These days, violent events such as mass shootings become breeding grounds for conspiracy theories. Recent lawsuits are trying to change that by targeting one of the main reasons for this trend: Alex Jones.
On Tuesday, three parents who lost children in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut sued Jones, alleging defamation. Jones once said that Sandy Hook was “completely fake with actors,” and his voice has grown louder since.
His main YouTube channel now has 2.3 million subscribers, double what it was three years ago. Part of that growth comes from his connection to President Trump, who in 2015 praised what he said was Jones’s “amazing” reputation.
Two other lawsuits, from targets of other conspiracy theories amplified by Jones, were filed over the past month.
“It’s clearly a moment where people are saying enough is enough,” Danielle Citron, a law professor at the University of Maryland who specializes in online privacy, said in an interview last month.
These lawsuits are part of a growing trend: A woman in Montana teamed up with the Southern Poverty Law Center to sue the neo-Nazi who ran the Daily Stormer, saying the site was harassing her.
Still, such cases are relatively untested legal territory. And Citron said that “bringing these sorts of lawsuits … comes with risk” of further harassment. But increasingly, that’s a risk the victims of conspiracy theories are taking.
Here is a breakdown of the three groups that have cases against Jones:
The Sandy Hook parents
Three parents who lost children in the Sandy Hook shootings are suing Jones for alleged defamation in two separate lawsuits, filed by the same Texas-based lawyers. The complaints say that Jones and other Infowars hosts were part of a “continuation and elaboration of a years-long campaign to falsely attack the honesty of the Sandy Hook parents, casting them as participants in a ghastly conspiracy and cover-up.”
Neil Heslin lost his son Jesse Lewis, 6, in the Sandy Hook shooting. Heslin is suing Jones and Infowars host Owen Shroyer.
In 2017, Megyn Kelly interviewed some of the targets of Sandy Hook conspiracy theorists as part of a report on Jones. Heslin spoke about his experience of the shooting’s aftermath: “I lost my son. I buried my son. I held my son with a bullet hole through his head.”
Shroyer responded to Heslin in a video a few days later by claiming it was “not possible” for Heslin to have held his son. According to the complaint, Shroyer’s claim was based on incomplete information about how the medical examiner’s office processed and identified the bodies of the victims after the shooting.
Jones re-aired Shroyer’s disproved accusation days later, saying, “Quite frankly, the father needs to clarify, NBC needs to clarify.” In that same segment, Jones said that “you can’t blame people for asking” whether Sandy Hook was a hoax.
The other parents suing Jones are Leonard Pozner and Veronique De La Rosa, who lost their son Noah Pozner in the mass shooting. Leonard Pozner has become one of the more visible victims of attacks from Sandy Hook conspiracy theorists, after he and his family were targeted for harassment. In July of last year, a Sandy Hook conspiracy believer was sent to prison for threatening Pozner.
The suit primarily has to do with a video from April of last year, “Sandy Hook Vampires Exposed,” in which Jones commented on a CNN interview between De La Rosa and Anderson Cooper. Watching the video, Jones said:
So here are these holier-than-thou people, when we question CNN, who is supposedly at the site of Sandy Hook, and they got in one shot leaves blowing, and the flowers that are around it, and you see the leaves blowing, and they go [gestures]. They glitch. They’re recycling a green-screen behind them.
In the one-hour video, which is still available on YouTube, Jones walked through several other points that conspiracy theorists cite as proof the shooting was faked. For instance, “they had porta-potties being delivered an hour after it happened, for the big media event.”
Each suit, filed in Travis County District Court in Texas (where Jones and Infowars is based), asks for more than $1 million in damages.
Jones and Shroyer have not commented on the lawsuits. Jones now says he believes children died at Sandy Hook but says he still believes there are “anomalies.”
The man who filmed the deadly Charlottesville protests
Brennan Gilmore was in Charlottesville on Aug. 12 when a car plowed through a group of counterprotesters who opposed a white-nationalist rally. His camera captured the car as it approached the group and then as it sped, backward, away from the scene.
It was the deadly incident that left 32-year-old Heather Heyer dead. James Fields, who has identified himself as a neo-Nazi, now faces a first-degree murder charge.
Gilmore tweeted the video. It went viral:
When The Washington Post spoke with Gilmore and his attorney Andrew Mendrala in March, he was still getting threats related to the conspiracy theory that developed around him, falsely accusing him of being a CIA operative who helped to stage the attack.
Gilmore is suing Jones and other right-wing Internet personalities, alleging defamation.
Jones said in one video that Gilmore “worked for John Podesta.” His YouTube channel showed videos of Gilmore on the news as Jones accused him of being a “State Department insider with a long history of involvement in psy ops.” An Aug. 20 Infowars video about Gilmore has more than 30,000 views on YouTube.
As a result of these conspiracy theories, “Gilmore was physically accosted on the street in Charlottesville by an unknown person,” the complaint said. In another incident, Gilmore received a letter at his parents’ address with a suspicious powdery residue and a letter explaining why Mr. Gilmore would “burn in hell.”
Gilmore and his attorneys at the Georgetown Law Civil Rights Clinic are specifically seeking a jury trial in a federal court in Virginia to “set a precedent,” Gilmore said.
The hope is that their case will “blunt their ability to do to others what they did to me,” Gilmore said.
Falsely labeled as Parkland shooting suspect
If you spent any time on the conspiracy fringes the hours after the Parkland school shooting in February, you might have seen Marcel Fontaine’s photograph. He’s wearing a red shirt with a hammer and sickle, his fist raised in the air. There are several figures on the shirt, including Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin. They’re holding red plastic cups, as if they are at a party.
Tweets falsely saying the photo depicted Nikolas Cruz got thousands of retweets on social media. As Snopes noted, 4chan had first posted and mocked Fontaine’s photo a few days before the shooting.
As the photo spread, the conspiracy Internet picked it up as an authentic image of the Florida shooter, citing it as proof of his political leanings. Infowars used the headline “Reported Florida Shooter Dressed as Communist, Supported ISIS.” That article now has a “retraction, clarification, and correction” at the top.
Although the image was on Infowars for a few hours, the lawsuit says Fontaine still faces “ridicule, harassment, and threats of violence” from those who believe it is authentic and that he is part of a “false flag” operation.
The suit was filed earlier this month in Travis County District Court in Texas, by the same team of attorneys representing the Sandy Hook parents.
Infowars did not return a request for comment on these lawsuits.