How Sandy Hook lies and the Jan. 6 inquiry threaten to undo Alex Jones

Texas conspiracy theorist Alex Jones records a video for his Infowars show on a street corner in downtown Austin in 2018. While bankruptcy filings for three of his companies earlier this month may be part of his legal strategy to obstruct court proceedings in defamation cases that he has lost, theyre also the latest development in Jones downswing from his spot at the top of far-right media. (Tamir Kalifa For The Texas Tribune, Tamir Kalifa For The Texas Tribune)

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Editor’s note: This story contains explicit language.

Lenny Pozner doesn’t understand why people are surprised to learn he used to be a regular listener of Alex Jones’ show.

Pozner’s 6-year-old son, Noah, was one of the 26 children and adults who were killed during the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Soon after the tragedy, Jones began using his Austin-based media juggernaut to spread bogus claims that the shooting was a staged government conspiracy made up of crisis actors and fake personas.

Still, for Pozner — one of the Sandy Hook parents involved in a series of defamation lawsuits that have turned into a fierce legal reckoning for Jones — the fact that he used to tune into the right-wing conspiracist’s broadcasts during long car drives is less a twist of fate and more a reflection of something obvious and unremarkable: Jones has reach.

“People repeat that as if it's a big deal. But what I've noticed is that a lot of people pretend they don't know who Alex Jones is,” he said. “That's bullshit. Everybody knows who Alex Jones is.”

At the height of his influence in 2018, Jones boasted an audience of about 1.4 million daily visits to his websites and social media accounts, according to The New York Times. And from 2015-18, Jones’ Infowars store raked in more than $50 million annually, HuffPost reported.

But while Jones built his brand and fortune on a keen and brazen use of misinformation, he has been unable to distance himself from his Sandy Hook falsehoods and his role in a rally that preceded the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.

Jones recently sought immunity from federal prosecutors investigating the Capitol riot and has been subpoenaed by the U.S. House committee investigating the attack.

In the past year, Jones has lost all the defamation lawsuits filed by 10 families of Sandy Hook victims, including Pozner’s. Juries in the cases still have to decide how much Jones must pay the victims, but on April 17, three of Jones’ companies — Infowars, Prison Planet TV and IW Health — filed for bankruptcy. The next day, Jones told his listeners he was “totally maxed out” financially.

While the Chapter 11 filings may be part of Jones’ legal strategy to obstruct court proceedings — he used them to delay his Austin jury trial, and Sandy Hook parents pushed to dismiss them last week — they’re also the latest development in Jones’ downswing from his spot at the top of far-right media. Along with a sweeping ban on social media, the loss of a fawning president and looming legal penalties, Jones’ troubles have weakened his once massive reach and influence. Close observers of his operations say the fate of the state’s most infamous misinformation peddler is more uncertain than ever.

Neither Jones nor his company Infowars responded to multiple requests for comment for this story.

The “Walter Cronkite” of misinformation

Jones has used Infowars — his primary media company that airs shows he claims are syndicated on radio stations across the U.S. — to share his conspiracy theories with his millions of followers. According to Jones, the U.S. government has meddled with water supplies and the weather, the COVID-19 pandemic was planned, and Bill Gates is a master eugenicist working to control world populations.

During the pandemic, Jones sold products like “Nano Silver” toothpaste and “Superblue Silver Immune Gargle” via his Infowars store, claiming they would fight COVID-19. He also sells doomsday prepper materials and dietary supplements, which he presents as antidotes to the false threats he drums up on his show.

His show usually features loud, energetic rants and appeals to save the country.

Rally organizer Alex Jones stands with anti-TSA protesters outside the House chamber after the House tentatively passed HB41 airport anti-groping legislation on June 27, 2011.

Jones stands with anti-TSA protesters outside the U.S. House chamber after lawmakers tentatively passed airport anti-groping legislation in 2011. Credit: Marjorie Kamys Cotera

“Alex Jones is unique; he’s entertaining,” Pozner said. “A lot of people mistrust their government. People want a fresh perspective outside of the corporate media's version of news.”

Jones got his start advancing bogus theories on Austin Community Access Television and local radio in the early 1990s. From those pulpits, he spread falsehoods like claiming that the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco was a government conspiracy, that government authorities carried out the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, and that authorities in Austin used “black helicopters” to surveil the public.

A graduate of Austin’s Anderson High School and an Austin Community College dropout, Jones was removed from his local talk radio spot in 1999 after executives said his fringe views were unsavory for advertisers.

That year, Jones founded Infowars.com. In the early years of the platform, Jones claimed the 9/11 attacks were an inside job and helped produce a feature-length film purporting to expose the tragedy as a government plot.

About a decade and a half later, Jones had attracted millions of viewers, was grossing millions in annual revenue and had captured Donald Trump’s attention.

