In the 2010s, no conspiracy theorist was more notorious than Alex Jones. As the face and founder of the American misinformation and disinformation outlet InfoWars, Jones has spent more than two decades promoting and disseminating lies on his daily talk show – topics have included anti-vaccination theories, the New World Order, Pizzagate and, initially, QAnon. In doing so, he entered the media mainstream and accrued millions of followers – as well as endorsements from famous politicians and TV personalities. (Jones infamously appeared on Piers Morgan’s CNN programme in 2013; and in late 2015 even Donald Trump appeared on Jones’s InfoWars show when he was a Republican nominee.)
But Jones’s fall from grace was just as dramatic as his rise. When social media platforms were put under closer scrutiny for the content they hosted at the end of the last decade, calls for Jones to be removed increased. By 2020 he had been permanently banned from Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter. Jones toiled in relative obscurity afterwards – streaming his daily rants solely on his website, away from traditional social media – and largely disappeared from public life. Even within alt-right circles, Jones was increasingly seen as a villain rather than the hero of a new movement, largely due to his claim that the 2012 Sandy Hook mass shooting, in which 20 children were murdered, was a hoax. (When Elon Musk took over Twitter, he specifically said Jones’s account would not be reinstated, adding that he had no sympathy for someone “who would use the deaths of children for gain, politics or fame”.) Last year, Jones was sued for these claims by the parents of children killed in the attack and ordered by a court to pay them almost $1.5bn. He has yet to do so. By the end of 2022, Jones had filed for bankruptcy. That verdict seemed to be a final blow to his public career.
However, in the past month Jones has crept back towards the mainstream in the US. In early December the right-wing American TV presenter Tucker Carlson hosted an interview with Jones on his Twitter talk show. The pair discussed conspiracy theories such as the new world order as well as the upcoming election. The interview has been viewed 23 million times. Just days later, Musk himself decided to run a poll letting Twitter users vote on whether Jones should be allowed back on the platform. After a majority voted to lift Jones’s ban, his account was reinstated. Musk even hosted a live conversation between himself and Jones, along with the controversial Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy and the misogynist influencer Andrew Tate, which peaked at 2.3 million listeners. Jones now posts on Twitter daily to his 1.8 million followers – 900,000 more than he had when he was originally banned.
That Jones’s return – again, just a year after the Sandy Hook ruling – has been so accepted among the alt-right establishment and led to an increase in followers, shows how significant his influence still is, despite having been blocked from mainstream platforms for half a decade. It also emphasises the significance of a social media presence (after being effectively invisible for the last five years, he is now reaching millions daily). His temporary disappearance may prove to have been just a blip. Jones’s comeback reflects the chilling reality we have come to learn about conspiracy theorists, and their theories more generally: a dedicated following can springboard them to wider notoriety.
We seem to be forgetting this lesson. There has been a sense that the era of the alt-right is waning, seemingly evidenced by Jones’s conviction and bankruptcy, Trump’s election loss in 2020, and the fact that many alt-right figures of the 2010s have lost momentum. It has been suggested that populations are more alert to misinformation now than in 2016, with further proof found in the defeat of ruling right-wing parties, or the likelihood of defeat in coming elections. We consider ourselves wiser about conspiracy theories and fake news, and – even if they are still out there – believe that reason and truth is winning out. On this basis, there is little concern when a provocateur such as Jones reappears.
Even if his re-emergence is the last gasp of a dwindling career, it’s not true that we are closer to tackling the problem of misinformation. Since May, the number of fake news sites has increased by more than 1,000 per cent, according to the watchdog NewsGuard. This is a concerning rise, especially given that a recent YouGov study found many American adults still struggling to identify real and fake headlines. We are heading into a US election year in which Trump is leading Joe Biden in most major polls. The voters who bought into conspiracy theories in the past decade haven’t disappeared – these are issues that will certainly re-emerge at the next presidential election.
Jones’s return is a warning – we must not be naive to the power of conspiracy theorists and the ideas they promote, and not overestimate their perceived obsolescence. Today’s social and cultural conditions are similar to those that led to Jones’s rise 20 years ago: the same false optimism that a social ill was being defeated. Falling into the same trap may herald his return – as well as many more figures like him.
[See also: How permanent are our digital memories?]