It would be too simple to blame (or credit) Mr. Jones for inspiring the entire modern cranksphere. But it’s safe to say that many of today’s leading conspiracy theorists have found the same profitable sweet spot of lies and entertainment value. It’s also probable that we’ve become desensitized to conspiracy theories, and many of the outrageous falsehoods that once got Mr. Jones into trouble — such as the allegations about Sandy Hook parents that were at the center of his defamation trial — would sound less shocking if uttered today.
Other conspiracy theorists are less likely than Mr. Jones to end up in court, in part because they’ve learned from his mistakes. Instead of straightforwardly accusing the families of mass-shooting victims of making it all up, they adopt a naïve, “just asking questions” posture while poking holes in the official narrative. When attacking a foe, they tiptoe right up to the line of defamation, being careful not to do anything that could get them sued or barred from social media. And when they lead harassment campaigns, they pick their targets wisely — often maligning public figures rather than private citizens, which gives them broader speech protections under the First Amendment.
That’s not to say there won’t be more lawsuits, or attempts to hold conspiracy theorists accountable. Fox News, for one, is facing a defamation lawsuit from Dominion Voting Systems, which claims that the network knowingly made false statements about voter fraud in the 2020 election.
But these cases are the exceptions, not the rule. The truth is that today’s media ecosystem is overflowing with Infowars-style conspiracy theories — from History Channel shows about ancient aliens building the Egyptian pyramids to TikToks made by yoga moms who think Wayfair is selling trafficked children — and it’s not clear that our legal system can, or should even attempt to, stop them. [Continue reading…]