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On the Alex Jones Verdict: The Very, Very Lucrative World of Lying
My latest piece for the New York Times returns to a key question: how should we grapple with the current historic transformation of the public sphere? I focus on the Alex Jones trial and verdict, but my question is about the future: what can we do, what should we do, to prevent future cases?
I suggest that we take a closer look at money as an incentive, and also focus on friction as an answer.
Jones’ net worth was estimated during the trial to be anywhere between $135 to $270 million, and much of this comes from peddling dubious supplements, survivalist gear, flouride-free toothpaste, what-have-you. The trial revealed that his company makes many tens of millions of dollars each year from selling such merchandise, and that the Sandy Hook families reached out to him in anguish many times only to be rebuffed, according to the families, because the topic was so lucrative for his sales.
This type of money is a huge part of the incentive structure that shapes so much of our societal woes, and is often overlooked to the key role it plays.
It’s become so easy to lucratively lie to so many people, and we have few realistic and effective defenses against the harms of deceptions like these, not just to individuals but to our society.
“Good speech” isn’t going to push out lies when viewership is so fragmented, nor is the solution “fact checks” of various levels of quality by institutions already not trusted by many.
There have been campaigns to get major social media platforms to act more aggressively to get rid of liars, but why should we trust them to decide who should be banned? What if political winds shift?
What’s the solution? No society can be constantly pulled at its seams like this and escape unscathed. The recent Jones verdict certainly did some damage to the industry of lucrative lying, and perhaps few are as deserving of this result than he is. But laws written for a different era cannot resolve the problems of our current media ecology.
There are no easy, quick solutions, but perhaps a starting point would be to make it harder and less lucrative to lie to huge audiences. Rather than pursuing legally dubious and inadvisable efforts to ban speech or define and target misinformation, regulations should target the incentives for and the speed with which lies can be spread, amplified and monetized.
Plus, a lot of this lying is very cynical. Many have likely heard that Alex Jones has been ordered to pay about one billion to Sandy Hook families in two separate defamation lawsuits. But did you also know that his lawyers had pretty much said that he lies on purpose, that what he’s doing is “performance art”, of someone “playing a character”, comparing him to Jack Nicholson playing Joker on the move Batman:
Using Jones' on-air persona to evaluate his temperament as a father, Jones' attorney said in the pre-trial hearing, according to the Statesman, would be like judging Jack Nicholson based on his role as the Joker in "Batman."
Some Fox News hosts had taken to claiming that voting machine fraud had helped Joe Biden win the election. One voting machine company sent a legal letter in December of 2020, asking them to stop the “false and defamatory” statements, and clearly hinting at a lawsuit. Lo and behold, we witnessed a stunning Road to Damascus moment. The same Fox News host making these claims quickly created a lengthy fact-checking segment, debunking their own lies, and it was run on all the shows that had featured the lie and were named in the letter.
Interestingly, the companies are still going ahead with the lawsuit, rather than settling for some money as it is usually done, a clear sign that they likely think they can prove to the very high standards of US defamation law that the lying was knowingly done, and that they can show that in court—it other words, there is no ideological commitment here, just cynical lying. But, of course, the damage is done and can’t be easily reversed however the lawsuits may eventually conclude.
None of this is without cost. As I write in my piece, Fox News itself had vaccine mandates and even masking rules. But you wouldn’t know that from their anti-vaccine and anti-masking content. Unfortunately, the damage is real. A recent study in Nature finds Fox News viewership was associated with lower vaccination rates, and not because of health care capacity or even Republican partisanship. It’s a great study, by the way, doing a lot of nice work to go beyond association, to show why this is likely a causal link — I especially liked how they used the cable lineup position, which arbitrarily varies geographically but can cause higher viewership for channels lister earlier, to strengthen their case.
