By Nolan Higdon
In August 2022, a Texas jury ruled that internet personality Alex Jones pay $49 million for defaming the parents of the victims of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary school massacre. Starting a decade earlier, Jones had claimed that the shooting was a hoax. He argued that crisis actors played the victims and the children never existed. The decision was met with relief from the loved ones of the victims and ideological opponents of Jones.
MSNBC, the Washington Post, CNN, and other legacy news media outlets gleefully reported on the verdict, denouncing Jones as a propagandist who peddled falsehoods as part of what Jack Shafer of Politico called “the lie economy.” The celebration ignored that, during his more than two decade run as a source of information for radio listeners and internet users, Jones and the legacy news media have shared approaches for peddling propaganda disguised as legitimate journalism.
After the trial, independent journalist Russ Baker pointed out that the rise of Jones’ media empire was rooted in some reality– that he would report on actual abuses of power and corruption that those in the legacy media would not. However, these valid reports – which were always few and far between and accompanied by a multitude of falsehoods and baseless stories which reduced them to a drop of dye in the ocean – were non-existent by the later stages of Jones’ career.
Although he was preceded by propaganda pioneers like Matt Drudge, Jones quickly surpassed his competitors and revolutionized the art of spreading false information on the internet to accumulate millions of dollars of wealth. Since its creation in 1999, Jones’ Prison Planet and InfoWars internet content stoked audiences’ grievances and suspicion with false and baseless claims about 9/11, FEMA, frogs’ sexuality, chemtrails gay juice boxes, Jade Helm 15, and lizard people.
In 2016, as fears over fake news grew into a moral panic, media scholars argued that the U.S. needed critical news literacy education. Critical news literacy teaches students how to think like journalists, evaluate and analyze sources, separate fact from opinion, interrogate the production process of information, and investigate the politics of representation. It is a facet of critical media literacy which centers on interrogating issues around power in media. According to scholars Douglas Kellner and Jeff Share, critical media literacy education focuses “on ideology critique and analyzing the politics of representation of crucial dimensions of gender, race, class, and sexuality; incorporating alternative media production; and expanding textual analysis to include issues of social context, control, and pleasure.” Critical news literacy education not only empowers students to determine the veracity of information, but to interrogate the power dynamics expressed in media content.
Media users would be wise to not only apply a critical news framework to Alex Jones, but all news media. A critical approach reveals that Jones and the legacy media share a similar playbook of tactics and conflicts of interest that result in problematic reporting. For example, critical news literacy teaches audiences to investigate the motives behind the creation of media messages. When it comes to Jones, he was motivated in part by wealth accumulation. Jones went from radio to the internet exploiting the moral panic over Y2K – which assumed that an alleged computer error would reset calendars to 1900, instead of 2000, collapsing civilization and launching nuclear war, all because a calendar malfunction. On the evening of December 31, 1999, Jones InfoWars program, which was founded that same year, made baseless claims that nuclear war was occurring and the world was ending, and then would cut to commercials trying to sell products to survive the dystopia about which he had just falsely reported.
As the Y2K episode illustrates, audiences should be wary of conflicts of interest such as a story that motivates audiences to purchase a product or vote a certain way. These conflicts of interest are not limited to Jones. Corporate legacy media suffers from them as well because corporations have economic and political interests that shape their reporting. For example, the Washington Post has a conflict of interest when it reports on its owner Jeff Bezos, considering that he holds ownership of Amazon and Whole Foods, or the candidates and political parties to which he donates.
Another area where critical news literacy is useful is when it comes to determining if the person reporting the news is actually a journalist. Jones is not a journalist. In fact, during his divorce trial, Jones’ lawyer admitted that Jones was a “performance artist” that is “playing a character” on InfoWars. The comment was revelatory as far as answered the question: Does Alex Jones believe the nonsense he spreads? The answer is apparently no, and audiences should not either.
Jones is not a pioneer when it comes to playing an expert in news media who actually peddles vapid talking points as well informed opinion. That describes the majority of people in legacy news media, where pundits know how to sound like experts, but offer very little substance and almost rarely are actual journalists themselves. Many of them are propagandists for a political party who swap government jobs for media posts that allow them to shill for their party. This includes Karl Rove of Fox News Channel, Rick Santorum CNN, Jen Psaki of MSNBC, and David Axelrod at CNN. Just as court records revealed that Jones is a performance artist who should not be trusted, in 2020, Rachel Maddow was sued by One America News (OAN) for defamation after making the baseless claims that OAN was “paid Russian propaganda.” However, the court ruled against OAN arguing that a “reasonable viewer” would know that Maddow is not a journalist and only offers opinion.
A critical media literacy lens also reveals that Jones and legacy media both take actual facts and spin them to justify baseless narratives. For example, after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the federal government constructed FEMA camps, and his news outlets did interview someone who was staying in the camp, but Jones then referred to them as death camps and falsely claimed that people were being forced into them. The narrative does not match the actual facts of the story.
Similar chicanery happens in corporate legacy media. One of the most famous was the case of Nicholas Sandmann. While in Washington D.C. a photo was taken of a Native American elder standing next to Sandmann, who was there on a school trip. In the photo, Sandmann was wearing a hat with the Trump slogan “Make America Great Again.” Legacy news media reported that the picture showed Sandmann harassing the elder. The press reports were so egregious that within in a month Sandmann began a series of lawsuits against NBC Universal, ABC, CBS, USA Today, the New York Times, Rolling Stone, CNN, and the Washington Post. While some were dismissed, the latter two settled out of court with Sandmann for an undisclosed amount and $250 million respectively in 2020.
Critical news literacy is also about examining how representations in media messages normalize ideology. Jones has described himself as libertarian, but actively campaigned for Donald Trump, even hosting Trump for a welcoming interview in 2015. In the general election he peddled canards about Hillary Clinton including the now infamous Pizzagate narrative, which claimed that the presidential candidate was operating a pedophile ring out of Comet Ping Pong, a Washington pizza restaurant. Jones paints a binary world of us versus them, righteous and villain.
Legacy news media also use their platform to elevate their party or candidate at the expense of their opponent. Just like Jones, this caricature and oversimplification of the world is made possible by false reporting. For example, since 2016, legacy media personalities have tried to delegitimize Trump’s 2016 victory and presidency by shamelessly peddling baseless and false stories about the involvement of Russia in U.S. politics, known as Russiagate. Similarly, Fox News Channel and other right-wing news outlets’ peddled the false story that Biden stole the 2020 Presidential Election with the help of Dominion voting machines. Once Dominion threatened to sue them for untrue reporting, which would force them to defend themselves in court with evidence, the stories on Dominion disappeared rapidly.
Critical news literacy is needed, not just for those who encounter Jones or a Jones-like figure, but all of the propagandists posing as journalists. False information is only dangerous when people uncritically accept it as fact and act upon it. It can motivate otherwise decent people to do horrible things. It can make a veteran lose their life while storming the U.S. Capitol, a father shoot up a pizza restaurant, a professor harass grieving parents, and individuals turn to horrific acts of violence.
If we had a media literate society when Jones’ InfoWars launched 23 years ago, one has to wonder if we would have had more substantive discourses about policies and the trajectory of the nation. Jones, with his loud voice and seemingly buffoonish behavior, makes an easy foil for those looking to deride the state of American democracy. However, as any critically news literate person will attest, Jones is one of the many media figures at the numerous media outlets who have chosen to spread false messages that divide and stupefy the electorate.