September 10, 2018 at 6:44 PM
The tech industry’s bans of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones over repeated allegations of hate speech have left intact key elements of his moneymaking machinery — digital storefronts that sell apparel, survivalist gear and nutritional supplements.
And business, so far at least, appears to be booming.
Digital storefronts on these and other platforms funnel traffic to a website where transactions take place, Infowarsstore.com, that has not been affected by the industry crackdown on Jones. It had 1.15 million visits in August, up 55 percent compared with June, the last month before the recent controversy started, according to SimilarWeb, an analytics tool.
The digital storefronts offer T-shirts picturing Jones with a piece of tape over his mouth saying “CENSORED,” as well as dozens of other Infowars-branded products, such as Super Male Vitality and Survival Shield supplements. Jones regularly touts these in his radio broadcasts and videos, and much of the advertising on his remaining online sites direct traffic to Infowars product offerings.
Jones’s ability to keep digital commerce flowing even as he rails against “Big Tech” also shows how adept he has been at using the industry’s tools, including web hosting services, payment systems and digital advertising networks.
His sprawling network, which recently included more than 90 digital accounts that bear his name or Infowars’, exploits the inconsistencies in how technology companies police users of their platforms — potentially exposing the companies to further criticism from congressional Republicans that they unfairly silence conservative voices such as Jones.
“Bans of Alex Jones and his affiliated network of Infowars accounts have yet to affect the brand's main revenue generator — the storefront and e-commerce operations,” said Jonathan Albright, research director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, who has studied traffic to Infowars Store online accounts. “When Jones makes the headlines, there is a distinct pattern of traffic surges to Infowars properties, including the store website.”
Albright found that traffic to Infowarsstore.com spiked on Aug. 7, the day after several tech companies banned him and removed large amounts of videos and other content for what they said were violations of hate speech, according to several analytics tools. There is not yet enough data to analyze visitor flows in September, he said.
Albright also found that, in August, more than 60 percent of visitors to Infowarsstore.com next visited PayPal, suggesting a high rate of sales. He also measured the effectiveness of several targeted Facebook ads, touting such products as fluoride-free toothpaste and camping gear pitched to survivalists, and found more than 1.5 million clicks that took users to Infowarsstore.com.
Jones, in an audio text responding to requests for comment from The Washington Post, didn’t address questions about his online retail sales or his clashes with technology companies. Instead he said, “I know you’re going to try to continue on trying to shut down commerce in America and terrorize people and bully people. … So make up whatever you’re going to make up. Don’t pretend that you’re journalists.”
Jones, however, defended Infowars’ nutritional supplements, which range in price from about $20 to more than $60 per bottle. “Our supplements have been tested all over the country and are amongst the safest and best out there,” he said in his audio message. “They’re high quality.”
The supplements’ value has been called into question by a series of lab tests. San Francisco-based testing firm Labdoor reported testing six of the Infowars supplements last year, finding them not dangerous but scientifically “questionable” in their value, according to a post on its website. BuzzFeed first reported on these findings.
The Center for Environmental Health, a nonprofit group based in Oakland, Calif., also tested several Infowars supplements and found that two of them, Caveman Paleo Formula and Myco-ZX, had levels of lead that exceeded California standards. The nonprofit group initiated legal action in October, and a representative for the group said it is negotiating with Infowars to have the lead levels reduced.
Jones and Infowars, based in Austin, once sprawled across nearly every major digital platform, touting conspiracy theories such as Pizzagate and allegations that the U.S. government had a role in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and that notorious school shootings were staged by actors. Parents of two children killed during the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012 have sued Jones for intense emotional distress for claiming that the mass killing was a hoax.
Albright found that of more than 90 digital accounts affiliated with Jones, 16 were Infowars stores or other commercial accounts. As he was assembling the list last week, all of these commercial accounts were still active — even in cases where the same company had closed other accounts Jones controlled.
Since then, Apple on Friday removed the “Infowars Official” app from its App Store. The app had a shopping tab that linked back to the Infowarsstore.com website. Apple said in a statement that the app, which also carried videos that Apple had removed from other services, was “in violation of App Store guidelines.”
YouTube, which last month closed several channels related to Jones and Infowars, closed the Infowars store over the weekend. In a statement, YouTube said, “When users violate these policies repeatedly, like our policies against hate speech and harassment or our terms prohibiting circumvention of our enforcement measures, we terminate their accounts.”
Twitter has left open an Infowars Store account that offers apparel and nutritional supplements despite banning Jones and several of his accounts. The company said in a tweet last week, “We will continue to evaluate reports we receive regarding other accounts potentially associated with @realalexjones or @infowars and will take action if content that violates our rules is reported or if other accounts are utilized in an attempt to circumvent their ban.”
Facebook removed several Alex Jones and Infowars pages for violating hate speech guidelines last month. Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said the Infowars stores on Facebook and its photo-sharing platform, Instagram, haven't violated any policies and remain open.
Both Amazon.com and eBay have Infowars storefronts on their sites. An eBay spokesman said the store does not violate company policies. Amazon declined to comment. (Amazon founder Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Elizabeth Dwoskin in San Francisco contributed to this report.