The Alex Jones-ification of the GOP
For years, Alex Jones had been known as a conspiracy theorist who called out the left and the right alike. Republicans, Democrats — to him, they were all “elitist filth.” Even as far back as the late 1990s, he went after Republicans like then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush. But in 2015, that all changed. That year, an acquaintance reached out to him: Roger Stone. The longtime political operative known for his dirty playbook was supporting the presidential campaign of the anti-establishment Republican contender, Donald Trump. In footage from a documentary that the creator, Caolan Robertson, provided exclusively to CNN, Jones talks about how he and Stone connected. Stone understood that Jones could be of value to Trump. The Republican front-runner appeared on the December 2, 2015, episode of Infowars, where Jones lavished Trump with flattery. The interview kicked off with an exchange about Muslims, with Jones alluding to an incendiary claim Trump had made — without evidence — that he’d seen “radical Muslims” in New Jersey celebrating the destruction of the Twin Towers on 9/11. “They were celebrating the fall of the World Trade Center,” Trump said. “I think that's disgraceful.” Chloe Colliver, the former head of digital policy at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and an expert on online extremism, said Trump’s appearance on Infowars was a pivotal event in the 2016 election. “That moment encapsulates … the mainstreaming of conspiracy theories and hate that we've seen in US politics over the last four or five years,” she said. The Trump-Jones union was mutually beneficial. For Jones, it was an opportunity to attach himself to a star with mainstream appeal. For Trump, the Infowars audience offered up a large, untapped reservoir of potential votes, said Mark Fenster, a law professor at the University of Florida and author of two books on conspiracy theories. “To have someone like Alex Jones say, ‘Go vote for Donald Trump, Donald Trump is our candidate’ — you can get tens of thousands of people in swing states, particularly the Midwest, who would go into the ballot box and vote,” Fenster said. On the evening of the 2016 election, the staff at Infowars celebrated Trump’s victory, remembers Josh Owens, a former Infowars video editor. But that night, when Jones was no longer on camera, Owens says, he noticed that Jones looked upset. A 2014 deposition related to Jones’ divorce proceedings, reviewed by CNN, seems to support Owens’ observation. In it, Jones says that he worried that a Republican president would be bad for business. That it would “cause a 30 to 40%, maybe even more, reduction in audience. And then overall core revenues will go down, affecting all subsidiary businesses.” Jones added, “Just as MSNBC ratings go down when a Democrat is in, they go up when a Republican is in.” While Jones appears to throw much of his energy into spinning apocalyptic fantasies, several people in his orbit say they believe his top priority is lining his pockets — and that his online show and website, unhinged commentary and online supplement sales are a means to that end. John Clayton, a radio host who worked closely with Jones from about 2002 to 2009 and occasionally filled in for him, said facts were simply not a priority at Infowars. “They just want traffic over there. They are addicted to that traffic,” said Clayton, who added that Jones skillfully manipulates his audiences’ fears to keep their attention. “That's the secret sauce to his success.” Robertson, who has produced videos for several right-wing sites and personalities besides Jones — and who since has renounced the far right — said nobody he worked with in those circles talks about money more than Jones. “Wherever we were, whether it was in his office or in the car or in a tequila bar or at the end of a shoot, there would always be a time he'd bring up money or he'd bring up how much money another news outlet makes disparagingly, and how it's less than him,” he told CNN. Jones has sold products at his store for years: T-shirts, DVDs, New World Order playing cards, a guidebook to “safe places” in the event of civilizational collapse. A turning point for Jones came around 2013, when he got serious about selling dietary supplements under the Infowars brand. The formula is simple: Call attention to the purported threat, make a sales pitch for the solution. To fight the “globalist social engineers” who are manipulating genetics using “estrogen mimickers that lower our testosterone,” Infowars sells a liquid-based supplement called Super Male Vitality. To bolster defenses against the supposed dangers of a fungus that Jones said could cause brain tumors, Infowars