By Arab News
By Yossi Mekelberg*
Considering Alex Jones’ callous behavior toward the families of the 26 people — among them 20 children — slain in a mass shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012, he should count himself lucky following last week’s verdict in his trial for spreading the false theory that this massacre was a hoax.
After all, all he was ordered to do was pay $965 million in damages. Unlike these grieving families, he did not experience sending a child to school, only for them to never return home because a deranged murderer massacred them at random. The killer was armed with weapons that Jones believes every American has the right to possess. Neither was he put behind bars for his sickening torment of these families, even though some suggest that this is where he belongs for the suffering he caused by what amounts to cruel harassment and stalking for his own pleasure, “fame” and financial gain.
Despite torturing these families for more than a decade and causing them immeasurable extra suffering on top of their terrible losses, all that he might lose is some money. He will still be free to continue spreading other baseless conspiracies. He was even vile enough to try to delegitimize the verdict in his case live on air while it was read out in court.
This is no criticism of the court or the members of the jury, as they did their job with great courage, ordering a degree of monetary compensation well beyond what the families’ representatives had requested. By the sheer amount awarded to the families, they expressed their indignation at Jones and his behavior. However, this case is the tip of the iceberg of the unbelievable ease with which unscrupulous people — for reasons of greed, political gain, a distorted ideology or plain evil pleasure — can inflict extreme and prolonged pain on others, while society either fails or is very slow to protect them.
This might be an extreme case due to the scale of the catastrophe that has befallen these parents, but also because of the irrefutable evidence that this murderous shooting did take place and because of the brazenness of one person who lives in his own conspiratorial world in claiming that it was staged with actors by the anti-gun lobby, even though there is not a shred of evidence to support this claim.
Jones and his InfoWars media outlet might be distrusted by most Americans, but he galvanizes a significant extreme-right hardcore, estimated at one in five of the nation, which has no trust in the government and does not respect its authority. This is too big a chunk of society to be ignored. Many of them were in Washington on that fateful day in January 2021, attempting to overthrow the heart of American democracy. This points to the bigger issue of a parallel discourse, one that is undermining the country’s democratic system and the cohesion of its society.
Spreading conspiracies is not a uniquely American phenomenon, but the US is definitely its center and much of it is ingrained by the American instinct, which goes back to the very foundation of the country, of distrust of governments — a distrust exacerbated by modern technology, especially social media, that makes this type of fake knowledge easy to produce and disseminate, as well as to consume instantly and uncritically.
It is also the country’s sweeping interpretation of the First Amendment, which protects the freedoms of speech and of the press, that enables and protects those who spread these conspiracies. This amendment has been absurdly interpreted and used as a tool for promoting racial and religious hatred, lies about political opponents and, for instance, advancing baseless “information” to discredit COVID-19 vaccines. As with most rights, the freedom of speech is not absolute and it is for the law to balance between the different interests and values in society.
Those who would like to argue in favor of carrying guns are welcome to do so, but cynically creating a fantasy world in which a massacre of young children was “staged” is a different matter altogether. Not only is this cruelly distressing for families that are already living every parent’s worst nightmare but, as a result of Jones’s lies, some of these murdered children’s parents became the target of death threats, while video clips of their houses were shown on the internet, sending the clear message of “we know where you live.”
This is where legislation must be tightened and enforced to combat the spread of such hugely damaging lies, combined with educational measures that enable people from a very early age to discern between what is well substantiated and reliable knowledge and what is merely the figment of someone’s distorted imagination.
It is easy to dismiss many of these conspiracies, but in a recent YouGov survey more than 40 percent of Americans said they believe in a shadow government secretly ruling the world; nearly a third buy the incongruous allegation that top Democrats are involved in elite child sex-trafficking rings; and a similar number believe that the 2020 presidential election was rigged. This is too big a figure to leave us complacent about the dangers of spreading complete fallacies.
Radicalization is taking place through the spread of conspiracy theories, as exemplified by Dylann Roof, a white supremacist who went on a racially motivated shooting spree at a South Carolina church, killing nine Black people. Roof was radicalized online by conspirators spreading racist ideas about a need to protect white people from others.
The freedoms of speech and of the press remain among the most important pillars of a free society, but we have learned since the ascendency of social media that what should be the most empowering tool of a global democracy can very quickly turn into a toxic swamp. Only last week, a coroner in the UK investigating the death of 14-year-old schoolgirl Molly Russell, who ended her life in November 2017 after viewing suicide and self-harm content online, called on social media firms and the government to take urgent action and put the necessary measures in place to prevent children from accessing harmful content.
Jones’s response to the jury’s decision showed the same vile defiance and complete lack of integrity or empathy for the grief-stricken families that he paraded throughout the trial. The jury rightly decided this could not go unpunished and maybe the hefty compensation they have ordered him to supply will banish him from the public sphere. But this is not enough, and the fact that it took a decade for this to happen and was only due to the parents themselves taking legal action, while the state not only failed to protect their children but also themselves in the aftermath of their painful loss, is a stain on the entire society.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg