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To lose a child to violence is already one of the most traumatic things a human being can experience. To compound that by seeing those deaths made the center of a seemingly limitless conspiracy theory pushes that suffering to a level that is almost inconceivable.

The Truth vs. Alex Jones

The Truth vs. Alex Jones (HBO, 3/11/24)

The Truth vs. Alex Jones, a documentary released last month from HBO/MAX, immerses us in the immense pain—and equally momentous bravery—of the parents and other surviving relatives of the victims of the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting, as they take on perhaps the most notorious conspiracy theorist of our age. Through exclusive courtroom footage and numerous emotionally vulnerable interviews, director Dan Reed (Leaving Neverland, Four Hours at the Capitol) brings the viewer inside the survivors’ legal efforts to force Alex Jones to face the consequences of his actions.

On the morning of December 14, 2012, a 20-year old man entered the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut. Over the course of about five minutes, he systematically slaughtered 26 people, mostly young children, then killed himself. He had murdered his mother earlier that day.

Through heart-wrenching interviews with first responders and forensic investigators, along with the recollections of the parents themselves, The Truth efficiently establishes the ruthless, inescapable reality of that rampage. However, the focus of the film is on Jones, the far-right talk radio host, and the court cases that the Newtown family members brought against him after six years of misery inflicted by him and his cohort of conspiracy-mongers.

The Truth vs. Alex Jones opens in the earlier days of his work, when he first rose to prominence through spinning conspiracy theories around the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Through a quick survey of clips from his career in the ensuing decade, Reed depicts Jones’ transformation from an Austin, Texas–based public access weirdo into a powerful right-wing influencer who profited handsomely off lies, typically through selling supplements that would supposedly protect viewers from the very fears he invokes.

For example, one sequence shows employees of Infowars, Jones’ video and audio programming network, being sent to the West Coast in search of radiation from the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. Back in the studio, Jones hawks anti-radiation snake oil. When his employees’ Geiger counters don’t detect high enough levels, he orders them to fabricate the evidence.

According to Rachel Carroll Rivas, interim executive director at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, these formative years for Jones and Infowars set the stage for the Sandy Hook conspiracies, but also the current conspiracy mindset that’s beset the United States as a whole in the era of QAnon.

Carroll Rivas told FAIR that “the early days of his claims around what happened in Oklahoma City, in Waco, and then his just continual drumbeat of lies about Jewish folks, about the Democratic Party, about families of mass shootings, about LGBTQ+ folks” created fertile ground for rampant disinformation. “Unfortunately, much of that damage, it has been done not only to those families, but it’s been done to American democracy.”

Jones’ paper terrorism

The Truth skillfully links these earlier lies—and the associated earnings from them—to Jones’ attacks on the Newtown families. Disinformation about previous tragedies being staged by the US government isn’t far afield from the tales he ultimately told about Sandy Hook—in a nutshell, that the shooting had been faked by actors and the media, led by the US government, in an effort to restrict or seize guns from everyday Americans.

Immediately after the Sandy Hook massacre, Jones and his allies at Infowars began dissecting news stories and other footage from the aftermath, frame by frame, in search of hidden meaning, just as they’d done after other national tragedies. But what might have been erroneously dismissed as eccentric after 9/11 became vicious when applied, unrelentingly, to grieving families.

Parents of children killed at Sandy Hook.

Sandy Hook parents Scarlett Lewis and Neil Heslin.

We hear from survivors like Robbie Parker, father of six-year-old Emilie, and Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, parents of Jesse Lewis, also six when he was killed, about how the continuous attacks on the reality of their grief ravaged their mental health, and made healing from the tragedy all but impossible. Eventually, the families felt they had no choice but to take the fight to court, in a pair of defamation cases launched in 2018. Both ended in default judgments against Jones three years later, and ultimately in record-breaking penalties against the broadcaster.

The bulk of The Truth takes place after both default judgments had been made against Jones. This took years of time-wasting and misinterpretation of the demands of the court and prosecutors, as he made a mockery of the discovery process. It’s rare for any case to end in default judgments, much less two of them, but it’s a sign of the extremity to which Jones pushed the court system, something that gets sped over to a degree in the documentary.

For Carroll Rivas, this behavior can be linked to Jones’ ties to other forms of right-wing extremism like the John Birch society and so-called “sovereign citizens” in the militia movement. “He’s situated within the anti-government movement and that movement has a long history of what some people refer to as ‘paper terrorism,'” she told FAIR. “Using government processes to purposely block the system, often because they don’t believe in the system at all.”

