Our age of false prophets

Published by The i paper (8th August, 2022)

Nine days after Donald Trump was ousted from the White House by voters in the US, I found myself reporting on weird scenes in Richmond, the state capital of Virginia. A man in a cowboy hat called Owen Shroyer stood in an armoured vehicle, ranting about the supposedly stolen election, whipping up a crowd that included angry men with banners, children waving flags and masked members of far-right militia clutching semi-automatic rifles. A handful of defiant Black Lives Matter protesters stood silently amid the melee while the police watched events warily.

This was the penultimate stop of a caravan of vehicles travelling from Texas to Washington to protest about the “stolen” election. It was organised by Infowars, a website run by the radio host Alex Jones that has spent two decades undermining the state by promoting the nastiest, most insidious conspiracy theories. His bigotry knows no bounds, his fraudulent claims are highly corrosive and his crazed stunts have caused pain to innocent people. Yet he had a devoted audience of millions, playing a central role in inflaming the fury that led to the explosive efforts to thwart the presidency of Joe Biden – whom he labels in typical style “a Satanic paedophile”.

Now in a rare item of good news on our stormy planet, this man who helped to inject conspiracy theories about a sinister state into mainstream debate has met his comeuppance.

A court in Texas ordered him to pay more than $45m in punitive damages to the parents of a six-year-old child slaughtered in the Sandy Hook mass murders. This was one of the most horrifying school shootings in US history. Yet Jones – assisted by acolytes such as Shroyer – claimed that they were simply actors in a faked government plot to promote gun control. As a result, families suffering the deepest grief were hounded for years by his fellow travellers.

It is impossible for most of us to imagine the mindset of someone who exploits such terrible events. The testimony of those parents talking about their “living hell” was heartbreaking. Jones was shredded in court, forced to admit to his lies and in one exquisite twist, shown to have perjured himself during testimony after his blundering lawyer handed the rival team two years of his mobile phone data. He faces more defamation trials, possible perjury proceedings and his text messages have been requested by investigators in the House of Representatives who are examining the attack on the Capitol on 6 January last year.

This verdict was a victory for brave parents who turned on a bully. It serves as an important warning when the high priest of conspiracy theories can be exposed as a charlatan in a court.

Yet even if Jones’s career is over, his pernicious influence will live on. For the trial exposed the value of peddling lies and preaching hate when a forensic accountant revealed that InfoWars could make £660,000 a day at one point in 2018, enabling Jones to build a fortune worth at least £110m. He was at the apex of a lucrative trade profiting from deception and paranoia, seen starkly in the pandemic with falsehoods about treatments and vaccinations.

Already some free speech zealots bleat about Big Brother. “This is a witch hunt,” claimed Jones, although he failed to submit documentation needed to mount a First Amendment defence. “Speech is free, but lies you have to pay for,” was the glorious riposte by Mark Bankston, the parents’ lawyer. Sadly, this is rarely borne out by the facts – and we can see the consequent damage in our post-truth society.

Playing fast and loose with truth is not just highly profitable for snake-oil salesman but has evolved into a successful strategy for populist politicians that drags public discourse towards extremes. The most obvious exponent is Trump, who appeared on Jones’s show and told him he was “amazing” even after the grotesque smears of Sandy Hook families. Trump took toxic bilge pumped out by Infowars into the mainstream and adopted the tactic of treating traditional media as the enemy to ensure truth can be distorted.

Jones once admitted that it was “surreal” to discuss issues on air, then hear them parroted days later by the President. All that nonsense about a stolen election felt straight from the Infowars playbook. Yet even now, even after 6 January, much of the Republican Party remains in thrall to this mendacious egotist.

Britain has been contaminated also by this disdain for truth and belief that the state is inherently malign as it dupes “real” people. No surprise to see that Nigel Farage, the architect of Brexit who hides poison beneath a cloak of joviality, gave interviews to Jones as he pushed his own conspiracy theories on Europe, then blamed others for the failure of his cult’s creed. In one, he claimed that the “deep state” might lie behind chemical attacks in Syria. Now we hear the same loaded phrase coming from the mouth of a prime minister who built his career on deception and distortion – and when felled by his own behaviour, allies complain of a “coup” and they campaign to keep him in power.

There have always been false prophets, hucksters and malicious liars – but now they have the platforms and unprecedented power to spread their contamination. Such folk will find fertile new fields to seed if looming economic downturn sparks fresh loss of faith in our leaders. So we must learn from nations such as Finland, which teaches citizens how to spot fake news after being targeted by Russia, while finding effective ways to regulate technology firms and have a far more serious discussion about boundaries on free speech.

One man watching the Infowars stunt in Richmond told me that he feared his nation was sliding towards civil war. So the defeat of Alex Jones is certainly a triumph for decency and truth. But ultimately it is one small battle in the long fight to defend our way of life and democracy from self-serving hate-mongers who divide communities, destroy trust in collective government and assist our most determined foes.

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