Opinion | We Should Try to Prevent Another Alex Jones - The New York Times
par Zeynep Tufekci
Alex Jones achieved the epitome of despicability and now has been ordered to pay for it. His lies — that parents of children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 had been actors taking part in a government plot to manufacture a pretext for stricter gun control — were blatant. He did not subtly deceive through misleading framing or cherry-picked facts. He targeted parents of murdered little children, who faced a barrage of threats; at least one family had to flee, moving away from where their child was buried.
Now a Connecticut jury has ordered Jones to pay $965 million in damages to several families for his egregious cruelty, adding to a Texas jury award of $49 million in August to another Sandy Hook family.
Defamation lawsuits can provide some relief to victims of horrendous lies, but they cannot fully repair the damage that has already been done.
But the key issue is, the current media ecology makes it lucrative to lie outrageously.
Jones got his start in talk radio peddling 9/11 conspiracies to great success. In later years, beyond his own webpage hosting his show, he found a home on platforms like YouTube and Facebook, where he could not only broaden his reach, but benefit from being recommended and amplified by the algorithms that prioritize “engagement” — which has often meant pushing inflammatory, tribalizing or conspiratorial content. Many supporters of Donald Trump were — and are — great fans. One comprehensive study from the Harvard Berkman Klein Center (where I’m a faculty associate) found that before the 2016 election, he was the 13th most shared source on Twitter among then-candidate Trump’s supporters. Between 2015 and 2018, his show averaged about $53 million in revenue annually.
In 2018, after outrage over the way social media sites amplified such content, Facebook, YouTube and Spotify, among other major sites, removed his show. But by then, his machinery was in place and, based on witness testimony and Free Speech Systems’ bankruptcy filing, his company continued making millions of dollars each year.
From what, you might wonder? In 2014, most of his then $20 million revenue came from selling supplements like “Super Male Vitality,” according to testimony Jones gave in a court case. After he was banned from major social media platforms in 2018, he expanded his sales, offering a 50 percent discount for at least one of his alleged testosterone boosters to “push back in the fight against globalist agenda” — a bargain at $34.95. Also available at the time was “Survival Shield X-2 — Nascent Iodine,” which Jones’s website describes as having been developed using “Thermodynamic Pressure Sensitive High Energy Sound Pulse Nano-Emulsion Technology.” A newer version of the product is described as derived from “ancient sea salts” found “thousands of feet below the Earth’s surface” and formulated “with our fellow patriots in mind.” Really, it’s a steal at $19.95, all major credit cards accepted.
A recent study in Nature found that areas with higher levels of Fox News viewership had lower Covid vaccination rates, which are associated with higher hospitalization and death rates. This impact of Fox News was independent of local health care capacity or even partisanship. Plus, much of this effect was concentrated on people younger than 65, who might have thought they were safer from Covid, the study authors noted, and perhaps more open to messages of vaccine hesitancy and refusal.
Even foot soldiers of the movement who sincerely bought into the antivax nonsense, suffered. According to a report from The Boston Globe, at least five conservative radio talk show hosts who campaigned against the vaccines died from Covid-19 over just a few months in 2021.
It’s become so easy to lucratively lie to so many people, and we have few realistic and effective defenses against the harms of deceptions like these, not just to individuals but to our society.
There have been campaigns to get major social media platforms to act more aggressively to get rid of liars, but why should we trust them to decide who should be banned? What if political winds shift?
What’s the solution? No society can be constantly pulled at its seams like this and escape unscathed. The recent Jones verdict certainly did some damage to the industry of lucrative lying, and perhaps few are as deserving of this result than he is. But laws written for a different era cannot resolve the problems of our current media ecology.
There are no easy, quick solutions, but perhaps a starting point would be to make it harder and less lucrative to lie to huge audiences. Rather than pursuing legally dubious and inadvisable efforts to ban speech or define and target misinformation, regulations should target the incentives for and the speed with which lies can be spread, amplified and monetized.
One part of the solution might be to target reckless data surveillance online, by greatly limiting how much data can be collected, how long it can be retained, what it can be used for, and how it can be traded. Among other benefits, this could make chasing engagement less attractive as a business model.
The work of civilization is not just discovering and unleashing new and powerful technologies, it is also regulating and shaping them, and crafting norms and values through education and awareness, that make societies healthier and function better. We are late to grapple with all of this, but late is better than never.