Rachel Moran, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Washington's Center for an Informed Public who studies how disinformation and misinformation spread, said conspiracy theorists like Jones are able to build wide audiences in part because they provide their followers with a sense of community.

Jones “is very good at building a community of people who think the same things as him and providing them with what they want,” she said. “I think it's easy for us when we don't like a figure to demonize them and pretend they are not good at what they do. Actually, Alex Jones is very good at what he does.”

Moran said Jones is masterful when it comes to harnessing skepticism and deftly toes the line between information and misinformation. He often frames his bogus theories in a way that makes his viewers believe he’s engaging in healthy questioning.

“One of the things that I always hear from people who work in my field is they lament the lack of trusted news figures,” Moran said. “They always say, ‘I wish we had Walter Cronkite during these times, and then people would trust the information.’ It's not that we don't have trusted figures. It's that in the internet age, we have trusted figures like Alex Jones.”

From Sandy Hook to Trump

Trump received support from Jones during his 2016 presidential campaign.

Former Trump adviser and Republican strategist Roger Stone was a paid Infowars host in 2015, and Stone connected Jones with Trump for an Infowars interview in December that year in which the soon-to-be president lauded Jones.

“Your reputation is amazing,” Trump told Jones on his show.

Jones likely played an outsized role in Trump’s election, according to Elizabeth Williamson, author of “Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth.” The book investigates how the shooting warped into an attack on the truth from Jones and online conspiracy theorists.

Williamson said Jones was able to foresee how disaffected individuals who were also highly distrustful of the government could propel Trump to a primary victory.

“He became something of a kingmaker in the race, and with that came a really high profile that he didn't understand completely,” Williamson said. “I think he's reaping the results of that.”

All the while, Jones continued to advance conspiracy theories and misinformation to a growing audience.

Since the day of the Sandy Hook shooting, Jones has spread bogus claims about the massacre. Like many of his other conspiracy theories, Jones falsely claimed that the government was behind the shooting. But this time the lies were different.

In one 2015 show, Jones told his listeners, “Sandy Hook is synthetic, completely fake, with actors, in my view, manufactured.” In other episodes, he mocked Sandy Hook parents weeping over the deaths of their children. Jones even shared addresses, maps and personal information associated with the families of Sandy Hook victims, including revealing information about Pozner.

Only weeks after the 2012 shooting, Pozner remembers reaching out to Infowars by email to ask the outlet to stop labeling the shooting as a government hoax to take away Americans’ guns.

“I called them out on it very early on, and I was very polite about it,” Pozner said. “I asked them to be more responsible with this particular tragedy that affects me personally. And of course, they responded and replied and said, ‘No, no, we’re not denying the tragedy,’ and totally lied, and continued to do their thing.”

Jones' Sandy Hook lies circulated online on platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, and soon after, Infowars followers began harassing Pozner and other victims’ parents.

Pozner said he has had to move about a dozen times since the shooting to evade Jones' followers. In 2017, Infowars listener and Sandy Hook conspiracist Lucy Richards was sentenced to five months in prison for sending death threats to Pozner. Today, Pozner lives in hiding and goes to multiple post office boxes to receive his mail. Despite his efforts, individuals occasionally call and file false police reports on Pozner in attempts to get him in trouble with local law enforcement.

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First: Noah Pozner and his twin sister, Arielle, at kindergarten graduation. Middle: Lenny Pozner and his former wife Veronique De La Rosa. Last: Arielle Pozner at the grave site of her twin brother, who died in the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting. Credit: Courtesy of Lenny Pozner

Jones' previous falsehoods “are not harmless theories, but they did not single out individual vulnerable people the way he did with Sandy Hook. That was really crossing a rubicon,” Williamson said.

In April 2018, after facing years of harassment from Jones’ fans, Pozner; Noah’s mother, Veronique De La Rosa; and Neil Heslin, the father of 6-year-old victim Jesse Lewis, filed defamation lawsuits against Jones in Austin. A lawsuit from eight other families soon followed.

Legal troubles

Jones has attempted to slow or obstruct legal proceedings in the Sandy Hook defamation suits by refusing to follow court orders to turn over documents, filing late settlement offers and, in one instance, claiming that a medical problem that included vertigo prevented him from appearing in court. On April 15, Jones and his companies were ordered to pay more than $1 million in fines for his refusal to hand over pretrial information.

In September, a Travis County judge found Jones liable for defamation in lawsuits filed by two families of Sandy Hook victims. About one month later, Jones again lost in separate suits filed by the families of eight other victims. In both instances, the court found Jones liable by default for his unwillingness to cooperate with court orders.

Jones' legal troubles also include a federal investigation into his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. Jones has suggested that inquiry could damage him more than the Sandy Hook defamation suits.

Jones, who has denied without evidence President Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 elections, helped obtain at least $650,000 from Julie Fancelli, an heiress to the Publix grocery chain and Infowars fan, to pay for a pro-Trump rally that preceded the attack on the Capitol. Of that money, $200,000 was deposited into one of Jones' business accounts, according to the U.S. House’s committee to investigate the Jan. 6 attack.

