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How Alex Jones turned the Parkland shooting into a week-long news cycle about himself

Alex Jones uses a megaphone to speak to crowds near the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland. (Brian Blanco/European Pressphoto Agency)

The loyal fans of Infowars grabbed their pitchforks, as their enemies started to make popcorn. On Saturday night, it appeared as though Alex Jones and his empire of conspiracy theories were about to be banned from YouTube for good.

“The Alex Jones channel with billions of views is frozen,” Jones tweeted in an emergency message to his followers. “We have been told it will be deleted tomorrow.” The tweet linked to “Infowars Censored,” a new YouTube channel he created two days before that has amassed 17,000 subscribers.

“Infowars Censored” has the feel of a makeshift bunker, where instead of his studio, Jones broadcasts from his kitchen table, and claims that YouTube is infringing on his speech by banning the videos in which he criticizes student gun control activists who survived a mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla. “They banned videos where I’m saying they’re not crisis actors, it’s a real shooting, they’ve just been Democratic Party operatives and have been scripted in what they’re saying,” Jones said, clutching two pages of handwritten notes. The video also was shown live on Facebook.

But YouTube says Jones’s dramatic version of events isn’t quite true: Jones was not told by YouTube that his main channel, which has 2 million subscribers, would be deleted Sunday. That’s not even how account termination works. (Jones did get one recent communication from YouTube notifying him that some advertisers were asking to have their ads removed from his videos, in response to his Parkland-related commentary.)

Algorithms are one reason a conspiracy theory goes viral. Another reason might be you.

This cycle should be familiar to anyone who has watched Jones work before: A controversy about something Jones has said inevitably becomes, for him, fodder for even more videos and conspiracies. Over the past week, Jones has sparred on Twitter with a Parkland survivor, made several videos about that fight, and posted video after video about how, Jones said, YouTube was trying to censor him. The YouTube ban drama captivated his fans and detractors alike — even as that narrative turned out to be not quite what it seemed. And the result often matters less than the attention Jones can siphon from the mainstream media in the meantime.

Here is how the latest cycle happened:

‘This will be hyped tomorrow.’

Jones has long questioned the basic facts of mass shootings in the United States, once saying that the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School was “completely fake with actors.” But now he says that the shooting happened, even though he thinks there were “anomalies.” When reporters bring up his past comments about Sandy Hook, he turns around and accuses the media of slander.  

If your first instinct after a tragedy such as the Parkland shooting is to worry about your gun rights, it becomes easier to suspect its victims and survivors. And Jones began preparing his audience to suspect the official story about the massacre in the first moments after it was reported.

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“It’s as if the media advertises, ‘This is where you go where no one’s armed to shoot you,’ ” Jones said to Republican political operative Roger Stone in one video from the day of the shooting. “And then it’s almost always some crazed leftist or weird Islamicist that’s done it, and the left keeps saying, ‘If you expose us on the memo, there’ll be big massacres blamed on you.’ “

Stone chimed in: “This will be hyped tomorrow. Jake Tapper and Wolf Blitzer and Ana Navarro will be using this yet again as an excuse to take away our firearms.”

Jones said, “If there is any Islamic connection, you can bet your bottom dollar there’ll be no coverage of it.” 

Then, Stone said, “Alex, we’re praying for the families.”

‘They’re actors! They’re actors!’

In the days after the Florida shooting, Jones started talking more and more about Parkland student David Hogg. Conspiracy theorists had accused Hogg and his activist classmates of being “crisis actors,” or paid actors who pretend to be victims of a tragedy to advocate for gun control.

Last week, CNN reported that Jones was one of three disciplinary “strikes” away from getting banned from YouTube. An Infowars video called “David Hogg Can’t Remember His Lines in TV Interview” was to blame — it has since been removed from YouTube. Jones later said his channel received a second strike for another video about Hogg, bringing him one strike away from a ban.

Although Jones has said that Infowars never accused the Parkland students of being fake, he hardly has to explicitly spell out the “crisis actor” conspiracy theory  to allude to it. In one video, Owen Shroyer, host of Infowars’s “War Room,” repeatedly bellows, “They’re actors! They’re actors!” and then reveals his justification for that claim: The students were members of the drama club at their school.

Get it? This, Shroyer argued, was why anyone saying Infowars was promoting the crisis actors conspiracy theory was fake news. Infowars seemed to be walking the line between winking at conspiracy theories and explicitly promoting them.

‘David Hogg has backed down. He said he will never debate an evil horrible person like me.’

As rumors that Infowars might be banned from YouTube spread, Jones made his most dramatic transformation: If YouTube and his critics were going to claim that he was bullying a kid, Jones inverted the whole thing to claim that it was the teenager who was the real bully.

That teenager was Hogg. On Feb. 27, Hogg  tweeted, “Hey Alex Jones you seem to be really confused as to what I do/who I am I’d love to come on and clear some of this up because clearly as a s— journalist you can’t clearly.”

How a survivor of the Florida school shooting became the victim of an online conspiracy

After Hogg chided Jones again, Jones saw an opportunity, and asked him to come on the show. “I notice you’re calling me a “s— journalist” and “snake oil” salesman when I have never called you any disparaging names,” Jones added.

But Hogg had already moved on to tweeting memes about the Infowars host.

Jones responded to this tweet in a YouTube video about Hogg’s offer to talk to him. “You can see how much softer I was, how much more toned I got,” Jones said, looking at Hogg’s tweet.

By that afternoon, Jones had posted yet another video about Hogg.

“Here’s the big breaking news,” he said. “David Hogg has backed down. He said he will never debate an evil horrible person like me.”

He shuffled through the pile of papers on his desk until he found a printout of the tweet he wanted to show.

Jones then repeated the implication that someone must be coaching Hogg. “Man you can see his tweets, they sound like about a 10 year old wrote them, and then there’s these tweets on his Twitter, which you know — I’m allowed to say — do not sound like the same person.”

He also responded on Twitter:

‘YouTube purge’

Later in the week, Jones’s claims of YouTube censorship got some backing from YouTube itself, when the company admitted that its new moderators had overreached, adding strikes to channels that hadn’t violated YouTube’s community guidelines. Although Jones and others said the mistakes were an attempt to “purge” right-wing voices from the platform, The Post reported last week that the mistakes also targeted some left wing and mainstream channels.

YouTube’s mistaken ‘purge’ highlights new peril for video giant

YouTube has long struggled with transparency and consistency while enforcing its own rules, a problem that remains even as YouTube begins to contend more seriously with the effect its recommendation algorithms have on promoting conspiracy theories. In this case, YouTube managed to participate in one.

As of Tuesday, Jones may or may not be on the verge of a YouTube ban. But the threat of one was enough to shower him with mainstream media attention, as both Jones and the news outlets he loathes covered his YouTube drama iteratively.

By the end of last week, Jones had turned the controversies into a fundraising marathon, Operation Paul Revere. Infowars streamed for 34 hours straight, encouraging supporters to buy its merch and make donations.

Meanwhile, the day after Jones claimed that his YouTube channel was about to be destroyed, Infowars started uploading to the main Jones channel again. One of the first videos that day was called, “IS THIS THE LAST VIDEO OF ALEX JONES ON YOUTUBE?”

As of this writing, Infowars has uploaded 39 videos since.

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