• Friday, September 21, 2018
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New York Times

Conspiracy theories made Alex Jones very rich. They may bring him down

  • THE NEW YORK TIMES

    Alex Jones, the right-wing conspiracy theorist and talk show host, talks to reporters on Capitol Hill, in Washington on Sept. 5. Though Jones likes to portray Infowars, as a media outlet, in business terms, it is more accurate to describe the digital channel as an online store that moves a grab-bag of health-enhancement and survivalist products which Jones hawks constantly.

  • THE NEW YORK TIMES

    Alex Jones, the right-wing conspiracy theorist and talk show host, talks to reporters on Capitol Hill, in Washington on Sept. 5. Though Jones likes to portray Infowars, as a media outlet, in business terms, it is more accurate to describe the digital channel as an online store that moves a grab-bag of health-enhancement and survivalist products which Jones hawks constantly.

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AUSTIN, Texas >> More than ever before in his two-decade career built on baseless conspiracy theories, angry nativist rants and end-of-days fearmongering, Alex Jones is being called to account.

In a Texas courthouse, his lawyers are battling defamation claims resulting from one of his most infamous acts: spreading false reports that the Sandy Hook massacre of 20 first-graders and six adults was an elaborate hoax.

In Silicon Valley, Facebook, YouTube and, as of Thursday, Twitter, under pressure to better curb hate speech and incendiary misinformation, have largely cut him off. His latest stunt — turning up on Capitol Hill this week to call attention to his claim that he is being unfairly silenced on ideological grounds — led to an embarrassing rebuff by a conservative Republican senator.

The big question for him now is whether his bluster — and the implicit support he has received from President Donald Trump, who has channeled bogus or misleading claims promoted by Jones and echoed his complaints of anti-conservatism by technology companies — will be sufficient to see him past his current peril. He is facing a legal, public opinion and social media reckoning that poses the most serious threat yet not just to his ability to inject the outlandish into the mainstream, but also to the lucrative business he has built.

Jones likes to portray his digital channel, Infowars, as a media outlet, and he is quick to wrap himself in the First Amendment. But in business terms, it is more accurate to describe Infowars as an online store that uses Jones’ commentary to move merchandise. Its revenue comes primarily from the sale of a grab-bag of health-enhancement and survivalist products that Jones hawks constantly.

A close look at his career shows that he has been as much a canny if unconventional entrepreneur as an ideological agitator. He has adapted to — and profited from — changes in both the political climate and the media business even as he has tested, and regularly crossed, the boundaries of acceptable public discourse.

For more than two decades, Jones, 44, has built a substantial following appealing to an angry, largely white, majority male audience that can choose simply to be entertained or to internalize his rendering of their worst fears: that the government and other big institutions are out to get them, that some form of apocalypse is frighteningly close and that they must become more virile, and better-armed, to survive.

“I’m not a business guy, I’m a revolutionary,” he said in an interview in August.

If it is a revolution, it is one that he has skillfully monetized. His fundamental insight was that his audience is also a nearly captive market for the variety of goods he peddles via Infowars’ website and his syndicated radio show — products intended to assuage the same fears he stokes.

Infowars and its affiliated companies are private and do not have to report financial results publicly. But by 2014, according to testimony Jones gave in a court case, his operations were bringing in more than $20 million a year in revenue. Records viewed by The New York Times show that most of his revenue that year came from the sale of products like supplements such as the Super Male Vitality, which purports to boost testosterone, or Brain Force Plus, which promises to “supercharge” cognitive functions.

Court records in a divorce case show that Jones’ businesses netted more than $5 million in 2014. Court proceedings show that he and his then-wife, Kelly Jones, embarked on plans to build a swimming pool complex around that time featuring a waterfall and dining cabana with a stone fireplace. Alex Jones bought four Rolex watches in one day in 2014, and spent $40,000 on a saltwater aquarium; the couple’s assets at the time included a $70,000 grand piano, $50,000 in firearms and $752,000 in silver, gold and precious metals, in a safe-deposit box, court documents say.