On his Infowars broadcast that day, Jones told his supporters, “This is the most important call to action on domestic soil since Paul Revere and his ride in 1776.” And at the Capitol, Jones used a bullhorn to excite crowds by chanting, “Stop the steal!”

He also has strong ties to individuals arrested in the attack on the Capitol, including Joe Biggs, a former Infowars staffer and a leader of the far-right group Proud Boys.

In late January this year, Jones told Infowars listeners he was questioned in front of the House committee and said he invoked his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent “almost 100 times.”

Booted by social media

Williamson said the way Jones’ falsehoods propagate and turn into harassment in the real world speaks to his reach and influence.

“He is a salesman,” Williamson said. “And when you have millions of people watching, it only takes a small fraction of those individuals to turn it into something that really travels and disrupts people's lives.”

In 2014, Pozner founded the HONR Network, an organization that works to defend victims of tragedy from online harassment.

The group has lobbied for the removal of hundreds of thousands of pieces of harmful content on social media. It also played a role in removing Jones from many online platforms.

In July 2018, Pozner and De La Rosa wrote an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg calling on him to protect victims of tragedies online.

“We are unable to properly grieve for our baby or move on with our lives because you, arguably the most powerful man on the planet, have deemed that the attacks on us are immaterial, that providing assistance in removing threats is too cumbersome, and that our lives are less important than providing a safe haven for hate,” Noah’s parents wrote.

A month later, Jones' content was removed from Facebook, Apple, YouTube and Spotify.

Jones’ Infowars.com saw a drop in web traffic after the bans, though the number of visitors he receives is back to early 2020 levels, an analysis for The Texas Tribune performed by digital intelligence platform SimilarWeb shows.

Pozner said his organization has also seen a significant decrease in the harassment of victims online after social media companies changed their policies to include victims of tragedies as a protected group. The platforms now seek to prevent online harassment of victims of mass casualty events and limit the use of their names and likenesses, Pozner said.

But appealing to technology companies may not do much to stop conspiracy theories from spreading, Moran said.

While social media companies have changed policies and banned harmful content like Jones’ to address the spread of misinformation, the platforms’ profit model fundamentally relies on user engagement — and conspiracy theories, Moran said, are uniquely engaging.

“You would go into a rabbit hole just reading about them because they're interesting, and that's the bread and butter of social media,” she said.

Instead of targeting social media companies, the use of legal remedies to show how misinformation actually harms people's lives may be the best bet for holding those like Jones accountable, Moran said.

“A lot of our conversation around the spread of misinformation has been on the platform side: What can and should Facebook and Instagram and Twitter be doing?” she said. “Actually, there's a lot more legal frameworks that we have in place that haven't necessarily been tested as avenues to remedy misinformation when it has actively harmed people in real life.”

An audience still dedicated

Infowars Founder Alex jones speaks to a crowd gathered at the Texas State Capital in protest of economic shutdowns amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Jones speaks to a crowd gathered at the Texas Capitol in protest of economic shutdowns amid the coronavirus pandemic in April 2020. Credit: Jordan Vondehaar for The Texas Tribune

How much damage the Sandy Hook lawsuits could do to Jones remains to be seen. He’s up against plaintiffs with a highly sympathetic story who are determined to hamstring his ability to spread misinformation. The lawsuits have drawn comparisons to the case that brought down Gawker Media, in which billionaire Peter Thiel funded Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit for invasion of privacy, earning Hogan $140 million in damages and essentially forcing the company to shut down.

But while Jones may be facing more difficulties today than at any point in his career, he has been known to use his lowest moments to rake in more money from supporters.

After his ban from social media, Jones presented himself as a martyr silenced by slanted technology companies for telling the truth. As the Sandy Hook defamation lawsuits have developed, Jones has directed fans to donate to a legal defense fund. And after filing for bankruptcy earlier this month, Jones hosted an “Emergency Blowout Sale” on his website.

Despite his diminished reach and prolonged legal battles, Jones' audience remains loyal, Williamson said.

The SimilarWeb analysis shows that since 2019, monthly web traffic to Jones’ Infowarsstore.com has soared from about 427,000 visitors in 2019 to nearly 834,000 in March. During the height of the pandemic, the store attracted even more viewers, with over 1 million visits in November 2020.

“He has a dedicated audience, and they support him not only by buying Infowars merchandise, but by actually donating to him,” Williamson said.

Pozner wonders if he would have been spared from the years of relentless harassment that followed Noah’s murder if Jones had never amassed such a following, if social media didn’t exist or if the two had not experienced a simultaneous surge in popularity.

“We would have had more private lives,” Pozner said. “It was an intersection of a terrible tragedy and the expansion of the internet.”

Disclosure: Apple, Facebook and The New York Times have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.