has offered up Myco-ZX, an "all natural yeast and fungal cleanser.” Other products include Brain Force, Living Defense and — for sleep support — Knock Out and Down N’Out. Jones is secretive about the financial health of his companies, but court depositions obtained by CNN have shed some light. One from 2014 said his businesses took in more than $20 million that year. Court documents related to a defamation suit against Jones filed in December showed that the amount would soon nearly triple. Over the next three years — from the fall of 2015 through 2018 — the Infowars store would generate a total of $165 million, or an average of about $55 million annually, according to the documents. (The figures were first reported by the Huffington Post.) Jones needn’t have worried that a Republican victory would hurt his bottom line. His most lucrative day in the three-year window through 2018, according to a CNN review, came on November 9, 2016 — the day after the election. On that broadcast — a Trump victory show — Jones’ supplement guru talked about the effect of election stress on the body. Jones offered a “Rebirth of the Republic Victory Special” — 30% off Super Male Vitality. On the day of that show, which featured Stone, the Infowars store pulled in a stunning $850,000, court documents show. Robertson said that in 2018 he had tried to impress the Infowars host by telling him he’d purchased a bottle of Infowars supplements called Brain Force. Clayton, who has gone by the moniker “Jack Blood,” said Jones would sometimes mock his own fans. “He would say little things quite a bit that a lot of his listeners were stupid or crazy, or they're going to fall for this kind of thing,” he said. Editorially, several sources say, the goal of Infowars is simple: Attract eyeballs and sell products. “I quickly learned my job isn't creating stories that shared the truth,” Owens told CNN. “It was keeping Jones happy.” Whether his assignment was to find high radiation levels on the West Coast to better sell supplements that claim to protect against nuclear fallout or to track down enclaves of Muslims in America who were living in Sharia law communities, Owens said, he learned to churn out content that made these claims, even when they were patently false – as both of those stories were. In the summer of 2015, Owens and an Infowars reporter named Joe Biggs — a leader of the Proud Boys who has been indicted for his role in the Capitol riot — traveled to Laredo, Texas, in advance of a <a target="_blank" href="https://www.cnn.com/2015/07/23/politics/donald-trump-border-visit-texas/index.html">brief July 23 visit</a> to the border by Trump and shot a video near the bank of the Rio Grande river. Infowars used the footage to blast out a <a target="_blank" href="https://web.archive.org/web/20161011011717/http:/www.infowars.com/caught-on-camera-illegals-smuggle-drugs-into-laredo-before-trump-visit/">headline</a> the same day as Trump’s visit, laden with unconfirmed assumptions: “Caught on Camera: Illegals Smuggle Drugs Into Laredo Before Trump Visit.” The Infowars story was picked up by the Drudge Report the following day, and Trump mentioned it the day after that at a rally in Iowa. Owens, the cameraman on the story, told CNN that while the men loading cargo could have been doing something illegal, there’s no way to know what was in those bags. “It's not about truth, it's not about accuracy — it's about what's going to make people click on this video,” Owens said. “Nobody chased us. They saw us sitting there. We weren't that far from them, but nobody chased us.” “In essence, we lied,” he said. It also appears Jones lied to himself — with the help of a pliant staff. Robertson’s association with Infowars dissolved in 2019 because he became disillusioned with the far right and now works for a UK-based progressive news outlet. The exclusive footage he provided CNN shows an awkward staff meeting from January 2019 in which Jones asks the group to jog his memory about who at Infowars had been the most “vehement” proponents of the idea that the Sandy Hook shooting was a hoax. While he later acknowledged Sandy Hook was real, Jones’ denial of the event was full-throated and unequivocal. Now, as the courts try to assess how much he owes families of the Sandy Hook victims, Jones appears to be doing what he can to downplay his financial success. In April, months after he was found legally responsible for damages in defamation lawsuits in Texas and Connecticut related to false claims he made about the 2012 Sandy Hook mass shooting, families of the victims <a target="_blank" href="https://www.fox7austin.com/news/alex-jones-accused-hiding-millions-sandy-hook-lawsuits">filed</a> another suit in <a