In America’s clash between information and disinformation, the facts just won a rare round: Alex Jones has conceded that the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, 2012, which he had repeatedly told millions of readers of his alt-right website Infowars was “a hoax” perpetrated by “actors,” was, in point of fact, “100 percent real.”
He told this truth on Wednesday on the witness stand in a defamation lawsuit, but only after lying multiple times under oath and only after failing to produce documents and to testify at earlier trials. He told this truth only after the plaintiffs’ lawyer revealed that Jones’s lawyer had inadvertently emailed him several hundred gigabytes of Jones’s cellphone records, suggesting that Jones had perjured himself on the stand, apparently lying even about his own lies and knowingly withholding crucial evidence in defamation lawsuits brought against him.
Jones told the truth only after being confronted face to face in the courtroom by Scarlett Lewis, one of the many grieving parents of children killed at Sandy Hook, who said of her son to Jones: “Jesse was real. I am a real mom.”
Jones was ordered to pay more than $4 million in compensatory damages and $45.2 million in punitive damages to Lewis and Neil Heslin, the parents of Jesse Lewis, shot to death at age 6. Jesse was among the 20 young children and six educators slain that day at Sandy Hook. Heslin had wept on the stand as he described his son’s final moments.
This marks the first time Jones has been financially penalized for his yearslong disinformation campaign about Sandy Hook, a charade that helped earn him up to $800,000 a day. And he will no doubt pay more in at least two other cases pending. It was also the first time Jones acknowledged the truth of what happened in Newtown.
This vindication of the truth, though gratifying, raises three disquieting questions: First, does a single truth badgered out of a serial liar matter? Second, does Jones’s apology, elicited only with his sweaty back pinned against the wall, mean anything? And third, will his admission or his apology have any effect in a mediasphere in which a single lie can quickly metastasize into an intractable web of falsehoods?
These are depressing questions to have to ask, but they’re not difficult to answer.
The answer to the first question is that Jones’s reluctant admission of the truth doesn’t matter nearly enough. Whatever comfort it offers Lewis and Heslin, it cannot change the grotesque fact that for years, the family members of Sandy Hook’s victims became Jones’s victims, that parents suffering the unimaginable loss of a child were then subject to harassment, threatened to the point of needing to move to new homes and hire security. It cannot change the fact that an unscrupulous fabulist leveraged the weaknesses of our current media ecosystem — its fragmentation, lack of standards and polarization — to his financial advantage.
There was a certain small satisfaction in the fact that Jones was taken down by an accidental email — that technology, media and information decisively bit back at someone who had abused all three. But those leaked texts also made clear that Jones continues to spread disinformation, whether about the coronavirus pandemic or the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election. Even when the truth comes out, it can feel like an afterthought, and worse, irrelevant.
“Just because you claim to think something is true does not make it true,” the judge in the case, Maya Guerra Gamble, had to remind Jones as he dissembled from the stand. This wasn’t his radio show, she explained.
As for the second question, nothing about Jones’s apology merits forgiveness. He threw out a flimsy excuse, saying he’d suffered “a form of psychosis.” He emitted a meager note of contrition, a non-apology to outdo non-apologies, constructed in the “mistakes were made” patois of our times: “I unintentionally took part in things that did hurt these people’s feelings and I’m sorry for that.”
Unremorseful, mediated, bloodless. It was the one thing he said on the stand with total lack of conviction.
The third question — what kind of effect did the day’s events have on Alex Jones and the distorted world he’s helped build? — has an equally bleak answer. Only hours after the jury’s decision, Jones, who once described himself to The Times’s Elizabeth Williamson as a victim of a “media conspiracy,” skulked back onto his radio program — according to one metric, the 42nd most popular radio show/podcast in the country, just behind “Planet Money” and ahead of “Pod Save America.” There he disparaged the day’s legal proceedings as an “attack” by “globalists,” promising listeners, “I will go down fighting.” In fluent doublespeak, he called the decision “a major victory for truth.”
Which truth? Confronting Jones in court, Scarlett Lewis had said: “Truth, truth is so vital to our world. Truth is what we base our reality on. And we have to agree on that to have a civil society. Sandy Hook is a hard truth.”
Hundreds of school shootings later, what’s even harder is knowing how many people in this country have trouble knowing what truth even means.