People who have worked with Alex Jones or studied his business said his revenues had probably continued to grow in recent years.

But his problems are mounting. At least five defamation suits against Jones, including three filed by Sandy Hook families, are moving forward. Last month, a Texas judge ordered Jones and officers in his web of limited-liability companies to provide depositions to lawyers for the parent of a Sandy Hook victim in coming weeks, testimony that could shed new light on Jones’ operation.

He is also facing complaints of workplace discrimination from two ex-employees, a fraud and product liability case and a nasty court battle with Kelly Jones, now his ex-wife. She says the couple have spent a combined $4 million on their four-year battle over custody of their three children and disputes over the business.

At the same time, the crackdown on Alex Jones in August by the social media giants — he has been largely banned by Facebook, YouTube, Apple, Spotify and even Pinterest — poses a severe test by limiting his access to his audience. The early evidence is that the bans have substantially reduced his reach, and that was before Twitter imposed a permanent ban Thursday on his account and the account for Infowars, depriving him of his last major social media channel.

As a result, he is being forced to rely even more on his Infowars site, his mobile app and his radio show, which is heard on more than 100 stations nationwide.

True to form, Jones is using the challenge to move more product.

For several days in August, after the ban by the social media companies, his online Infowars Store offered deep discounts under an all-caps banner that read, “FIGHT THE BULLIES, SAVE THE INTERNET, SAVE INFOWARS.”

Jones operates from behind bulletproof glass at an Austin industrial park, in a dimly lit hive of studios and cluttered, open-plan desks. He invited a New York Times reporter there for an interview on two conditions: that the location of his headquarters not be specified and that he would record audio of the interview.

There are no identifying signs outside. Inside, there are split-screen security camera monitors throughout, which Jones checks as he passes by. There are guns in the building for protection, he said. He added that armed snipers are positioned on the roof, then in a phone call the next day said that he had made that up. He wouldn’t say how many employees he has, but in 2017 court testimony he said he employed 75 people, plus 10 contractors.

He insisted that his troubles are proof that a globalist, leftist cabal aims to silence him.

He claimed advance knowledge that technology companies, Chinese communists, Democrats and the mainstream media would “try to use me as a 2018, 2020 campaign issue — to hurt Trump, to misrepresent what I’ve said, to project it on Trump, and to go after the First Amendment and legitimize the censorship of all the Republican congresspeople.”

It was classic Alex Jones: a nonstop mix of flimsy fact, grievance, paranoia, ideology, combativeness and solipsism.

“Preppers” are an important market segment for Infowars, and ads on its website bring better response than on other conservative media shows, said Chad Cooper, who owns Infidel Body Armor, based in San Tan Valley, Arizona. He spent about $5,000 a month on Infowars advertising for his civilian body armor line until recently, when he suspended his advertising because Infowars started selling ads to too many of his competitors.

While he does not take in Jones’ show — “he’s a nutter,” he says — “I’ve spent quite a bit of time on the phone with these Alex Jones people who order from me.

“They’re nonbelievers in what the media tells them. They think there’s more to the story,” he said. “They think there’s aliens, and the government knows about that and they’re not telling them. They’re all religious, and they’re very concerned about the direction the government is going.

“He’s really good at scaring people,” Cooper said of Jones. “He gives them that sense of urgency — they need to hurry up and do something. Now.”

Jones’ image and credibility as a provocateur are closely linked to his credibility as a marketer of supplements and other products.

Consequently, sales of the fluoride-free toothpaste he promotes might decline if he recants his bogus claim that fluoridated water causes cancer and stunts the brains of children. Demand for Infowars-branded gun components that can be purchased without a firearms permit might fall if he backs off his predictions of a looming civil war.

Jones had cited a desire to express contrition to the Sandy Hook parents as a reason for agreeing to be interviewed. But many times during the interview, his efforts at apology morphed into new theories.

“The idea they’re pushing is that you can’t ever question anything,” he said, “they” referring to anyone who criticizes his twisting of the truth. “I don’t think you can establish that anything is 100 percent fact.”

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