If you want to know why Alex Jones, the far-right provocateur and host of the “news” platform “InfoWars,” was just hit hard by some of the most powerful tech companies in the world, his comments on the Sandy Hook massacre are a good place to start. “Sandy Hook is a synthetic completely fake with actors, in my view, manufactured,” he said in 2015, as quoted by the fact-checking website PolitiFact. “I couldn’t believe it at first. I knew they had actors there, clearly, but I thought they killed some real kids. And it just shows how bold they are, that they clearly used actors.”
Who could possibly believe such a thing? Millions of people, it turns out. A subset of humanity is deeply susceptible to rumors, no matter how far-fetched, that prey on their most pessimistic and paranoid tendencies, specifically on their sense that the deck is stacked against them and that the people running things either don’t care about the masses, or are actively seeking to harm them. Social media have allowed gonzo conspiracy theorizing that might in the past have been limited to low-circulation newsletters or online bulletin-board services to explode into the mainstream.
The perpetually worked-up Jones is the current kingpin of this sort of execrable conspiracy-mongering. It’s his business model: His pitch to his millions of paranoid listeners — customers to whom he runs a brisk side business selling bunk “dietary supplements” — is that he is the only one who can see through the metaphorical fog of misinformation (and sometimes the literal fog of chemtrails) spewed out by the evil elites who secretly control everything.
His provocations know no bounds: Last month he mimed shooting Robert Mueller, after delivering a rant about the special counsel supposedly covering up pedophiles’ sex crimes. (These days, Jones sings a different tune about Sandy Hook, perhaps because a number of Sandy Hook families have sued him over his claims.)
Last week, the companies that help deliver Jones’s inflammatory paranoia to the masses — Apple, Google, Facebook, and Spotify — finally responded to longstanding calls for them to stop assisting in its propagation, in some cases banning InfoWars’ channels on these sites entirely. In all likelihood, their restrictions on his reach will cost Jones at least tens of millions of page views and video views, bringing with them a heavy financial toll.
These decisions sparked a loud online conversation about when it’s appropriate for tech companies to censor content, and whether this could lead to a slippery slope. Of course, an easy response to this is that these platforms already censor plenty of content, such as outright Nazism and white nationalism. Private companies are entitled to make the decision that Jones’s brand of hoaxterism, which does real and lasting harm, is censorship-worthy. In listening to what some Sandy Hook families have gone through, including real-life harassment from conspiracy mongers emboldened by Jones’s nonsense, it’s hard not to sympathize with this view.
Perhaps the bigger and less talked-about issue here is just how horrific, how quickly, the online rumor-mongering scene has gotten. The tech giants’ move will help prevent Jones’s bile from spreading, yes, but the only reason he has such a distressingly large audience is that there is no overestimating the extent to which people will believe, and spread, completely deranged rumors, and the extent to which social media fuel those rumors. Jones is wildly successful, but he’s just one man. And often rumors spread far and wide untethered to any specific figure.
“PizzaGate,” a deranged conspiracy theory about high-profile Democrats, a Washington, D.C., pizzeria, and pedophilia, started as anonymous posts on 4chan and led to a weapon being discharged inside the pizzeria in question. Now we have QAnon, which also started on 4chan and which makes PizzaGate look tame. A sprawling, hard-to-follow conspiracy theory without an iota of evidence behind it — naturally, it also involves pedophilia, because how else to rile up online rubes? — it too is bleeding into the real world: “A Henderson man facing terrorism charges in Arizona for using an armored vehicle to block traffic on the bridge near Hoover Dam has written letters from jail to President Donald Trump and other elected officials bearing the motto of a right-wing conspiracy group known as QAnon,” noted the Las Vegas Review-Journal last month.
In other words, the problem isn’t really Jones, it’s us: our species and our easily-addled brains. While there might be certain extreme cases where censorship is an appropriate Band-Aid solution, that’s all it will ever be — at least until we can somehow teach people to exhibit just a little bit more critical thinking when they go online. Until that happens, no amount of censoring will really address the spreading blight of conspiracy theorizing. There will always be another demagogue, another outlet, or another Facebook page eagerly waiting to fill the void left by Jones.
Jesse Singal is a contributing writer at New York magazine.