In 2009, Alex Jones was doing pretty well. He was earning something in the neighborhood of $1.5 million a year peddling conspiracy theories about 9/11, vaccines, and the New World Order. Nine years later, his entire business model is transformed: These days, according to estimates from New York magazine (and based on some rough math), he could be pulling in as much as $25 million. Infowars, the website Jones founded to promote his media empire, doesn’t focus on selling subscriptions to his videos or DVD copies of the documentary films he used to make anymore. Rather, its business is marketing dubiously useful dietary supplements to an audience that has ballooned in size as Jones’s profile has increased.
Jones’s stature grew during the Obama years, as the number of “patriot” groups spiked and a certain subset of Americans, looking to make sense of the world, turned to theories like “Obama’s birth certificate is a forgery,” which Jones was keen to spout. In Obama’s second term, Jones began marketing products like “Super Male Vitality” (a combination of roots, bark, and fruit extract) and “Survival Shield X-2” (just simple iodine) to his listeners and viewers. It seems a fairly logical jump for the host and his audience: If there’s a super-secret “them” out there waging war on your mind and turning the frogs gay, then you’ll need products like “Brain Force Plus” and “Secret 12” to protect you. Selling those products is insanely profitable—as anyone in media can tell you, monetizing subscribers to a website at $5.95 a month is a challenge, while selling iodine as Survival Shield X-2 for $29.95 an ounce (a 500 percent markup over the same product, without the dramatic name, which is available on Amazon) seems to be like printing money.
And so Jones has been flying high—indeed, to unprecedented heights—over the past few years. He’s making big money, reaching more people than he would have ever dreamed in his Austin public access days, and has had the ear of the president of the United States (even if, this week, he seems to feel betrayed by him). Last year, he even managed to escape the most severe consequences of a high-profile custody trial, with the judge effectively overruling a jury’s decision to grant Jones’s ex-wife their children’s primary residence.
But lately, there’ve been rumblings that Jones’s run of success may be encountering some real trouble.
Jones and Infowars went on the offensive against Marjory Stoneman Douglas student David Hogg, accusing the 17-year-old school shooting survivor of being unable “to remember his lines” in a TV interview following the massacre. It was an accusation that mirrored claims Jones had made in the past regarding the parents of children murdered in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
Two videos accusing Hogg of being a “crisis actor” were flagged by YouTube, which put the Alex Jones Channel in real jeopardy. The site runs a three-strikes policy for its content, and if Jones receives a third, he could find himself banned from the site. If that were to happen, Jones would have to find another way to keep in touch with the 2.2 million subscribers the site currently enjoys. Shifting to a free content model has worked out well for Jones, because it gives him access to a customer base hungry for his supplements—as well as revenue from the service’s robust affiliate advertising program—and losing YouTube could cut him off from millions of viewers. (A number of the more mainstream advertisers who found their ads placed on Jones’s channel fled after the beef with Hogg began.)
Jones responded to the YouTube strikes by urging Hogg to “support the First Amendment” and come on his show to debate him—an offer the student initially expressed interest in, then declined, citing Jones’s record of attacking Sandy Hook parents.
YouTube may never issue a third strike against Jones. The content that’s been flagged by the hosting site isn’t much different from material that it seems to find acceptable, so it’s fair to question whether YouTube is interested in taking such dramatic action, which would certainly come with some serious blowback from Jones’s supporters. But regardless of what happens with YouTube, those Sandy Hook parents represent another, different, potentially serious issue for Jones.
This week, three of them—Leonard Pozner and Veronique De La Rosa, parents of a 6-year-old named Noah, and Neil Heslin, father of a 6-year-old named Jesse—filed suit against Jones, alleging defamation for his insistence that the parents were lying about what happened to their children, and his claims that the media faked elements of its coverage with their participation.
Texas has a one-year statute of limitations for defamation claims, so the suit filed this week by Pozner, De La Rosa, and Heslin refers to a few specific instances of Jones talking about them on his program. In a segment from last April—just before the statute of limitations would have expired—that lives on YouTube under the title “Sandy Hook Vampires Exposed,” Jones claims that a CNN clip of De La Rosa talking with Anderson Cooper in downtown Newtown was faked, insisting that an effect that appears on Cooper’s nose proves that the interview was taped in front of a green screen. (CNN explained that it was a common compression artifact, which happens often in video encoding.) Heslin’s standing, meanwhile, comes from comments Jones made on his show that disputed an interview Heslin gave to NBC in which he said, “I held my son with a bullet hole through his head.” An Infowars staffer claimed in a video that Heslin lied, and that parents identified their children via photos. According to the New York Times, Jones replayed the video and claimed that, “the stuff I found was they never let them see their bodies.”
That’s not true; the initial identifications were made by photographs, but the bodies were then released to the families for funerals. De La Rosa recalled asking to see the body—and asking Connecticut governor Dan Molloy to look at it—in a 2013 interview.
Because of the statute of limitations, these are the only of Jones’s statements that ended up in the current lawsuit—but they’re not the only things he’s said that suggested that the parents of the Sandy Hook victims might be lying about what happened to their children. The Austin American-Statesman‘s Politifact team has a detailed post from 2016 tracking Jones’s statements about Sandy Hook over the years. In early 2015, he said on the air, when talking to a caller, “Yeah, so, Sandy Hook is a synthetic completely fake with actors, in my view, manufactured. I couldn’t believe it at first. I knew they had actors there, clearly, but I thought they killed some real kids. And it just shows how bold they are, that they clearly used actors.”