Carroll Rivas suggested Jones drew from pre-existing ideas within this movement when he built and promoted conspiracy theories around the shooting:

The idea that the government, particularly a government controlled by the Democratic Party in the US, or by what conspiracy theorists in the far-right would consider the left, that there are those actors that are somehow controlling a situation, either by manipulating the media or finance or by directly infiltrating and pretending to engage in mass violence, has been around for a long time.

She suggested a situation like the Newtown shooting conspiracy was all but inevitable in the atmosphere of mass violence that exists in the US.

Although it is difficult to encapsulate three years of delays into a feature-length documentary, some of the most infuriating moments in The Truth vs. Alex Jones show him making faces in the courtroom, openly mocking the intelligence of a Sandy Hook parent, or offering to let the judge in the Austin, Texas, trial get a closeup look at his fresh dental work. It gets so bad that even normally level-headed agents of the legal system, from lawyers to judges, break down in frustration at his behavior.

Though Jones normally presents himself as a political pundit, or even a documentarian, in a previous court case he attempted to rely on the defense that he’s merely a “performance artist” who is “playing a character” (NBC News, 4/17/17), and does not seriously believe anything he says. These toxic, clownish impulses are on full display in the film.

Beyond Sandy Hook

In one particularly bleak incident, Parker attempted to get out ahead of the rapidly spreading conspiracy theories about his daughter’s death by holding a press conference a day after the shooting. As the cameras rolled, Parker could be seen speaking in an aside to others as he approached the microphone, briefly laughing in response to something they said. Then, as he spoke about the murders, he inevitably began weeping.

Most people would say that it’s normal, even human, to feel a wide range of emotions after any tragedy. But for Jones and his followers, both paid employees and his millions of fans, this switch from brief chuckling to deep grieving signified that Parker was actually a “crisis actor“—in other words, that Parker was someone hired by the imaginary puppet masters of the tragedy to portray a grieving parent, rather than an actual person struggling to come to terms with unimaginable loss.

Rachel Carroll Rivas

Rachel Carroll Rivas of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Carroll Rivas said belief in far-right conspiracy theories remains disturbingly commonplace, with the targets of the latest theories often involving other vulnerable groups—a March 22 report from the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hatewatch shows that extremists now often falsely blame transgender people in the aftermath of mass shootings.

“Unfortunately, conspiratorial thinking is at a high right now in the US,” said Carroll Rivas, in reference to the SPLC’s research. She continued: “There are still folks who fully believe what Jones put out there about the Sandy Hook families falsely.”

She noted that so much of Jones’ output from this time period echoes in today’s American conspiracy mindset, and many of the same tactics continue to be used:

The manipulators will manipulate and they’ll take any situation, so when they see how successful they’ve been targeting the trans community, they’ll just take this already existing situation of mass shootings, prime the pump with a conspiracy therapy about it, and then whip it into this next level of targeting trans folks.

Dan Friesen, cohost of the Knowledge Fight podcast, which has devoted over 900 episodes to debunking and critically analyzing Jones’ output, told FAIR that The Truth vs. Alex Jones accurately depicts the coordinated attack that Jones launched on the Newtown families, and their bravery in fighting back, including bringing defamation cases against Jones. He highlighted the depiction of Parker’s story in the film as particularly moving.

“Over time, he had started to hate the press conference that he had given, which was, in a sense, a selfless act of trying to take heat off other grieving family members and honor his daughter,” Friesen recalled. However, the documentary suggests that, through telling his story and fighting back in court, he’d begun to “reclaim that piece of himself.”

“As much as there’s anything that can be uplifting about a story like this, I thought that was pretty impactful,” Friesen said.

Jones comeback tour?

Alex Jones with attorneys

Alex Jones (center) in court with his attorneys.

The documentary ends with a title card explaining that, despite the record-breaking defamation judgments against Jones, the courts have—thus far, anyway—been unable to collect any money from him or Infowars. Indeed, Bloomberg Law (9/19/23) reported that Jones is currently living a $100,000 month lifestyle.

Infowars’ parent company, Free Speech Systems, filed for bankruptcy in December of last year. Most observers believe this to be an attempt to avoid paying the Sandy Hook families, especially given his seemingly extravagant spending. According to court filings, Jones was making a $1.3 million annual salary from Free Speech prior to the bankruptcy, and this isn’t counting his other sources of income. The SPLC previously noted an anonymous $2 million donation to a Bitcoin wallet controlled by Jones.

