There have been no shortage of instructive moments during the first of four defamation trials that Infowars host and longtime Austin conspiracy theorist Alex Jones faces this year. But the one that explains his worldview—and the damage that he’s wrought on our collective psyche in the decade or so since he evolved from being a local weirdo with a radio show to one of the key figures in shaping American politics—was a blink-or-you’d-miss-it reference during his testimony on Wednesday. 

Jones had insisted, on and off for years, that the Sandy Hook massacre was a “false-flag” hoax perpetrated by the government in order to create political cover that could be used to come after citizens’ guns, with “crisis actors” hired to perform their grief at the loss of children who never existed—all of which added to the pain of the very real parents whose actual children were actually murdered that day. While he was in the process of testifying about this, Jones dropped a deep cut into his testimony. He mentioned Operation Gladio, a Cold War–era CIA program organized through NATO that, he said, allowed the alliance to perpetrate terror attacks against itself and blame them on the Russians. The existence of the program, Jones said, justified his belief that any public incident may well have been staged. It wasn’t the first time he had claimed credit for recognizing a “false-flag” operation that occurred well before he was born, let alone before his show was broadcasting. In depositions from earlier in the case, as well as on Infowars over the years, he and his employees have attempted to fold the 1933 Reichstag fire in Germany and the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident that precipitated U.S. engagement in the Vietnam War into the list of things that they got right. 

The phrase “false flag” refers to a historical incident in which one nation attacks another (or itself) while flying the flag of a third; this is an actual military strategy that has been used, although nowhere near as frequently as Jones claims. Jones’s actual success rate on correctly identifying fake attacks designed to elicit sympathy or political action is downright dismal. Virtually every high-profile incident of violence that has occurred in the United States in the time he’s been on the air has been a false flag, according to Jones. A brief sample of some of the events Jones has identified, with no evidence, as such operations includes (but is hardly limited to) the Oklahoma City bombing, the September 11 attacks, the Boston Marathon bombing, the assassination attempt on former congresswoman Gabby Giffords, and nearly every mass shooting that’s happened in this country over the past twenty years, including Sandy Hook. It also includes the hate crime that actor Jussie Smollett alleged happened to him in 2019, the lone example of Jones correctly naming a media story as a staged attack—but if you’re a baseball player who swings at every pitch, your batting average will start with a whole bunch of zeroes, even if you eventually get a base hit. 

It’s fitting, then, that the trial that puts Jones in immense legal and financial jeopardy for the first time in his career involves Sandy Hook, the false-flag theory that he was instrumental in bringing into the mainstream. These theories are what he’s built his career on. It’s also what he faces significant financial and legal consequences for. In the case that resolved in Austin this week, those consequences include $4.1 million in compensatory damages for the plaintiffs, another $1 million and change in sanctions from the court, and $45.2 million in punitive damages. 

And Jones is hardly out of the woods, either. The possibility remains of a massive nine-figure judgment without a damages cap in each of the three following cases, including one with seven Sandy Hook families as coplaintiffs, which is scheduled for September in a Connecticut courtroom just a few miles from the site of the massacre. Jones could also face further legal woes resulting from evidence that landed in the hands of the attorneys representing the Sandy Hook parents because of an apparent legal error by Jones’s own counsel—two years’ worth of text messages sent by Jones, which have already been requested by the January 6 Committee. Think of it as a high-stakes game of Jenga, where Jones may be able to survive losing any given piece, but as each one comes down, the possibility increases that the empire he’s built could topple. 

When I’ve spoken to experts on conspiracies and disinformation, the first thing they identify in terms of Jones’s impact on our country is the way he popularized a particular worldview. In Jones’s reality, anything bad that happens in the world is actually staged by the government to take away guns, or start a war, or round up all the patriots and put ’em in camps—or whatever conclusion gets people to keep watching the show (and maybe to buy some of the supplements Infowars sells, many of which are at least nominally geared toward preparing or protecting the buyer from the New World Order). “The idea of the false flag, fundamentally, is Alex Jones’s central narrative,” Anna Merlan, the author of Republic of Lies, a 2019 book on how conspiracy theories affect our politics, told me shortly before the trial was initially scheduled to begin in April. “Which isn’t to say that he was the creator of any of these ideas—he really wasn’t—but he was very good at articulating them in an eye-catching way.” 

If your job is to sift what’s real and what isn’t on the internet, Jones is an unavoidable figure, and Brooke Binkowski, the founder of the fact-checking website, has been studying him for years. She agreed with Merlan that Jones has been the name brand in the conspiracy world—the “Coca-Cola of the conspiracy theory community,” as his attorneys put it during his April bankruptcy gambit—even if he wasn’t the one cooking up the ideas in the disinformation lab. “He took those ideas straight from the bowels of the internet, where they were being perfected, and he put them on the air. He was the node,” Binkowski said. “He was the one who brought all of those ideas to the mainstream. There was nobody else doing that for a long time.” 

Jones didn’t invent bacon, and he didn’t invent cheeseburgers, in other words, but he did figure out that when you put them together, you get something people have an appetite for. At this point, though, there are people shilling discount conspiracy theories on every corner of the internet to hungry takers. Which begs a question: if Jones does end up facing the most serious financial consequences that the cases before him can bring—if he’s forced to cough up all his cash and to liquidate assets such as the domain, his Austin studio, and every box of Brain Force™ he’s got—does it even matter? 

The trials to determine damages don’t have direct First Amendment implications. This is because of decisions Jones made over the past three and a half years. He refused to comply with discovery requests, failed to prepare his corporate representatives for depositions, and otherwise declined fully participate in the pretrial phases of the cases since they were filed in 2018. That ceded his ability to argue that his speech wasn’t defamatory once the judges in both Texas and Connecticut rendered default judgments of liability against him—and defamatory speech isn’t protected by the First Amendment. But there are nonetheless two theories on what this trial means. 

