Last week, the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones lost by default judgment two defamation lawsuits brought by parents of children killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, after he failed to comply with a judge’s demand for information. For years, Jones has repeatedly told his Infowars followers that the attack, which killed 20 children and six adults, was a hoax and a “false flag” run by “crisis actors” — leading to harassment, stalking and death threats against the victims’ families. The case shows that the courts can be a powerful tool for combating disinformation and conspiracy campaigns and the online harassment they fuel.
This is good news because there is no shortage of support for disinformation and conspiracies in the United States. More than half of Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory — including unsupported speculation about who killed President John F. Kennedy and QAnon-fueled fictions about child trafficking. Rising conspiracy thinking has been enabled by social media and fueled by the easy spread of fake news, some of which comes from content producers, such as Jones, who use podcasts, viral memes and publicity stunts to insert fringe ideas into the mainstream.
The combination of broad online distribution of conspiracies and an already-receptive American audience was a recipe for a disinformation disaster even before Covid-19. But pandemic conditions have made matters worse. Conspiracy theories are psychologically rewarding during uncertain times because they offer easy, black-and-white explanations for complicated or inexplicable events, placing the blame on the orchestrated efforts of an elite few in ways that can make the world feel more stable. The insecurity and fear of the past 18 months have had devastating effects in that they have spawned the growth of conspiracies and increased their impact globally.
To make matters worse, recent conspiracy theories have been legitimized by elected leaders who say of certain allegations that they “might” be true. When conspiracies circulated that falsely alleged Democrats had manufactured the violence at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Idaho state Rep. Bryan Zollinger, a Republican, posted on social media that while he wasn’t saying the theory was true, it was “completely plausible.” After then-President Donald Trump asserted that “unknown Middle Easterners” were mixed in with migrant caravans at the U.S. southern border, he later admitted there was “no proof” that any were at our border but noted “there could very well be.”
These tactics have challenged the very notion of the observed reality that people experience, making it harder to understand the line between fact and fiction and determine what is real and what is not. Conspiracies undermine belief in science, destabilize people’s sense of truth, fuel polarization and identify “key enemies” who are working “against us.” They can also mobilize violent action, as we have seen in recent conspiracy-driven attempts to save children from a supposed pedophile ring, or protect white populations from a purported immigrant invasion. A 2019 FBI intelligence bulletin noted that conspiracy theories are very likely inspiring domestic terrorists, and the bulletin anticipates this phenomenon will evolve and grow.
Given these conditions, it is not hard to see how widespread conspiratorial disinformation about the 2020 presidential election led to a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol. But while the attack was directly motivated by election fraud conspiracies and other false information, many of the attackers believe themselves to be the courageous revolutionary actors saving democracy. Conspiracies create fervent believers in false realities.
There are few options available for interrupting the spread of conspiracy theories. Attempts to refute them can backfire and strengthen individuals’ faith in false information. Logic or fact-based arguments don’t work against conspiracy thinking, either, because even established facts are often read by believers as confirmation that someone is trying to hide the truth. More traditional counterextremism strategies are even less suited to addressing the harms caused by viral conspiracy theories. Law enforcement approaches align best with organized groups that can be monitored or infiltrated, not with conspiracy theories that spread virally online.
Removing the worst offenders from social media or other online platforms has helped reduce the spread of false information. The circulation of online misinformation about election fraud declined 73 percent, for example, after Trump was banned from Twitter after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. But de-platforming individual users is an endgame solution because it requires that offenders violate companies’ terms of service. By then, the disinformation is already out there causing harm.
The lack of effective counterstrategies means that we need every tool available to stop the creation, circulation and amplification of conspiracy theories and false information. Defamation lawsuits and other civil legal actions are proving to be one such strategy. Coming on the heels of other successful lawsuits demanding accountability from extremists who fomented harassment or violence — and less than a month before the trial in the suit against two dozen white supremacist and extremist group leaders for allegedly plotting a conspiracy that led to violence at the Charlottesville rally — successful legal action against a propagator of conspiracy theories sends a strong message that the courts are a serious option for challenging dangerous, false information.
The only thing better than stopping the unfettered spread of disinformation, propaganda and conspiracies would be to live in a world where no one produced it in the first place. But until that world arrives, the Sandy Hook school massacre lawsuit is a step forward in the fight to protect the one we live in now.