In April, the ever-ascending media empire that is Alex Jones’s Infowars was served with its most serious threat. Several lawsuits—including one by the parents of a child killed during the Sandy Hook school massacre in Connecticut, and one by a man inaccurately identified by Infowars as the suspect in the Parkland shooting earlier this year—were filed in Travis County, each alleging defamation by Jones and his company. The possibility that this could derail Jones’s enterprise was real: defamation cases against media companies are hard for plaintiffs to win, but Infowars is no ordinary media company, and the charges reflected practices far outside of traditional journalism.
That’s not an accident. Jones’s brand is built upon the idea that he’s a lone crusader against the mainstream media, telling his audience bold truths about a world that he claims lies to them constantly. For about the first decade and a half of his career, he did so very much as a fringe character in the media landscape, an Austin-based outlaw spouting off conspiracies about black helicopters, vaccines, the CIA, and 9/11. His influence grew after the election of Obama in 2008, as “patriot” groups and militias took hold around the country, and Jones’s theories and aesthetic found a much larger constituency. As it did, his business model shifted, too—from being funded largely by DVD sales and advertising to turning into an outlet for dietary supplements intended to protect users from the sort of health-related conspiracies that Jones railed against on his show.
With that increased influence—he’s one of President Trump’s key media defenders, and Trump, during the 2016 presidential campaign, appeared on Infowars to gush to the host about his “amazing” reputation—Jones has faced increased scrutiny. Last year, during a bitter custody trial with his ex-wife, Jones’s attorneys had to walk a tightrope in the courtroom between acknowledging that part of his persona is, in fact, an act he plays up for the cameras—lest the jury find him an unfit father—and maintaining for the sake of his audience that he actually does believe every word he says.
Now, he’s once more facing a legal challenge—and his attorneys are once more tasked with arguing that Jones doesn’t really mean what he says on his broadcasts, while also doing their best to maintain his credibility.
The two suits against Jones will have their initial hearings this week at the Travis County Courthouse. The first, brought against him by Leonard Pozner and Veronique De La Rosa, parents of a six-year-old named Noah who was killed at Sandy Hook in 2012, is based on statements Jones made during a video that lives on YouTube as “Sandy Hook Vampires Exposed.” In that video, Jones—who has a history of denying the Sandy Hook shooting, having previously (and outside the statute of limitations for the defamation suit) argued that the massacre might have been a “false flag” by a government seeking to restrict gun rights—once more challenges the idea of the Pozner family as victims.
The family’s argument hinges on the fact that, last June, a woman named Lucy Richards was sentenced to five months in prison for sending threats to Pozner and De La Rosa, accusing them of participating in a hoax and threatening their lives for it. In that case, the court found that Jones and Infowars so influenced Richards’s thinking on the matter that, according to documents filed by the plaintiffs’ attorney Mark Bankston and obtained by Texas Monthly, the terms of her sentence also include that, after her release, Richards would “be prohibited from viewing Infowars programming.” As a result, Bankston says, “This suit was brought because the Pozner family cannot let Mr. Jones’s malicious lies put their lives at further risk.”
Most of the instances of Jones painting the family and the Sandy Hook massacre as fake happened outside of the statute of limitations. (In 2014, for example, he said on the air that “Sandy Hook is synthetic, completely fake, with actors—in my view, manufactured.”) Bankston’s arguments acknowledge those statements, but use the fact that the family didn’t sue earlier to refute an argument by Jones’s lawyer, Mark Enoch, that their true intention behind filing the lawsuit is “to silence those who openly oppose their very public ‘herculean’ efforts to ban the sale of certain weapons, ammunition and accessories, to pass new laws relating to gun registration and to limit free speech.” If that were true, Bankston argues, the Pozners “could have sued Mr. Jones long ago for any one of these countless libels.” Instead, he writes, “they chose to persevere” until their lives were threatened by Richards. Instead of the earlier arguments, then, the Pozners focus on comments made in April 2017, in which Jones claims that an interview between De La Rosa and CNN host Anderson Cooper in Newtown, Connecticut, was faked, and that they filmed it in front of a green screen. The “evidence” Jones presents that this is “a fake” during the broadcast is that “when [Cooper] turns, his nose disappears repeatedly because the green screen isn’t set right.” (According to CNN, and to a video forensics expert retained by the plaintiffs, the effect was a common compression artifact that happens often in video encoding.)
That’s the allegation against Jones. His defense, meanwhile, argues that while Jones says that Cooper and De La Rosa faked the interview, and provides evidence for that claim that draws upon Jones’s own authority with video production, Jones didn’t intend to speak factually—and, in fact, no reasonable person would expect that Jones spoke factually on his show.
