How the lunatic fringe went mainstream

The carefully constructed persona of Alex Jones, the internet's leading conspiracy theorist, came crashing down in a stunning four-hour deposition.

Jones, who tells his viewers that his wild claims are based on "deep research" and high-level government sources, admitted that he actually relies on anonymous internet message boards and random emailers. Unable to justify his past conduct, an uncharacteristically subdued Jones blamed "psychosis."

The deposition, filmed March 14 and published online last Friday, was released as part of a lawsuit filed by Scarlett Lewis, the mother of a child murdered in the Sandy Hook massacre. Lewis, one of several parents currently suing Jones, says that she has been a target of harassment as the result of Jones' repeated claim that Sandy Hook was a "hoax" and no children died.

Jones accused grieving parents of being paid actors complicit in a far-reaching government conspiracy -- and many people believed him. Throughout the deposition, Jones expressed little remorse.  

Last week another Sandy Hook parent who faced harassment, Jeremy Richman, died in an apparent suicide.

But there are many cranks, fabulists, and charlatans looking for attention. How has Jones garnered so much notoriety and wealth? How has he been able to inflict so much pain?

Jones has been praised, promoted and defended by some of the most powerful individuals and institutions in the United States. They helped inject what was once considered the lunatic fringe into the center of American life. The people responsible have never been held accountable.

Even after apparent suicide, Jones' smears against Sandy Hook families continue

In the deposition, Jones attempts to paint his conspiracy theories about Sandy Hook as something he only briefly mentioned and has now abandoned. "Sandy Hook has been, in the aggregate, less than one-tenth of 1 percent of what I cover," Jones claimed. But the attorney for Scarlett Lewis, Mark Bankston, systematically exposed how Jones spent years repeatedly claiming that the Sandy Hook massacre was faked.

Under oath, Jones was forced to admit that many of his theories were sourced from 4chan, an anonymous message board where people post fake and outrageous claims for entertainment. Another major source was Wolfgang Halbig, a conspiracy theorist in Florida that Jones appeared to concede is a "raving lunatic."

Richman’s apparent suicide last week didn't slow Jones down. The day of his death, Jones baselessly speculated that Richman was murdered as a way of distracting people from the results of the Mueller investigation. Richmond and his wife were plaintiffs against Jones in a separate suit.

Alex Jones and the president

In December 2015, as Jones was smearing the Sandy Hook families, Trump appeared on Jones' Infowars show. Already a leading candidate for the Republican nomination, Trump lavished Jones with praise.

"[Y]our reputation’s amazing – I will not let you down – you will be very very impressed. I hope and I think we’ll be speaking a lot," Trump said.

On Jones' show, Trump discussed the false claim that Muslims celebrated in New Jersey on 9/11 — a conspiracy theory advance by Trump and Jones. Trump said that he and Jones were similar and it was important for them not to apologize.

People have called in, and on twitter @realDonald Trump, they're all tweeting. I know what happened and I held my line. People wanted me to apologize, and we can't do that. People like you and I can't do that so easily.

Trump, of course, rose to political prominence on a racist conspiracy theory, falsely claiming Obama was not born in the United States. Trump never apologized for birtherism, although he did reluctantly admit that it wasn't true.

Trump has also seized on numerous conspiracy theories that originated on InfoWars.

It was Infowars that popularized the false claim that 3 million undocumented immigrants voted in the 2016 election, making Trump the real winner of the popular vote.

Trump soon made the same claim to his tens of millions of Twitter followers.

When Twitter suspended Jones for a week in August 2018 for inciting violence, Trump rallied to his defense, accusing social media companies of "totally discriminating against Republican/Conservative voices."

Drudging up readers

Trump gave Alex Jones the patina of legitimacy. But Matt Drudge delivered Jones something even more critical: website traffic.

One thing you learn from reading Alex Jones' deposition is that he claims nearly every major tragedy is a hoax or government conspiracy. At one point Jones admits in rapid succession that 9/11, Columbine, and Oklahoma City were all "false flags."  

Nevertheless, Matt Drudge repeatedly links to Infowars on his popular news aggregator, the Drudge Report. Drudge's site, which is one of the most popular in the United States, features two permanent links to InfoWars. According to an analysis by the Washington Post, Drudge links to specific Infowars stories regularly.

These links undoubtedly send tens of millions of people to a website that traffics in vile conspiracy theories. Famously reclusive, Drudge even granted a rare interview to Alex Jones.

But Drudge's connection to Infowars has done little to damage his reputation among the media elite. The Drudge Report isn't discussed as a fringe site that traffics in baseless conspiracy theories -- although that would be accurate. Rather, the focus is on Drudge's influence on American politics.

Drudge was hailed recently by Axios' Mike Allen, a media powerbroker, as "the nation's assignment editor" and "an innovator."  

Drudge met with Trump at the White House and communicates regularly with White House advisor Jared Kushner.

Tucker Carlson to the rescue

Tucker Carlson remains one of Fox News' most popular hosts, drawing millions of viewers each night. When PayPal recently severed its relationship with Alex Jones, Carlson came to his defense.

Carlson said in February that Jones' ban was part of an effort to undermine the First Amendment by making "it impossible for people who say the wrong things to make a living in this country." Carlson said that PayPal wanted "utter conformity, a world where only approved opinions are allowed."

Last July, Carlson blasted efforts to get Jones' conspiracy videos taken off Youtube, saying that Jones just had a "point of view," like Rosie O'Donnell.

At the same time, they're telling us how important it is that people should be able to say what they think, they are agitating for Alex Jones to be pulled off YouTube. Now I know we're supposed to think Alex Jones is way more radical than like Bill Maher, [or] Michelle Wolf, or Rosie O'Donnell. But he's got a point of view…

Youtube finally did remove Alex Jones' channel in August.

Social infection

For years, major social media platforms have allowed their networks to be used by Jones to steer users toward reprehensible conspiracy theories. When Facebook was contacted by this newsletter last July, it defended Jones' right to post a video on its platform accusing special counsel Robert Mueller of child rape.

"We evaluated this video and didn't find it to violate our Community Standards. The content in this video makes it clear that it’s not a statement of intent to commit violence, and therefore doesn’t violate our credible violence policy," Facebook told Popular Information at the time.

In the video, Jones said, "You are going to get it, or I'm going to die trying, bitch. Get ready."

Facebook, along with Apple, reversed course and banned Jones from its platform in August. But this was after Jones used both companies for years to build an audience for his smears of Sandy Hook families and others.

Twitter let Jones use its platform even longer, saying in July that Jones "hasn’t violated our rules." Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said that Jones and others "often sensationalize issues and spread unsubstantiated rumors, so it’s critical journalists document, validate, and refute such information directly so people can form their own opinions."

In August, Twitter permanently banned Jones and Infowars citing "new reports of Tweets and videos posted yesterday that violate our abusive behavior policy." Nothing much had changed about Jones in August, of course, other than public tolerance for giving his lies a platform.

What's next

Jones faces numerous lawsuits brought by the parents of the victims of Sandy Hook. He had to submit to a deposition and other legal discovery because he was unable to get these lawsuits dismissed.

If the plaintiffs in these lawsuits are ultimately successful, they could bankrupt Jones and Infowars.

Jones’ income "comes primarily from the sale of a grab-bag of health-enhancement and survivalist products" that he pitches on his show. In 2014, he brought in about $20 million selling supplements like "Super Male Vitality." But his recent exclusion from social media has reduced Jones’ audience and, presumably, his ability to sell products.

Thanks for reading!