A recent study in Nature found that areas with higher levels of Fox News viewership had lower Covid vaccination rates, which are associated with higher hospitalization and death rates. This impact of Fox News was independent of local health care capacity or even partisanship. Plus, much of this effect was concentrated on people younger than 65, who might have thought they were safer from Covid, the study authors noted, and perhaps more open to messages of vaccine hesitancy and refusal.
And who suffers? It’s rarely the cynical, wealthy liars and hypocrites:
Even foot soldiers of the movement who sincerely bought into the antivax nonsense, suffered. According to a report from The Boston Globe, at least five conservative radio talk show hosts who campaigned against the vaccines died from Covid-19 over just a few months in 2021.
The internet has brought about many positive changes that helped expand speech rights, not just in the United States but around the world, but no such historic transition is easy or uniformly good. In fact, such transitions are often deeply destabilizing, and accompanied by much suffering.
The printing press may have launched encyclopedias and the wonderful world of books, but as many historians point out, one of immediate downstream consequences was the Thirty Years War, dubbed a “media event” by historian Peter Wilson, which may have resulted in as much as 20% of Europe’s population perishing. Recognizing this is obviously not wishing we never got the printing press or books, but just that major historical transitions are often very, very painful.
Spread of other communication technologies hasn’t been all rosy either.
The 1915 silent film “Birth of a Nation”, for example, was heralded for its technical virtuosity — it’s also the first American 12-reel film — and it became a huge commercial success with its despicable and reprehensible racist storyline, which showed, among other things, black people stealing elections and blocking white people from voting unless held back via violence by the fictionalized Klan, which is portrayed as the heroic bulwark against black people portrayed as rapists and lowlifes. The film has been credited for helping inspire the rebirth of the actual Klan a few months later.
Hitler’s filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, was also quite talented, and has invented or refined many techniques of modern filmography while helping Hitler, whose persuasive gifts were more suited to the scale of the beer halls that he rose from, to appear charismatic and heroic to the broader masses through her films.
Obviously, this is not a call to suggest we ban films, or even wishing they didn’t exist. Clearly, a single movie doesn’t suddenly turn a nation otherwise devoted to racial equity into one where events on the scale of the Tulsa massacre would happen shortly afterwards.
But we should recognize that a constant barrage of lies and dehumanizing propaganda are often part and parcel of the road to mayhem and even large-scale violence, and each societal transition renews the challenge of finding better, updated ways to face this reality.
This is one big reason why every new communication milieu brought about by technological and political changes has to be grappled with, but without nostalgia — as the past is rarely perfect, but in any case it’s not coming back — or without sloganeering. Oft-repeated formulations like “let more speech counter bad speech” or “technology can be good or bad” don’t even begin to get at the current problems partly because they don’t even describe the current problems.
Is there an easy solution? Of course not. I outline some of what I think we can do in my piece — and, frankly, I find a lot of the current efforts on fact-checking or defining/targeting misinformation to be lacking, ineffective or even unadvisable — but I’ll be first to concede a problem of this magnitude will not lend itself to easy solutions.
I also think friction is underrated as a structural answer. Just like the important maxim from the field of complex systems that “More is Different”, it’s also important to recognize that Faster is Different. Slowing down the juggernaut through careful and considered mechanisms might go a long way, without either the governments or the social media companies having to be appointed as hasty arbiters of truth — something that we should approach with great caution.
It’s quite possible there will need to be repeated efforts, some of which may not work out and need to be modified, rollbacked and updated.
The work of civilization is not just discovering and unleashing new and powerful technologies, it is also regulating and shaping them, and crafting norms and values through education and awareness, that make societies healthier and function better. We are late to grapple with all of this, but late is better than never.
It’s not without hope — we’ve overcome many challenges before. But I’ll keep saying this: we have to try, rather than surrender to nihilism and just declare it’s too hard, and nothing can be done. To go back to my initial point: No society can make it so lucrative and so easy to be pulled at its seams like this and escape unscathed. We have to try.
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