”
Owens came to Infowars as an angry 23-year-old film student drawn to the man he saw as exposing a shadowy global cabal running the world. His retrospective come-to-Jesus moment centers on a Dec. 2015 campaign to stoke Islamophobia throughout the U.S.
Owens recalls traveling to Islamberg, a hamlet 150 miles northwest of New York City, which has long been the target of right-wing conspiracy theories that it’s home to some sort of sleeper cell. Along with another Infowars staffer, Owens tried and failed to enter the community to shoot video, eventually getting a call from the police.
It was enough for a slew of insane headlines to game social media algorithms and feed the dark corners of the internet: “The Rumors Are True: Shariah Law Is Here!”; “Report: Obama’s Terror Cells in the U.S.”; “Infowars Reporters Stalked by Terrorism Task Force.”
“The information did not meet our expectations, so we made it up”
“The information did not meet our expectations, so we made it up, preying on the vulnerable and feeding the prejudices and fears of Jones’s audience,” Owens writes.
He claims he began re-evaluating that fearmongering — versions of which have contributed to at least one bomb plot in Islamberg — on his way back to Infowars HQ in Austin.
“I thought of the children who lived in Islamberg: how afraid their families must have felt when their communities were threatened and strangers appeared asking questions; how we chose to look past these people as individuals and impose on them more of the same unfair suspicions they already had to endure,” Owens writes. “And for what? Clickbait headlines, YouTube views?”
Yet Owens continued working for Infowars for nearly two more years. He describes a shirtless, vodka-sipping Jones barreling through Infowars’ office and forcing employees to exchange punches with him. On a company retreat, Jones allegedly fired an AR-15 in Owens’ direction. Infowars didn’t immediately respond to VICE News’ request for comment on this or other claims in the piece.
It was all about drawing eyeballs and, in turn, potential customers for the quack nutritional supplements that finance much of the Infowars operation.
“We couldn’t just stop, though,” Owens writes. “Jones demanded constant real-time content.”
Cover: In this Sept. 5, 2018, file photo conspiracy theorist Alex Jones speaks outside of the Dirksen building of Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)
This article originally appeared on VICE US.