A month earlier, he said, “[I]t took me about a year with Sandy Hook to come to grips with the fact that the whole thing was fake. I mean, I couldn’t believe it. I knew they jumped on it, used the crisis, hyped it up. But then I did deep research—and my gosh, it just pretty much didn’t happen.”
This became an issue in the 2016 presidential campaign, after Hillary Clinton called out the relationship between Jones and Donald Trump, citing what he’d said about Sandy Hook. Jones, in response, argued that he’d never made such statements: “[Clinton] lied… that I say that no children died at Sandy Hook and they were all actors. I’ve never said any of those things.” (Audio of Jones saying some of those things appears at the Statesman post.) He insisted that “conspiracy theorists” around the shooting don’t like him because “I don’t buy into that.”
Then, of course, a year later, Jones’s company published a video in which an employee says that Heslin lied about holding his child’s body. Jones himself replayed the clip and similarly insinuated that Heslin lied, and also declared that De La Rosa participated in a faked interview with CNN.
That could be trouble for Jones as the lawsuit unfolds. Under the law, the plaintiffs in the suit would only be entitled to punitive damages if they’re able to prove that Jones acted with “actual malice”—that is, if he made his statements knowing they were false, or “exercising a reckless disregard for the truth.” According to former UT law professor David Anderson (who also used to represent Texas Monthly, prior to his retirement), Jones’s history of making conflicting claims about the Sandy Hook shooting could put him in jeopardy. “What I understand is that he’ll say these things at one point, and then later on, he’ll say, ‘Of course I know that wasn’t true,'” Anderson says. “If he says things, and then says he knows it wasn’t true, he’s in trouble. If he consistently says, ‘I never claimed that to be true,’ then he’s probably on more solid ground.”
Assuming the case gets to that point, that’d be up to a jury to interpret. The last time Jones faced a jury trial, over the custody of his children, the judge in the case made it a firm policy in her courtroom that Jones’s show was not to be discussed except under extremely limited circumstances, all of which required preapproval. Jones and his attorneys understood that his on-air persona might play poorly before a jury. (Indeed, Jones’s attorney stirred up a controversy by describing his client as a “performance artist” in a pretrial hearing—a statement that led to overblown allegations that Jones didn’t believe what he said.) Infowars wasn’t on trial in that case—and the jury ruled against him anyway. Should the suit against Jones proceed, Infowars and Jones’s on-air persona would be on trial.
Jones has been relatively careful, lately, when it comes to his legal liability. For the first two decades of his career, apologies and retractions were rare. But now, the suit from the Sandy Hook parents isn’t the only one he faces. Houston attorney Mark D. Bankston, who represents the families in that suit, also represents a man named Marcel Fontaine in a suit against Jones and Infowars, who for five hours was identified on the Infowars website as the shooter in the Parkland massacre despite being 1,200 miles away from the school at the time it occurred and having never visited Florida. In that instance, the website affixed an editor’s note that explained that it had previously “showed a photograph of a young man that we had received and stated incorrectly that it was an alleged photo of the suspected shooter.” Fontaine says he’s been harassed and threatened as a result of being misidentified by the site.
Last May, Jones also settled a lawsuit from yogurt company Chobani after making comments about the company’s policy toward refugees in its hometown of Twin Falls, Idaho. As part of the settlement, Jones explained that, “During the week of April 10, 2017, certain statements were made on the Infowars Twitter feed and YouTube channel regarding Chobani LLC that I now understand to be wrong. The tweets and video have now been retracted, and will not be re-posted. On behalf of Infowars, I regret that we mischaracterized Chobani, its employees and the people of Twin Falls, Idaho, the way we did.” Two months earlier, Jones apologized again, this time to the owner of Comet Pizza in Washington, D.C., which Infowars had claimed was involved in a bizarre child-sex ring, again under threat of litigation.
Jones, in other words, is in the spotlight like never before. That’s given him an audience whose size would have seemed unimaginable a decade ago, plus access to real political power after a career spent railing against people who have it. But it also means that his approach to the news—namely, wildly speculating about people in it—might not be viable for much longer. Defamation suits are notoriously difficult to win, but Jones presents a unique kind of defendant: He’s self-contradictory and exercises little caution in making bold, speculative claims about individuals and companies, and has been known to go after grieving parents and other people juries are likely to find sympathetic—and he’s made himself a fortune in the process.
So far, Jones has responded to the Sandy Hook parents’ suit with defiance. He insisted that he only questioned the PR around Sandy Hook in 2012—which doesn’t comport with his 2014 and 2015 statements—and that examples to the contrary were taken out of context, while he was just “playing devil’s advocate.” (Those who want the full context for one of his statements can watch this episode of his show, in which the Sandy Hook comments begin at around 1:18:00 in the broadcast, and judge for themselves.) That’s likely to prove a winning strategy with his fans, who tend to see criticism of Jones as proof of the righteousness of his claims, and lawsuits as attempts to silence him. Whether it’s a sustainable strategy before the courts, though, is another question.
And that means that the stakes have gotten much higher for Jones over the past couple of years. He’s built a platform and an empire that few would have guessed him capable of—it’s just that now, he may also be accountable to more than just his fans for what he uses it to say.