Anyone could have seen the blow coming. What the world didn’t expect was quite how much Alex Jones would have to pay for weaponizing disinformation and piling misery onto the Sandy Hook families as they mourned their lost loved ones.
Jones was found liable for defaming the parents of children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary almost a year ago, in November 2021, when Connecticut judge Barbara Bellis issued a default judgment against the world’s most notorious shock jock and conspiracy theorist. In reality, most knew Jones had crossed a line after he floated the idea that the 2012 mass murder of 20 children, six educators, and the attacker’s mother was a “government operation” while speaking on an Infowars broadcast in April 2013. It would be the first of many times he repeated the lie. Yesterday, the Connecticut jury decided it would cost him everything.
Decisions against Jones in Texas and Connecticut courts add up to $1.014 billion in damages to the families of Sandy Hook victims and an FBI agent who responded to the shooting at the elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut—with attorney fees to be added to that total in a month. Jones is rapidly learning the cost of “free speech” that allowed him to warp reality in a web of lies—and it’s a staggering sum. But there may also be lessons for the platforms that for years enabled Jones’ rise—and potential consequences for them too.
“By any standard, this is an enormous jury award in a defamation case,” says Lyrissa Lidsky, a US constitutional law scholar at the University of Florida Law School. “It seems to reflect the jury’s outrage over Jones’ behavior in profiting from lies about murdered children.”
The judgment also sends a message to anyone thinking of deliberately deploying disinformation to disrupt people’s lives for financial gain: Think twice—or risk being hit with a similarly large damages payment. “There has to be some message sent here to people like him that this is simply not acceptable in a civilized society,” says Stephen D. Solomon, a journalism professor at New York University and the founding editor of online news and educational resource site First Amendment Watch.
The jury that decided Jones’ level of financial punishment certainly seems to have taken to heart the words of Christopher Mattei, a lawyer representing the Sandy Hook families in Connecticut. “It is your job to make sure he understands the extent of the wreckage that he caused,” Mattei said in his closing argument, “because you know damn well he doesn’t get it.”
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This decision could mark the end of a decade of users spreading disinformation on social media with few consequences, as platforms were reluctant to step in and censure them.
It took more than five years for Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Apple, and Spotify to ban Jones for spreading wild conspiracy theories to his audience of millions. One report at the time covered social media’s inaction as “a timeline of vacillation.” By the time platforms acted, Jones had already built Infowars into an alternative media powerhouse, and his army of adherents was prepared to follow him to fringe social media platforms. Court documents surfaced in a concurrent trial in Texas showed that at his peak in 2018, Jones was making $800,000 a day from his Infowars acolytes, and at one point he paid himself $6 million a year. That cash was—of course—built on falsehoods and enabled by social media platforms that turned a blind eye because it brought them their most prized metric: attention. Jones put a particular focus on the families of Sandy Hook victims, claiming without any evidence or credibility that their children were crisis actors and the losses were not real. Jones turned his mass audience against them in perpetual campaigns of harassment that denied their children’s existence, even as they tried to grieve their losses.
The amount awarded to Sandy Hook families has already spooked those who see the decision as an attempt to silence someone simply because they disagree with the individual’s views. In the immediate aftermath of the decision, US representative Marjorie Taylor Greene warned that the ruling was “political persecution.” “Were his words wrong and did he apologize? Yes,” Greene tweeted. “That’s what freedom of speech is. Freedom to speak words.” Meanwhile, Jack Posobiec, an alt-right conspiracist, asked his followers on Truth Social: “How much money can we get awarded for suing every media figure who said the vaccine would stop transmission?” Underneath the bombast and false threat to weaponize the US legal system is a telling truth: Jones’ defenders recognize that such judgments can bring people to heel in a way platform bans can’t.
Those who fear the erosion of First Amendment rights may be misguided. “The United States provides robust protection for freedom of expression,” says Joseph A. Tomain, senior lecturer at the Maurer School of Law at Indiana University. “That robust protection is critical for a functional self-governing democracy. At the same time, that robust protection is not absolute, and this case demonstrates the limits of free speech under US law. For the vast majority of speakers, I do not see this case as a harbinger of things to come or something that is going to result in self-censorship to avoid legal risk.”
Ken Paulson, director of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University, also believes that the decision won’t have the detrimental impact on free speech some fear, but he says the outsized value of the damages in the case is meant to make a point. “I’ve monitored libel cases for 40 years, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a less sympathetic defendant,” he says. “What he did was just despicable, and at a level that would be hard to rival. The jury is just conveying its utter disgust and anger and attaching a really big number like a billion dollars to their outrage.” Yet Paulson does believe something has changed post-judgment—not least because of the ongoing debate around the future of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the shield that protects social media platforms from liability for content their users post. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear two cases that could rewrite Section 230’s power, potentially leaving platforms liable for such content.
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“If there were no Section 230, this would send a massive chill through every online organization in the US that hosts comments of any sort,” Paulson says. It would signal a huge shift in platforms’ approach to policing the content posted on their sites, in large part because they’d want to avoid a massive financial punishment of the type Jones has just been walloped with. “For various reasons, including legal risk and a platform’s own standards regardless of legal risk, companies will continue to engage in content moderation,” says Indiana University’s Tomain. “At the same time, individuals will continue to seek redress in courts when they believe that the law provides a remedy based on the speech of others.”
“Large platforms have an important role to play in not giving extra oxygen to false claims that cause concrete injuries,” says Mathias Vermeulen, a disinformation expert and director of AWO, a digital rights agency. “Some of them have taken good steps to prevent such claims from being monetized on their platforms. But that never has been a real deterrent for mass-disinformation producers like Jones, who continued to thrive financially even when they were banned from these platforms.”
Now the billion-dollar judgment sets a precedent that not only can cases be won, but those who are found liable could be on the hook for monumental damages. “The lesson that anyone should take away from this is that if you use your freedom of speech to defame or to engage in fraud, you will face consequences,” says Paulson.
This could mark a sea change in how people speak on social media. For decades, shock jocks and conspiracy quacks wanted to be the next Alex Jones, rich atop a sea of true believers. Now his name is permanently associated with that landmark financial figure—one that stands to ruin him. No one will aspire to that. “Some speakers seem to be under a false impression that defamation law doesn’t apply to social media and that they can say anything they want without consequence,” says the University of Florida’s Lidsky. “This damages award is a corrective to that false impression.”