‘The Truth vs. Alex Jones’: How Sandy Hook lies got peddled for profit

AUSTIN — Robbie Parker’s 6-year-old daughter, Emilie, had been dead for less than 48 hours, gunned down alongside 19 of her classmates and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School, when right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones went on Infowars and claimed Parker was “a soap opera actor” who’d made it all up.

All Parker had done was nervously laugh before giving a statement to the press about who his daughter was, the father says in the documentary, “The Truth vs. Alex Jones,” debuting March 26 on HBO. The movie premiered this month at South by Southwest in Austin, where Jones is based, stood trial and was once heckled at a chicken restaurant.

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But Jones was on a roll. He’d called the massacre of 20 children “a false flag” hours after it happened in December 2012 — “before the bodies were even cold,” as a lawyer for the parents says in a deposition for one of two defamation trials featured in the film that were eventually brought against Jones. Soon he was urging his listeners to pick apart video of Parker for evidence that the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history had been staged as an elaborate ruse by liberals to take away Americans’ guns. Immediately, Parker says in the film, Emilie’s memorial Facebook page became inundated with people who called her “a whore” and threatened to show up at their home with guns demanding proof that she was still alive.

This went on for 10 years. It’s still going on. Every time Jones aired another hoaxer theory, these grieving families would be hit with a fresh wave of vicious harassment: rape threats, death threats, people confronting them on the street. In the film, another mother, Jacqueline Barden, testifies in court that she and her husband received letters from people who said they’d peed on their son Daniel’s grave, or promised to dig it up, because they were convinced no one was in it. Yet another, Francine Wheeler, tells of how she was in an elevator at a conference for mothers who’d lost their children to gun violence when a woman told her that the mass shooting that killed her son Ben never happened.

“It’s just a drip, drip, drip of constant undermining of your feeling of safety and security while you’re trying to grieve for your 6-year-old child who was murdered unexpectedly in the classroom,” says director Dan Reed. “The cumulative harm is really I hope what comes out of the film.”

And even though Jones was ordered to pay nearly $1.5 billion to the families in 2022 — one lawyer called the Texas judgment “the most egregious defamation case in U.S. history” — the families have yet to see a cent. Jones has filed for bankruptcy while also being accused of reckless personal spending and shifting his money around to hide his assets.

He still broadcasts his Infowars show four hours a day, six days a week.

“In practical terms, Alex Jones has not been silenced yet. He may still be, but I doubt it,” says Reed, whose last project, “Leaving Neverland,” was a deep dive into the sexual abuse allegations against Michael Jackson. Reed, a Brit, spent four years making “The Truth vs. Alex Jones,” with ample access into the courtrooms and intimate, emotional interviews with the parents.

Jones didn’t agree to be interviewed for the film, though Reed says he chased him for years and has countless text messages from Jones. “He would leave me voice notes saying I was a mercenary with the establishment and he wasn’t going to watch my film, but in a fairly polite, cordial tone.” (Jones didn’t immediately respond to The Washington Post’s request for comment.)

But there is plenty of Jones speaking to the camera in taped depositions, as well as extensive footage from the courtrooms; the Texas judge allowed Reed to bring in two cameras and 10 microphones. Reed also had full cooperation from many of the Sandy Hook parents.

“They saw it as part of their mission to put an end to the lies that we’ve been told about their children, to get Alex Jones,” says Reed. “They put up with me for years and years and years, putting cameras in their faces and asking them about the worst day of their lives, and I’m very grateful to them.”

But nothing he documented in his film has really diminished Jones’s power and reach. “So, the bigger point is, ‘Well, is this now how we’re going to establish truth? By taking people to court with lawsuits that take years and years to unwind?’” says Reed. “… Trying to take your ex-president to court is proving very difficult, for telling lies on a vast scale.”

