A Texas civil court has found that Alex Jones defamed the parents of a young child killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre. He was ordered to pay $49 million in restitution, including punitive damages.
Among others, Jones was claiming that the massacre was a hoax, a government-level fake shooting. Let us consider some of the social consequences of the kind of conspiracy theorists Jones represents—what we might call, at a very basic level, Alex-Jones’s political economy. What I say below should not be interpreted as an argument in favor of defamation laws or as an argument against economic progress.
For almost all of mankind’s history, a person handicapped by social illiteracy or limited cognitive ability could only earn his keep as a low-level manual worker (which is certainly respectable) or a beggar, or at worst, at best. Snake oil traders or petty criminals. Economic progress and reduced communication costs have increased the ability of such individuals to work and influence the social world.
The reduction in communication costs has expanded the availability of information tremendously. Most of these are available online and are officially free. But the cost of discrimination between data bits has not decreased in the same proportion. Alex Jones, Paul Krugman, Census Bureau, OR The Wall Street Journal. The mere fact that there is quantitatively more information available means that, ceteris paribus, the cost of sifting through it has increased.
At virtually no cost to them, conspiracy theorists throw a barrage of alarming or curious information at their audience (see what was the most popular Sandy Hook conspiracy video), most of which are false or tendentiously interpreted. Most if not all of this little information can be checked, though often at high cost (travel, for example), and there is always another ad hoc explanation that can be invoked to save the conspiracy. Anyone with an internet connection and a cheap smartphone can access it. By some estimates, a quarter of Americans believed that Sandy Hook, where 10 young children and 6 adults were killed, was a government-organized hoax.
Such propaganda relies on the technique referred to by the “firehose of lies.” financial bar Columnist Gideon Rachman in his latest book The Age of the Strongman (Other Press, 2022); I am reviewing this book in the fall issue regulations, upcoming next month). Rachman wrote:
Vladimir Putin and his propagandists established the “firehose of lies” strategy as a basic political tool. The idea is to throw out so many different conspiracy theories and “alternative facts” (to use the phrase of Trump aide, Kellyanne Conway) that the truth becomes one version of events among many.
Conspiracy theorists not only cost less, but they can also make handsome profits if, like Jones, their gullible followers are anxious to buy physical snake oil. When I visited the Jones Infos site two days ago, the special deal was a “combo pack” of two bottles, “Survival Shield X2” and “Super Male Vitality,” at 40% off. For such enterprises, marketing costs have decreased along with communication costs—although, on the other hand, competition has become more intense.
In addition to spreading unimaginable lies, another consequence of the Alex-Jones of this world is that they compromise the serious ideas they claim to guard. Alex Jones and his ilk have kissed Judas for some libertarian (and classically libertarian) reason. His company name is “Free Speech Systems”. He claimed that the Sandy Hook hoax was organized by dark government forces because they wanted to “get our guns”.
Some people have such strong opinions that they cannot imagine they could be false. If their views are clearly and necessarily true, anything consistent with them or implied by them can happen, including conspiracies to suppress them. “Maybe”? If we ignore logic, they of course happened. From there, it’s not too hard to pull out odd factoids to support a conspiracy or invent events that must have happened.
I have explained in other posts how economic analysis strongly suggests that common “conspiracy theories” are invalid. See my “Epistemology, Economics, and Conspiracies” (EconLog, December 3, 2020) and two links to my previous post; And also “A disreputable Fringe” (EconLog, August 2018), partly about Alex Jones. Of course, some low-level conspiracies involving little risk happen all the time, and we must keep a critical mind.
Silencing the Alex-Jones cannot be the solution, because no one can be trusted to separate the brilliant innovators and innovators from the idiots. Only a free market of ideas can finally separate the chaff from the chaff. Trusting political authorities to distinguish between false and true statements can turn out to be fools. (In America and elsewhere, we’ve had some recent experience with this.)
The minimum knowledge required to discern the obvious lie brings into sharp focus the classical-liberal argument that some level of schooling is necessary in a liberal or democratic society. For example, Friedrich Hayek wrote (in his 1976 “Mirage of Social Justice,” vol. 2 Law, Legislation and Liberty In the new Jeremy Shirmur edition, p. 285):
Despite serious doubts as to whether the government should be allowed to govern them, there is much to be said for the government providing on an equal footing the schooling of those who are not yet fully responsible citizens.
Education helps us to recognize what we don’t know and to acquire some intellectual humility—or at least we can hope so. A clever category of knowledge to learn what you don’t know. One aspect of the complex problem is described by James Buchanan (pp. 16–17): “Whoever qualifies as a member of the stylized order of classical liberalism,” he believes, must
Either easy to understand principles [of social interaction] or desire to defer to those who understand.