target="_blank" href="https://www.kvue.com/article/news/local/sandy-hook-parents-accuse-alex-jones-hiding-millions-assets/269-ab2c6eb3-896a-41f9-b2c6-e3f035c053f6">Texas</a> — this time accusing Jones of hiding millions of dollars in assets. Later that month, three Jones-affiliated businesses <a target="_blank" href="https://www.cnn.com/2022/04/18/media/infowars-alex-jones-bankruptcy/index.html">filed</a> for bankruptcy protection, in an apparent attempt to delay proceedings. Just weeks later — after the families dropped one of the companies from their defamation cases to continue their suits against Jones — the businesses moved to exit bankruptcy. A federal judge on Friday dismissed the bankruptcy protection case, according to court filings. “Fortunately, Mr. Jones’ bad faith scheme evaporated almost immediately, and we are now back on track for Mr. Jones to face a jury of his peers in late July,” Bankston said in a statement last month. Despite the comeuppance Jones faces for his lies about Sandy Hook, he couldn’t help making his signature outlandish insinuations about the latest high-profile school shooting, at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, where an 18-year-old gunman killed 19 children and two teachers in May — suggesting, even, that the massacre was somehow tied to the upcoming midterms. “I don't want to say this was staged or provocateured,” Jones said on <a target="_blank" href="https://www.mediamatters.org/alex-jones/alex-jones-says-timing-uvalde-school-shooting-opportunistic"></a>his May 24 episode — the day of the Uvalde shooting. “But we have specifically said with two years of hardly any mass shootings, that with all the pre-programing that mass shootings are coming and terrorists are going to attack and we've got to take the guns. And then I'm like, well, I would predict a lot of mass shootings right before the election. And then, like clockwork, it's happening. You know to me it's just very opportunistic what's happening.” Although Jones is perhaps best known for his Sandy Hook denialism, that wasn’t enough to get him booted from Facebook in August 2018. The process was both chaotic and public. That July, Kara Swisher, then-host of the tech <a target="_blank" href="https://www.vox.com/2018/7/18/17575158/mark-zuckerberg-facebook-interview-full-transcript-kara-swisher">podcast</a> “ReCode Decode,” pressed Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg about Infowars’ Sandy Hook lies. “OK. ‘Sandy Hook didn’t happen’ is not a debate,” she said. “It is false. You can’t just take that down?” Zuckerberg answered with a strange dodge that had nothing to do with Infowars. In an attempt to make an argument in favor of free speech, Zuckerberg said his company wouldn’t remove Holocaust deniers from the platform, because “there are things that different people get wrong,” although he said the platform could limit the reach of such claims. (Zuckerberg’s Holocaust comment sparked an <a target="_blank" href="https://money.cnn.com/2018/07/18/technology/zuckerberg-recode-holocaust/index.html">outcry</a>, and he quickly clarified that portion of his answer, saying in part, “I absolutely didn’t intend to defend the intent of people who deny that.”) It was in the midst of this tumult that Facebook <a target="_blank" href="https://money.cnn.com/2018/07/18/technology/zuckerberg-recode-holocaust/index.html">announced</a> a new policy to begin taking down content it determines is fake news and could contribute to imminent violence. The company said it would treat misinformation differently — by reducing its spread rather than outright banishment. Ultimately, it was Jones’ penchant for violent rhetoric and content that prompted the removal of several of his pages from Facebook. In early August of that year, the company <a target="_blank" href="https://about.fb.com/news/2018/08/enforcing-our-community-standards/">announced</a> it had done so in part for Jones glorifying violence and using dehumanizing language to describe people who are transgender, Muslims and immigrants. The move came around the same time that Apple, YouTube and Spotify purged much of Jones’ content from their platforms. While the social media giants were often scant on the details of how Jones had violated their standards, the scrubbing of Infowars content happened a couple of weeks after a <a target="_blank" href="https://www.newsweek.com/alex-jones-threatens-shoot-pedophile-robert-mueller-accuses-zuckerberg-1038500">high-profile outburst</a> by Jones. In a July 23 Infowars clip, Jones had popped off on Robert Mueller, the former FBI director who at the time was heading up an investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. After baselessly saying that Mueller enables the raping of children, Jones pantomimed