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In the Alex Jones child custody battle, “fake news” went on trial — and lost

"Mr. Jones is like a cult leader. And we've seen the horrific damage cult leaders do to their followers."

In a custody battle, Alex Jones’ lawyers are claiming he’s merely a “performance artist.”
(Alex Jones/InfoWars)

Alex Jones and his well-cultivated persona suffered a blow in a Texas court room yesterday.

The conspiracy theorist, who counts President Donald Trump among his fans, wrapped up a two-week trial for an ongoing custody battle with his ex-wife, Kelly Jones. At the center of the trial was the question of whether Jones’s on-air shtick is, well, for real, and affected his ability to be a good father to his three children. The jury decided it is, awarding Kelly Jones control over the decision about where the children live.

If you’ve ever watched or listened to Jones’s Infowars (as I have), you’d come away steeped in a dark and distorted view of the world. Jones alleges that 9/11 was “an inside job,” that the Sandy Hook massacre was designed to get Americans to side with gun control, and that there’s a secret fungus epidemic spreading across the country and slowly killing Americans.

These bizarre claims, and many, many others, are often delivered in red-faced rants with Jones’s signature husky rasp. They’re framed, like most conspiracy theories, as truths the mainstream media and elites are hiding from public view. Jones is the bearer of the truth. As his Twitter profile reads, he’s “Fighting for Freedom & Liberty on the Frontlines of Truth Journalism.”

But his lawyers told a very different story in the custody battle: that Jones’s audience shouldn’t actually take him seriously.

They tried to build a case that he is merely a “performance artist” and his angry on-air rants are a “character” he plays on radio and TV. According to Austin American-Statesman reporter Jonathan Tilove, who has been following the case closely, the lawyers argue Alex Jones on Infowars is delivering “humor” and “sarcasm.” In reality, Jones is “kind and gentle.”

Jones also said Infowars is mere “satire.”

Kelly Jones’s lawyers built the opposite case. They said the Alex Jones you see on TV is the real deal. Offline, they argue, he is exactly the paranoid, unhinged, racist misogynist he appears to be on Infowars. According to BuzzFeed News, Kelly Jones has accused her ex-husband of being a “violent, cruel, and abusive man who engages in hate speech at home and in public” and has said “he’s enraged and out of control all the time.” Jones also broadcasts from home, where their three children are exposed to his sometimes shirtless, expletive-filled rants — a fact Kelly says may be harming them.

In closing arguments, her lawyer Robert Hoffman hammered their case home: "Mr. Jones is like a cult leader. And we've seen the horrific damage cult leaders do to their followers."

“Fake news” was on trial in the Jones custody battle

Can we pause for a moment to absorb how strange it is that the show’s creator and his lawyers legally defended Infowars as satire, sarcasm, a shtick. And while the jury didn’t buy their case, there’s a good chance many of his followers don’t know Jones is kidding. Many of them take him seriously enough to commit illegal acts based on the claims he makes.

Take, for instance, the so-called Pizzagate scandal late last year. Jones often talks about the pedophile rings that elites are helping to organize, and his suggestion that Hillary Clinton was running one out of a pizza restaurant in Washington, DC, was the reason a man walked into that shop with a gun last year threatening to kill people

This week, Jones got entangled in another legal skirmish that once again demonstrates how seriously people take him. On the show, he’s argued that the Chobani yogurt company’s practice of hiring refugees has brought “migrant rapists” and tuberculosis to areas near their factories. The claim has activated his audience, prompting people to boycott Chobani products, and the company is now suing Jones for what it says are “false” and “defamatory” reports.

The president of the United States, meanwhile, has applauded Jones and perpetuated falsehoods that originated on the show, like the suggestion that Clinton and Obama started ISIS and that the election was rigged. Along with Breitbart and Fox News, Infowars was also one of the keys sources of information for conservatives in the last election. And Jones’s audience is growing: He is now broadcast on some 150 radio stations, with a website that reaches more than 6 million unique US users each month and a YouTube channel that has more than 2 million followers — numbers that rival mainstream media outlets.

When I surveyed members of the Infowars audience last week, many of them told me they turned to Jones for independent information — a new perspective from a mainstream media they no longer trust. (One fan replaced NPR with Infowars.)

They listened to Jones because he tapped into something Donald Trump also identified in the last election: the erosion of faith in institutions. Like Trump, Jones reflects a distrust of elites and experts, and the (valid) feeling among many Americans that their concerns are going unheard. In the same way Trump’s many gaffes and scandals failed to hurt him in the last election, the Jones revelations in this custody battle are unlikely to lose him many followers. As one fan told me, the mainstream coverage of the trial is just “spin” anyway.