The first is that disinformation no longer requires a node like Infowars to spread—that at this point, everyone who wants to claim that a shooting was actually carried out by operatives of the coming one-world government in an attempt to steal everybody’s guns in the middle of the night has learned what buttons to push from the playbook Jones created after Sandy Hook. In that sense, it doesn’t really matter what happens to Alex Jones himself; his brand of disinformation is a wildfire that he may have lit but no longer has any real control over.

“Alex Jones is not alone anymore,” Merlan told me, noting that Jones was kicked off of YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and other mainstream social media platforms in 2018. “He has a host of very successful imitators who took the time he was out of the spotlight and used it to grow their own audience. His role is already not what it once was.” It’s not just happening in shady corners of the internet on anonymous forums populated by cranks—the cranks are everywhere now, and some of them are gaining significant political power. The kinds of theories that once lived on Jones’s cable-access show are now espoused by politicians across the country, from the Indiana legislator who questioned Uvalde to the New York congressional candidate who posted an article on social media claiming that the Buffalo shooting was part of a conspiracy to “revoke the 2nd amendment” and that Uvalde was carried out by a sleeper agent with hypnosis training. 

The other theory of the meaning of the verdict is that the genie of widespread disinformation isn’t so fully out of the bottle that it can’t be contained. To this way of thinking, there may be a small army of mini Alex Joneses running around ready to declare shootings such as Uvalde to be false flags, but watching Jones get held accountable for the lies he aired after Sandy Hook will have a chilling effect on them when it comes to spreading misinformation. The circumstances of the default judgment might mean there aren’t direct First Amendment implications to the case—we don’t know whether a media company that did what Jones did on the air, but which also complied with a judge’s orders in a case brought against it, would have been found liable for breaking the law, as he was—but that doesn’t mean no one will have indirect concerns. 

“The only thing that stops this is serious fear of sustained consequences,” Binkowski told me. “The reason people think that consequences won’t stop them is because the disinformation purveyors say that they won’t—but of course they’re going to try to dissuade people from offering consequences as much as they possibly can.” Mark Bankston, the lead attorney representing the Sandy Hook plaintiffs in Texas, affirmed this perspective in front of television cameras outside the courthouse on the day the jury returned the compensatory verdict of $4.1 million, warning other purveyors of false conspiracy theories that target individuals that they could be the next ones on the hook for millions. “We know that any defendant who messes around with a private plaintiff like this and exposes them to this level of harm, you’re looking at a multimillion-dollar verdict,” Bankston boasted. 

We don’t know which theory is correct. Will the judgment against Jones translate to a sudden sense of caution in the conspiracy-minded corners of the internet? Or are the newer players in that world so convinced of their own exceptionalism, as Jones had been until now, that they remain confident the consequences will never come for them? We do know that either way, the walls are likely closing in on Jones himself. 

During his testimony in the second week of the trial, Jones waxed poetic about his early days. He talked about his show, which began on Austin cable access, as a Wayne’s World–style variety program, where he might put on conspiracy theorists talking about black helicopters one moment and some guy who lives down the block who has a pet monkey the next. Jones seemed to suggest for the jury that that was who he was at heart—or, at least, that he still saw himself that way, and that he hadn’t understood until very recently that he was actually running a global media behemoth that had the ear of the last president and could help mobilize an insurrection on his behalf. Jones, for the jury, styled himself as a figure like the late talk-show host Art Bell who just liked to ask questions, with interests that went well beyond politics. 

But there’s a difference between Jones’s brand of asking questions and what you heard from the conspiracy theorists who came before him. Jones is never just asking questions—he’s also always answering them. Those answers may change or prove self-contradictory. They’re certainly not based on actual, verifiable facts. Jones seems to believe everything he says, all at once, regardless of whether it’s consistent with something he just said. The consistency is not the point—the point is that Alex Jones presents himself as someone, maybe the only person, who is bringing you the truth that some shadowy “they” don’t want you to know. 

“One of the things that animates Alex Jones is certainty,” Merlan said. “One of the things that animated Art Bell was curiosity. Alex Jones is never just asking questions—he’s making definitive statements. Art Bell and folks like him have always been seekers, which Alex Jones has never been.”  

Courts exist to determine truths, and Jones’s self-contradictory certainty makes that nearly impossible. Even during this trial, he was wildly inconsistent. At the close of the day on Wednesday, Jones addressed the plaintiffs—the grieving parents he had spent years defaming—and offered a seemingly sincere apology, allowing that he had “let [their] son down” and shaking their hands. Just a few hours earlier, he had been on his show, commenting on the father’s testimony and declaring that he was “slow” and perhaps on the autism spectrum. Did he apologize? Sure. Might he have defamed the parents again by the time you read this? Absolutely. 

But that’s the whole point of Alex Jones, and of the false-flag theories that he popularized: simultaneously everything and nothing is true, depending on what you want to believe at any given moment, and something that was true five minutes ago could well be a scandalous lie right now. There’s no way to know if any terrible thing that occurred in the world is real or not, because it is possible to imagine that it isn’t. And if it benefits the cause you want to further, your imagination is just as good as someone else’s verifiable truth, so long as you speak your fantasy in a forceful voice. 

What happened in the Travis County courthouse this week is significant. It provides some closure for the family Jones defamed, and it could well augur even greater damages to come. But it doesn’t answer the real question, which no one—not even Jones—can pretend to know with any certainty. Even if Alex Jones loses the Infobattle, can the forces of disinformation he’s amassed still win the Infowar?