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 damages, including damages- punitive interests.
Among other things, Jones had claimed that the massacre was a hoax, a fake shooting organized by the government. Consider some social consequences of the kind of conspiracy theorists that Jones represents – what we might call, at a very basic level, the political economy of the Alex-Jones. What I say below should not be construed as an argument in favor of defamation laws, nor as an argument against economic progress.
For almost all of human history, an individual handicapped by social illiteracy or limited cognitive abilities could only earn a living as, at best, a low-level laborer (which of course is honorable) or a beggar or, at worst, a snake oil peddler or petty criminal. Economic progress and the reduction of communication costs have considerably increased the capacity for action and influence of these individuals in the social world.
The reduction in communication costs has dramatically expanded the availability of information. Much of it is available online and is officially free. But the cost of discriminating between bits of information has not decreased in the same proportion. It still takes research time and prior accumulated knowledge to determine where the truth lies in information disseminated by, say, Alex Jones, Paul Krugman, the Census Bureau or the the wall street journal. The mere fact that there is quantitatively more information available means that, ceteris paribus, the cost of examining them has increased.
Virtually at no cost to them, conspiracy theorists hurl at their audience a slew of disturbing or intriguing little facts (see what was the most popular conspiracy video on Sandy Hook), most of which are false or misinterpreted. Most if not all of these small facts could be verified, although often at great 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 believe Sandy Hook, where 20 young children and 6 adults were killed, was a government-organized hoax.
This propaganda is based on the technique of the “fire hose of lies” mentioned by FinancialTimes columnist Gideon Rachman in his recent book The age of the strong man (Other Press, 2022); I review this book in the fall issue of Regulation, to be published next month). Rachman writes:
Vladimir Putin and his propagandists have established the technique of a “firehose of lies” as a fundamental political tool. The idea is to dismiss so many different conspiracy theories and “alternative facts” (to use the phrase of Trump aide Kellyanne Conway) that the truth simply becomes one version of events among many.
Not only do conspiracy theorists incur low costs, but they can make handsome profits if, like Jones, they have gullible followers willing to buy physical snake oil. When I visited Jones’ Infowars site two days ago, the special offer was a two-bottle “combo pack”, “Survival Shield X2” and “Super Male Vitality”, at 40% off. For such businesses, the cost of marketing has gone down with the cost of communications, although, on the other hand, the competition has become fiercer.
Besides spreading implausible lies, another consequence of the Alex-Jones of this world is that they compromise serious ideas by pretending to be their defenders. Alex Jones and his ilk have given Judas kisses to a few libertarian (and classic liberal) causes. His company is called “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 are unable to imagine that they could be wrong. If their views are demonstrably and necessarily true, anything consistent with them or implied by them could have happened, including conspiracies to suppress them. “Maybe happened”? If we ignore logic, they to have to come. From there, it’s not too hard to unearth weird facts to back up the plot or make up facts that must have happened.
I have explained in other articles how economic analysis strongly suggests that the typical “conspiracy theory” is invalid. See my “Epistemology, Economics and Conspiracies” (EconLog, December 3, 2020) and its two links to my previous articles; and also “A Disreputable Fringe” (EconLog, August 2018), partly about Alex Jones. Of course, some low-level, low-risk conspiracies happen all the time, and we have to keep a critical eye.
Silencing the Alex-Jones cannot be the solution, for distinguishing brilliant eccentrics and innovators from fools cannot be entrusted to anyone. Only a free market of ideas can ultimately separate the wheat from the chaff. Trusting political authorities to separate falsehoods from true statements can turn into confident fools. (In America and elsewhere, we’ve had recent experience with this.)
The minimum knowledge needed to discern obvious lies highlights the classical-liberal argument that a certain level of education is necessary in a liberal or democratic society. Friedrich Hayek, for example, wrote (in his 1976 “The Mirage of Social Justice”, Vol 2 of Law, legislation and freedom in the new edition of Jeremy Shearmur, p. 285):
There is also much to be said for the State to provide on an equal footing the means of schooling for minors who are not yet fully responsible citizens, even if there are serious doubts as to the advisability of leaving the state administers them.
Education makes it possible to acquire the capacity to recognize what one does not know and to learn a certain intellectual humility, or at least one can hope. Knowing what you don’t know is a tricky area of knowledge. One aspect of the complex problem has been described by James Buchanan (pp. 16-17): “the person who qualifies to belong to the stylized order of classical liberalism”, he believes, must have
either an understanding of simple principles [of social interaction] or a willingness to defer to others who understand.