However, Carroll Rivas stressed that, despite the delays, these types of legal actions can make a difference. “It takes up his time, his energy, and his money,” she said. The SPLC has a history of successfully fighting cases against hate groups in court, and she said, based on their experience, collecting from someone like Jones can be time-consuming, but that doesn’t mean that the courts won’t catch up with him eventually to take his remaining money or property.

“I hope that’s where this ends,” but, she admitted, “it will be a challenge.” She also said that the money spent on the case itself was money he couldn’t spend doing “other things that were harmful.”

Since the trial ended, Jones has been on something of an attempted comeback tour, including returning to the social network X/Twitter, where owner Elon Musk took time to chat with him and listen to his excuses about the Sandy Hook trials.

Unfortunately, as many people have pointed out, conspiracy theories are appealing because they are simple when compared to our complicated, messy real lives. And this allows Jones to spin simple but untrue stories about the trial itself: namely, that he never had his day in court, something he’s repeatedly claimed in encounters since.

“No matter how many times people say, ‘You had every opportunity to cooperate and play by the rules, you could have had the actual defamation trial’ … it’s all done away with by one guy yelling, ‘A judge decided I was guilty,'” Friesen said, summing up Jones’ current favorite talking points. The hours of depositions with Jones’ corporate representatives, the court requests he ignored, the unfulfilled judge’s orders, are “a lot more boring than [Jones’] pithy little turn of phrase.”

According to Mark Bankston, one of the lawyers for the families, millions of people believe, thanks to Jones, that the Sandy Hook shooting was staged. Friesen worried that, after years of disinformation from election lies to Covid denialism, there is the potential for similarly poisonous conspiracies to spread even further today when compared with 2012.

“I wonder how much more it would have spread if it had happened a couple of years later,” Friesen speculated. “I got chills thinking about how our information space has maybe even gotten worse.”

Friesen said the court case remains a weight on Jones’ reputation and his ability to do his work, but much remains to be seen, based on the disposition of his current bankruptcy trial.

“If he ends up getting incredibly lucky, then it’s been an emotionally difficult time for him, I imagine, but maybe he sails through it,” Friesen said. “Conversely, if the consequences end up being pretty severe, then maybe all of this will look different in hindsight.”

The post New Doc Traces Alex Jones’ Footprints on Our Post-Truth Landscape appeared first on FAIR.


This content originally appeared on FAIR and was authored by Kit O'Connell.

Citations

[1] The Truth vs. Alex Jones | Official Trailer | HBO - YouTube ➤ https://youtu.be/rnLmKoHPGm0?si=d0RwOhBAFuI6KL5a[2] Forget Alex Jones—Look at His Helpers — FAIR ➤ https://fair.org/home/forget-alex-jones-look-at-his-helpers/[3]https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/not-fake-news-infowars-alex-jones-performance-artist-n747491[4] Sandy Hook parent recounts years of harassment after Alex Jones called him a crisis actor | CNN Business ➤ https://www.cnn.com/2022/09/29/tech/sandy-hook-parent-harassment/index.html[5] Anti-Trans Rhetoric Helps the Right Pivot to Gun Violence Myths, Sell Guns | Southern Poverty Law Center ➤ https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2024/03/22/anti-trans-rhetoric-helps-right-pivot-gun-violence-myths-sell-guns[6] Alex Jones Defends $100,000 a Month Lifestyle Amid Bankruptcy (1) ➤ https://news.bloomberglaw.com/bankruptcy-law/alex-jones-defends-spending-attacks-press-amid-bankruptcy[7] Infowars Parent Seeks New $1.5 Million Salary for Alex Jones ➤ https://news.bloomberglaw.com/bankruptcy-law/infowars-parent-seeks-new-1-5-million-salary-for-alex-jones[8] Updated: Anonymous Donor Drops $2 Million in Bitcoin on Alex Jones | Southern Poverty Law Center ➤ https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2022/04/29/updated-anonymous-donor-drops-2-million-bitcoin-alex-jones[9]https://www.forbes.com/sites/saradorn/2023/12/10/elon-musk-celebrates-alex-jones-in-x-chat-joined-by-controversial-figures-andrew-tate-mike-flynn-more/[10] New Doc Traces Alex Jones’ Footprints on Our Post-Truth Landscape — FAIR ➤ https://fair.org/home/new-doc-traces-alex-jones-footprints-on-our-post-truth-landscape/[11] FAIR — FAIR is the national progressive media watchdog group, challenging corporate media bias, spin and misinformation. ➤ https://fair.org/