a green-washed picture of Alex Jones against a red background
Lucas Jackson / Reuters / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

The Lasting Trauma of Alex Jones’s Lies

The systems that have for so long helped to enforce the notion of collective truth in America are no longer sufficient: Deception is everywhere. And it is dangerous.

This week, The New York Times reported that Alex Jones, InfoWars founder and professional peddler of lies, is seeking more than $100,000 in court costs from the family of Noah Pozner, one of the 20 children who were murdered in the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. Jones is seeking that amount to recover the court costs involved with his legal defense: Veronique De La Rosa and Leonard Pozner, Noah’s mother and father, sued Jones for defamation because of the conspiracy theories he spread about the Sandy Hook murders. Jones insisted that the kids’ deaths were a great hoax, a performance staged by gun-control activists backed by the American government. As a result of that, Noah Pozner’s family says, they have been stalked and subjected to death threats by Jones’s legions of epistemically gullible yet digitally savvy followers—a fact that has, doxxing by doxxing, forced them to move seven times over the past five years, ever farther away from the body of their slain son.

To reiterate: Alex Jones is seeking money from the parents of a murdered child because of a series of lies that have cruelly compounded the family’s suffering since the initial tragedy—lies that Jones, himself, has spread.

There was once a time when the people who think about such things lamented the rise of information silos and filter bubbles and echo chambers: the newfound ability for people to choose their own adventures when it comes to the types of information they consume. Those concerns remain; they also, these days, seem decidedly quaint. Competing truths—“alternative facts”—are no longer the primary threat to American culture; competing lies are. Everything was possible and nothing was true: Conspiracies now smirk and smog in the air, issued from the giant smokestacks at InfoWars and The Gateway Pundit and the White House itself. Hannah Arendt warned of the mass cynicism that can befall cultures when propaganda is allowed to proliferate among them; that cynicism is here, now. And it is accompanied by something just as destructive: a sense of pervasive despair. Americans live in a world of information pollution—and the subsequent tragedy of this new environmental reality is that no one has been able to figure out a reliable method of clearing the air.

The summer of 2018, even more stormy and even more Stormy than a typical one, has also been termed “the summer of scam.” It’s a title that nods to the popularity of stories about the grifters who lurk among us: Anna Delvey, Elizabeth Holmes, the “Con Queen of Hollywood,” and, in a broader sense, the smooth purveyors of “wellness” who balk at the notion of fact-checking and serve as reminders of how readily snake oil can dissolve in the water we all swim in. But the title is also partially sardonic: The scam, of course, is not a seasonal thing. It is thoroughly evergreen. The country’s current leader built his political reputation on a racist lie. He was elected, quite possibly, with the help of untruths that were designed, specifically, to go viral. Trolls, of foreign vintage and homegrown, proliferate, virtually unchecked, on Twitter and Facebook, and Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg and their fellow members of the small fraternity who are responsible for Americans’ new digital infrastructures have proven themselves, again and again, to be at a loss for how to combat them. And for good reason: As Kevin Roose, a technology reporter for The New York Times, recently put it, “How the hell do you build something that can accurately and completely rid a platform of misinformation that has 2 billion people on it?”

Sean Hannity, last year, spent weeks peddling falsehoods about the death of Seth Rich on Fox News; he faced, effectively, no repercussions. Members of the American media engage in a long debate about whether to refer to the stuff that spews from the mouth and the iPhone keyboard of the president as “baseless claims” or “misleading statements” or “lies.” Meanwhile, the untruths proliferate, heating the atmosphere and making it, day by day, just a little bit harder to breathe. In a press briefing this week, the White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders implied—based on a thoroughly debunked urban myth—that the press, in reporting on intelligence about Osama bin Laden in the late ’90s, might have an indirect responsibility for 9/11. Sean Spicer, who preceded Sanders as an issuer of such inaccuracies from the White House briefing room, is currently engaged in an ebullient cross-country book tour promoting the memoir he was contracted to produce in part because he proved to be so entertaining as he spouted his lies. Slate, tapping into the zeitgeist, recently offered an extensive explainer about the nuanced differences between the grifter and the grafter.

This summer, Michiko Kakutani, the celebrated former chief book critic of The New York Times, released her book The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump. The volume offers, despite its slight length, an impassioned argument about what is at stake when the president’s disregard for empirical reality is allowed to trickle down to the rest of us—how easily Americans could descend into the epistemic chaos that so easily becomes the breeding ground for autocrats and despots and tyrants. Kakutani’s gathered elements of wisdom—from George Orwell, from Hannah Arendt, from Jacques Derrida, from F. Scott Fitzgerald, from Fight Club—are infused, finally, with anguish: What, truly, can be done about this? What happens when the lies become environmental?

