SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This week, a jury in Austin, Texas, ordered conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to pay nearly $50 million to the parents of a first grader killed at Sandy Hook. The 2012 elementary school shooting was the worst in U.S. history, but Jones has repeatedly claimed it was a hoax. He said children didn't die and dismissed their families as crisis actors. NPR correspondent Shannon Bond reports that Jones and his Infowars network have perfected the art of disinformation and made a lot of money doing it.
SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Alex Jones has more or less the same explanation for any tragic event in recent decades. Here's Mark Bankston, attorney for the Sandy Hook parents, confronting Jones in the courtroom.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MARK BANKSTON: Would you agree with me that there is not a mass tragedy, mass bombing, mass shooting that has occurred in America in the past 15 years that you have not attached the words false flag to?
ALEX JONES: I have asked the question because I believe a lot of things are provocateur or allowed to happen.
BOND: From his early days on local talk radio, Jones was a prolific fabulist, spouting conspiracy theories about the Branch Davidian siege in Waco and the Oklahoma City bombing. When his wild claims got him fired, he founded Infowars in 1999. After the September 11 attacks, Jones surged to fame as a truther, claiming the Bush administration was behind it. As his audience grew, Jones popularized a vocabulary for pernicious doubt - not just that officials and media are hiding the truth, but that tragic events are being engineered for nefarious purposes.
Sarah Eniano is a disinformation researcher at the Anti-Defamation League.
SARAH ENIANO: He is at least a catalyst of those prevailing narratives that follow almost every newsworthy tragedy, whether it's a mass shooting or otherwise.
BOND: Jones's response to the Sandy Hook massacre was perhaps the most egregious example. For years, Infowars broadcast lies that the tragedy was invented. Eniano says that created a template to cast doubt on subsequent mass shootings.
ENIANO: A lot of people who share these theories that those were staged by the government for gun control reasons or that the children and parents are crisis actors - they will reference Sandy Hook as kind of the basis of that conclusion.
BOND: The lies on Infowars had real-world consequences. At the trial, Scarlett Lewis and Neil Heslin, whose 6-year-old son Jesse was murdered at Sandy Hook, testified about the harassment and death threats they've received from people who believe Jones.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SCARLETT LEWIS: You know that's not true. But when you say those things, there's a fringe of society that believe you, that are actually dangerous.
BOND: Infowars doesn't just disseminate harmful lies. It profits from them. The court was told this week the company raked in $64 million in sales of supplements, survivalist gear and other products last year. Jones wasn't the first to grift off conspiracy theories, but Infowars harness the power of the internet to do so on a massive scale. And that model has been much imitated, says Yunkang Yang, a communications professor at Texas A&M.
YUNKANG YANG: You preach apocalypse, and then you sell stuff - right? - that can help you in an apocalypse.
BOND: Jones has also left a mark on conservative politics. Infowars and Donald Trump both promoted the racist lie that President Obama was not a U.S. citizen. Ahead of the 2016 Republican primaries, Trump called in to Infowars for a mutually fawning interview with Jones.
Melissa Ryan runs CARD Strategies, which tracks disinformation and extremism.
MELISSA RYAN: Trump won by being willing to appeal to this base of supporters that other people in the party would've kept at arm's length, that they knew were part of the coalition but they weren't going to give special attention to lest they be called out for having extremist views.
BOND: By 2018, pressure mounted on tech companies to crack down on hate speech and harmful falsehoods. Jones and Infowars were kicked off Facebook, YouTube, Twitter. That curbed his ability to reach a wider audience. But according to evidence presented in court, he's still making plenty of money.
Jones and Infowars are facing multiple trials that could put them on the hook for further damages to the victims of his lies. Jones is trying to shield his assets through bankruptcy, but he's also vowed to keep Infowars alive.
Ryan says even if Jones went out of business tomorrow...
RYAN: Conspiracy is a permanent part of our political and cultural discourse now. And yeah, I think you can say that Alex Jones was an innovator in that.
BOND: The seeds of doubt he so effectively planted are now everywhere. Shannon Bond, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.