“There can simply be no statement of fact when Mr. Jones views a video of Anderson Cooper and provides his commentary and opinion with regard to possibilities as to why Mr. Cooper’s nose disappeared on the video, all the while directing the viewers’ attention to the very video about which he opined,” a motion to dismiss the suit filed by Jones’s attorney argues. “No reasonable reader or listener would interpret Mr. Jones’ statements regarding the possibility of a ‘blue-screen’ being used as a verifiably false statement of fact, and even if it is verifiable as false, the entire context in which it was made discloses that the statements are mere opinions ‘masquerading as a fact.'”
That may be the best argument available to Jones in defending the suit, but it also puts him once more in a position where his lawyers are arguing in court that the things he says during his broadcasts aren’t true—and, in fact, that any “reasonable reader or listener” would conclude that Jones, when he makes statements like “the green screen isn’t set right,” isn’t speaking factually. If Jones isn’t to be taken seriously when making statements like that, though, it becomes harder to understand what, exactly, Infowars is supposed to be informing its audience of.
The spread of bad information is also at the heart of the other lawsuit against Infowars being heard in Austin this week. This one, filed by a man named Marcel Fontaine, involves a post on the Infowars website that went up shortly after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, this spring. In the post, Infowars writer Kit Daniels published a photo of Fontaine wearing a red t-shirt with caricatures of Communist figures drinking alcohol with the words “Communist Party,” which Daniels, in a court filing, says was obtained from the website 4chan. Infowars’ headline read, “Reported Florida Shooter Dressed as a Communist, Supported ISIS.” It included photos of Nikolas Cruz, the actual shooting suspect, alongside the picture of Fontaine, which appeared on the site above the caption “Shooter is a commie.”
Infowars, in the second suit, is represented by Eric Taube and Kevin Brown. In their motion to dismiss the suit, they explain that “Daniels accurately reported what the 4Chan original poster—and other social media outlets—had reported: that the Challenged Image was that of the Parkland shooter.” The “other social media outlets” included in the defendant’s exhibits are limited to a single tweet from a now-suspended “Antifa” parody account. They also argue that the site never named Fontaine, limiting their liability in the case.
In response to the motion to dismiss—which also asks that Fontaine pay $29,037 in legal feels to Infowars’ attorneys—Bankston argues that Infowars, if it seeks protections as a media organization, has a responsibility to meet standards of diligence exercised by other media companies. “For Infowars, the prospect of publishing of an image of the Parkland shooter wearing a communist-themed t-shirt was so tantalizing that it used Plaintiff’s picture despite knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard for the truth.” To support that argument, they note that Infowars never cited any of its sources—which means that users familiar with 4chan’s history of spreading misinformation around mass shootings, or of the parody account’s purpose, would have to identify that the sourcing was less than credible on their own. If that were considered a reasonable journalism practice, the response argues, “There would be nothing to stop an Infowars writer from submitting his own anonymous message to 4chan and then republishing that statement to millions with no attribution.”
The response goes on to note that, had Infowars run a reverse-image search on the photo, they’d have learned that it was a photo of Fontaine, not of Nikolas Cruz—and that the defense that they didn’t identify Fontaine by name is irrelevant, since those tools are widely available, and Infowars readers were thus able to obtain that same information. Fontaine, in an affidavit, says that the result of that has been harassment similar to what the Pozner family faced. “I’ve seen hundreds of violent, hateful messages posted online. I have seen messages from people wishing me dead even after being told of my real identity. And I’ve personally been sent violent and harassing messages which continued even weeks later, including a threat which referenced my place of employment,” he says, adding that “he’s terrified that Infowars fans may come to similar conclusions” that he’s “part of a conspiracy to stage the Florida shooting.”
There are plenty of ethical questions worth asking about Infowars with regard to these cases. Chief among them: does a media company that spreads inaccurate information, without citing its sources or attempting to run basic diligence (like reverse image searches), about private citizens like Fontaine bear responsibility for threats made by its readers?
But the ethical questions aren’t what’s being heard this week in Travis County—rather, it’ll be specific legal issues around defamation. In a court, those determinations are complicated, rooted in precedent, and involve questions thornier than just whether Infowars’ approach to media is ethical or not. But regardless of what happens in these preliminary hearings—which, if the case proceeds, could be followed by jury trials or settlements—they’re not the end of Infowars’ legal woes. There are three more defamation suits, including another in Travis County filed by a Sandy Hook parent represented by Bankston, which will receive its first hearing in September, as well as another in Connecticut, and one in Charlottesville, Virginia, related to reports from Infowars after a neo-Nazi march in the city last June. If these filings are any indication, Jones’s attorneys will have to rely on a number of different arguments to defend the suits—and those defenses could serve to undermine Jones’s mission, too.
This article has been updated since publication.