The Death of Truth has been criticized in some quarters for its tendency to diagnose the problems of a post-truth world rather than offer solutions to them; you could read the diagnosis itself, however, as its own revealingly sad conclusion. The questions that infuse Kakutani’s work, after all, are repeated in several other recent books that grapple with the power of lies. Books with telling titles like, yes, Post-Truth. And Truth Decay: An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life. And Gaslighting America: Why We Love It When Trump Lies to Us. And On Truth, with its simple title reading, revealingly, as its own rebuke to the status quo.

The books are building on the fact that Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism have been enjoying a resurgence on Amazon—a popular attempt to grapple with the new state of things, before it becomes irrevocably solidified into Americans’ habits of thought and heart. “Ironically, at a time when the president’s supporters mock liberal sensitivities,” The Washington Post’s book critic, Carlos Lozada, notes, “Trump’s untruth sells best precisely when feelings and instincts overpower facts, when America becomes a safe space for fabrication.”

That space, as Lozada also points out, has been long in the making. Stephen Colbert, long before Donald Trump made good on his expressions of interest in a presidential run, mocked George W. Bush and his ilk for their belief that “we create our own reality.” Here’s how Colbert summarized his new and enduring coinage, the word truthiness, in 2005:

Now I’m sure some of the Word Police, the wordanistas over at Webster’s, are gonna say, “Hey, that’s not a word.” Well, anybody who knows me knows that I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They’re elitist. Constantly telling us what is or isn’t true, or what did or didn’t happen. Who’s Britannica to tell me the Panama Canal was finished in 1914? If I wanna say it happened in 1941, that’s my right. I don’t trust books. They’re all fact, no heart.

There are some things that are more important than truth: This is one of the core premises of Trumpism, defined far before it occurred to the man in question to burnish his own presidential ambitions by questioning Barack Obama’s right to the same. The idea lurks in every new lie issued from the White House, in every new conspiracy theory that is moved into the mainstream discourse, in every new instance that “fake news” is summoned as a rebuttal or, worse, as a joke. P.T. Barnum’s crucial insight, as he stitched the desiccated head of a monkey onto the desiccated tail of a fish and insisted that his Frankenbeast was the shrunken corpse of a “FeeJee Mermaid,” was that people, on some level, like to be fooled. “Humbug,” as Barnum termed it, wasn’t merely a scam. It was also a game: an entertainment, a distraction. The kind of puzzle-at-scale that is reiterated when, for example, adherents of QAnon tell people that the “truth” of the world and its workings can be learned if only they “follow the White Rabbit.”

In her 2016 book The Confidence Game, an exploration of the minds and methods of con artists, Maria Konnikova argues that cons thrive, in particular, during times of transition—in the cultural chaos that typically results from the lurchings of economic and political shifts. That is because con artists are skilled above all, Konnikova notes, at “exploiting the sense of unease we feel when it appears that the world as we know it is about to change.” Now, in this time of American upheaval—populism, the digital transition, the storms of a stifled planet—con artists like Alex Jones have been given a microphone. And, with it, a megaphone.

Here is a headline that CBS News ran on Thursday: “Alex Jones’s Lawyer Makes Case Against Sandy Hook Parents Who Claim Death Threats.” It’s a summary of events that makes clear, in its concision, the upside-down moralities of the Jones case, which involves an attempt to gloss over the lies Alex Jones has told with normalizing legal niceties: arguments that his conspiracy theories are merely “opinion,” and that they therefore constitute speech protected by the First Amendment. Arguments that the parents of Noah Pozner, by virtue of their involvement in Sandy Hook as a news event, are public figures, and therefore required to prove that Jones spread false claims as a result of actual malice, rather than mere confusion or callousness or negligence.

Which is to say: arguments that suggest a tacit acknowledgement of how thoroughly lies have infiltrated the very systems that were developed, over time, to arbitrate truth in America. Arguments that engage in a great performance of equivalence: the lies on the one side of the table, the truths on the other. Arguments that participate, in that, in a somber metaphor for a time in which journalists are mocked as liars and threatened as the enemies of the people, and in which expertise is dismissed as elitism, and in which truth has been allowed to be treated not as the only thing that matters, but rather as a choice—an option that is often, being all fact and no heart, an imposition.