On one day, Marcel Fontaine was “just a guy in his 20s from Massachusetts minding his own business,” said his attorney, Bill Ogden.
On the next, he was wrongly labeled as the mass shooter who killed 17 students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14.
Somehow Fontaine’s picture wound up in an article on the conspiracy theory website Infowars.com, headlined “Reported Florida Shooter Dressed as a Communist, Supported ISIS.” The article featured photos from the Instagram account of the actual alleged shooter, Nikolas Cruz. Then came a random photo of Fontaine. He was holding up a fist and wearing a red shirt parodying communist and Marxist leaders.
“Shooter is a commie,” was the caption below Fontaine’s photo.
Now, Fontaine is suing Infowars and its owner, Alex Jones, for defamation, claiming Infowars’ reckless decision to connect him to the shooting using his photo has “irreparably tainted” Fontaine’s image and led to harassment, even after the photo was removed.
Ogden, Fontaine’s attorney, told The Washington Post that thousands of people shared the article and Fontaine’s picture online, potentially reaching millions and reaching as far as China.
“He in no way is a person who wanted to be shoved into a limelight,” Ogden said of Fontaine. “It’s the feeling of helplessness that bothers him the most, because what do you do? You can’t go to everybody, telling them to take the picture down. You can’t explain yourself to every single person, because there’s just too many. He doesn’t have a platform like Infowars to come in and fix this all. Instead, he’s just a guy in his 20s in Massachusetts, sitting there lost trying to figure out what he’s supposed to do.”
Ogden said Fontaine first learned of the Infowars article after one of his Twitter followers recognized his picture in it and sent him the link. The actual photo was removed from the article within a day, with the headline changing to “Reported Florida shooter discussed ‘Allahu Akbar’ on his Instagram Profile.” The article did not mention Fontaine.
But the damage was done, the lawsuit says. Even after Fontaine’s photo was determined to be completely unrelated to the shooting, conspiracy-oriented Twitter users remained undeterred, with one even posting some kind of “facial analysis” between suspect Nikolas Cruz and Fontaine, saying Fontaine’s nose had been altered consistent with the use of “crisis actors,” according to the lawsuit. Others commented that he was a “thug,” “Commies aren’t people” and “The only good red is a dead red.”
As his photo spread across the Internet, Fontaine finally reached out to Infowars on Feb. 26 to request a correction that, according to the lawsuit, Infowars ignored. Infowars did not issue a correction and a retraction until Tuesday, the day after Fontaine filed the lawsuit. It read:
“On this webpage on February 14, 2018, we showed a photograph of a young man that we had received and stated incorrectly that it was an alleged photo of the suspected shooter at Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Infowars promptly removed the contents of this webpage within hours after posting on February 14, 2018. The young man whose picture was shown later contacted us and asked that we take the photo down, but we had already done so several days before. We regret that this error occurred.”
Infowars did not respond to a request for comment. The reporter behind the article, Kit Daniels, also did not immediately respond to questions about the source of Fontaine’s photo and what, if any, steps he took to verify the claim that it was the shooter. In the original story, Daniels wrote of Fontaine’s photo, “Another alleged photo of the suspect shows communist garb,” according to an archived version of the story included in the lawsuit.
“They took zero journalistic approach to their reporting,” Ogden said, “which is funny because they tout themselves as ‘truth journalism’ and are the first to attack mass media, calling articles they don’t agree with ‘fake news.’ ”
Infowars and Jones, who hosts “The Alex Jones Show,” are famous for peddling false conspiracy theories about tragic events. As he did after the Sandy Hook school shooting, Jones labeled the Parkland school shooting a “false flag operation” carried out by the “deep state” as part of its agenda to enact gun-control legislation, and also claimed that the Parkland students were “crisis actors.”
In April 2017, Infowars published a story titled “Idaho Yogurt Maker Caught Importing Migrant Rapists,” targeting Chobani. The following month, Infowars settled a defamation suit brought by Chobani, and Jones was forced to apologize, saying, “I regret that we characterized Chobani, its employees and the people of Twin Falls, Idaho, the way we did.”
“In sum, Infowars is a business built on the idea of generating revenue from the paranoia stoked by its reckless defamation,” Fontaine’s attorneys wrote in the lawsuit. “Defendants’ long history of dishonest and irresponsible reporting underscores the malicious nature of the defamatory conduct at issue in this lawsuit.”
Fontaine is seeking more than $1 million in damages.
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