Long before Sandy Hook, Reed had heard of Jones as an entertaining blowhard who’d started out in Austin public access television, where he’d rant and rave while carving a pumpkin or wearing a tinfoil hat. Eventually, he began commanding a national audience with conspiracy theories about 9/11, fluoride and radiation from Fukushima, for which he sold iodine as a way to combat it. A subset of the internet even turned bits from his shows into “remixes” set to folk music and the like.

But the cult of Jones took an even darker turn with his Sandy Hook theories, which landed the hammer of harassment on grieving parents. “He’s calling them out for faking the deaths of their children and it just seemed completely extraordinary,” says Reed. “He’s the guy who exemplifies this trend toward fantasy and superstition in the breakdown of traditional media and its replacement by a kind of conspiracy candy. He’s the titan of that world.”

In the most damning parts of the trial footage, Jones treats the Texas courtroom like it’s his show, and at one point he practically gives an infomercial for his line of supplements, which he claims are made from the best ingredients, straight from Japan. He’s also reprimanded by the Texas judge, Maya Guerra Gamble, for lying on the stand about being bankrupt and for saying he complied with the plaintiffs — this is after Guerra Gamble has issued several default judgments and called him out for “flagrant bad faith and callous disregard” for court procedures, particularly in handing over discovery.

In both trials, his lawyers also mess up and hand the families’ lawyers evidence, such as a full history of his text messages that contradict Jones’s testimony on the stand. “He did treat the court like his studio and, from the expressions on the faces of the jury, I don’t think that worked very well,” says Reed.

The lawyers also show that Jones’s telling of Sandy Hook lies is directly tied to his income. Every time Infowars floated a hoax theory, viewership went up, as did sales of his supplements, measured by “spikes in engagement.”

And as Jones’s father and business partner, David Jones, testifies in a deposition, “We like to emulate spikes.” In other words, Jones’s business model was to lure viewers in with outrageous theories — regardless of the human cost to those parents — and then sell the Infowars audience things while they were there.

“You come for the outrage, you stay for the supplements,” says Reed. “They were experimenting with this novel kind of grift. All of these big conspiracy theories, from the former president of the United States down, they all have grift, right? There’s always a way of making money by conning people with lies. Alex Jones is a consummate con man, and this is one of his biggest cons and it makes him the most money.”

But Jones isn’t just portrayed as a buffoon. He’s charismatic enough that Scarlett Lewis, one of the parents suing him in Texas, brought him a water and four cough drops in the courtroom because he had been coughing and explained that his larynx was torn. He apologized to her and finally admitted that the attack was “100 percent real.” Parker, in Connecticut, admits that he can’t take his eyes off him.

“I think that’s one of the big reasons for Alex Jones’s success,” says Reed. “He tells lies with great conviction and this big, gruff personality and with a lot of humor, and I think people find that very easy to consume and very attractive.”

In the Texas trial, the family’s lawyer tells the jury that 24 percent of Americans, or 75 million people, believe that Sandy Hook was “either definitely or possibly staged.”

It’s just coincidence that the film is coming out in an election year, says Reed. Former president Donald Trump does appear in the film during an interview with Jones, who is a prominent supporter and attended many election-denial rallies in 2020 and 2021. “So there is that connection, [but] we didn’t want to make it too explicit,” says Reed.

Reed says he is not trying to make a film that changes the minds of any conspiracy theorists. “I think the point of the documentary is to mark a moment in time and say, ‘This is how we got here … and I think by doing this in a very detailed, very painstaking way, it can become a point of reference for us when we try to understand what’s happened in the world and how we got into the post-truth era. For me, Alex Jones’s lies about Sandy Hook were a turning point … of that dark kind of grift and lies becoming much more mainstream.”

And if truth can only be established now in a court of law, where does that leave us?

Currently, with Jones free to position himself as a champion of the First and Second amendments, who claims on air that he will never pay the money he owes. “I think he’s just going to make more money,” says Reed. “He’s going to become more high-profile as we approach the November election.”

correction

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the number of cameras and microphones that a judge allowed director Dan Reed to bring into a Texas courtroom. The article has been corrected.

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