a gun with his hand and imagined meeting Mueller in the town square for a duel. About a month after Infowars’ purging, CNN senior media reporter Oliver Darcy — who had called attention to Facebook’s harboring of Infowars <a target="_blank" href="https://money.cnn.com/2018/07/11/media/facebook-infowars/index.html?iid=EL">early on</a> — was covering a hearing in Washington, where Twitter’s founder and then-CEO, Jack Dorsey, had been called to testify. Jones and his crew happened to be there. Jones saw CNN’s Darcy standing in line to get into the hearing room and confronted him angrily as his cameraman filmed the harangue. Others nearby took videos with their cell phones. Jones livestreamed the rant on Periscope, which was owned by Twitter before it was shut down in March of last year. Because Jones’ tirade violated Twitter’s harassment policy, it, too, swiftly banned him from its platforms. But it was the Big Tech companies that had given Jones the very wings they were now clipping. Jones’ full-throated format was perfectly suited to algorithms that rewarded inflammatory content with viewers who weren’t even looking specifically for him. Robertson said Jones had about 2 million YouTube subscribers at the time; his YouTube views were in the billions. When he visited the Infowars studios, Robertson said, he saw that about 80% of Infowars’ views came from YouTube recommendations. Robertson said he studied the search terms people used to find the content. “A lot of search terms were unrelated to Infowars and Alex Jones,” he told CNN. “Looking back, that's terrible, because it's funneling people who aren't looking for extreme content to it.” A YouTube spokesperson said that since the Alex Jones Channel was terminated in 2018, the platform has made significant progress in how it recommends videos and limits the spread of harmful misinformation. “Following changes to our recommendation systems in 2019, we saw a 70% drop in watchtime on non-subscribed, recommended borderline content in the U.S. and today, consumption of borderline content that comes from our recommendations is significantly below 1%,” said the Youtube spokesperson, Ivy Choi. YouTube defines borderline as content that “comes close to, but doesn’t quite violate” the company’s community guidelines. But for many years, Infowars was rewarded for spreading misinformation. An article titled "FBI Says No One Killed At Sandy Hook" racked up more than 3 million unique views; it was the third-most-viewed article on Infowars from early 2012 to mid-2019, according to a deposition in a Sandy Hook case. Infowars’ web traffic suffered after the mass deplatforming and decreased by about a third from September 2018 to September 2019, according to Similarweb, which tracks website data. But viewership remains robust. Traffic averaged nearly 10 million monthly visits between April 2021 and March 2022, though it temporarily shot up to 16.1 million in November 2020 – the month of the election, Similarweb data show. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jones’ audience skews heavily male — 72%, according to a 2016 Infowars <a target="_blank" href="https://static.infowars.com/partners/MediaKit2016.pdf">media kit</a>, a package of promotional materials that is intended to entice would-be advertisers. The report also said about half of the audience had gone to college, and 17% had also attended grad school — on par with <a target="_blank" href="https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2019/02/number-of-people-with-masters-and-phd-degrees-double-since-2000.html">national figures</a>.) Jones has been knocked down before, and his response then seemed to presage his response now. Much as he doubled down on the very 9/11 conspiracy theories that he said had cost him 70% of his stations in 2001, Jones has doubled down on the kind of misinformation that got him banished from Big Tech platforms. When Trump lost the 2020 election, Jones saw another opportunity for rabble-rousing. And this is where he began his latest and most dangerous phase – one in which the pool of possible victims expanded beyond the narrow confines of people whose lives are connected to any individual event. That December — with Congress set to certify the results of the election on January 6 — Jones went on a tear. He championed Trump’s infamous “Be there, will be wild!” tweet calling on supporters to come to DC to protest his loss. “The time for games is over,” Jones said. “The time for action is now. Where were you when history called? Where were you when you and your children’s destiny and future was on the line?” And though Jones sometimes hedged, saying he didn’t want violence, his broadcasts used violent rhetoric and invoked the idea of war.