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Shawn Vestal: The poisonous fruit of InfoWars has seeped into the nation one post at a time

Several years ago, I had a social-media interaction that I haven’t been able to forget.

Having posted a story about the Parkland shooting on Twitter, I received a reply from a pseudonymous account with a clearly doctored set of photographs purporting to show that some young people interviewed on TV as grieving Parkland students had been interviewed in other school shootings as well.

They were actors, in other words.

The shooting was a hoax.

This was not a bot, but a local person with an obscured identity, who expressed familiarity with me and Spokane. He had rushed to the ramparts of Twitter to show me this evidence he’d found that the shooting had been staged.

He had swallowed poison and was telling everyone it was fruit.

It seems naive now – now that the floodgates of false information are wide open and gushing – but that moment froze me with such disgust that I can picture it very clearly, still. I can feel it very clearly, still.

I was standing on the outdoor basketball courts at Roosevelt Elementary. I was supposed to be shooting hoops with my son, but instead I was looking at my dumb phone, sickened by another school shooting and appalled at the indifference and ignorance that were already flourishing around it.

What in the world was wrong with us?

Time has passed and it is no longer surprising or shocking to encounter someone on social media posting hateful falsehoods. Whatever it is that’s wrong with us – as a country of information consumers – has only worsened. Lies about mass shootings come with the exact regularity as the mass shootings themselves, and a significant percentage of us – 15% in one poll, 22% in another – believe that mass shootings are or might be hoaxes.

One dynamic surrounding the rise of the social-media-fueled conspiratorial alternative-universe – which has now seeped into such issues as the legitimacy of the elections and the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines – is that it is basically impossible to fight with facts.

Fact-checking a “false flag” story is like writing your dog a letter telling him not to eat vomit.

Your dog doesn’t read, and it really likes vomit.

I was reminded of that encounter this week with the news that Alex Jones, that gushing oil derrick of hateful lies, had been ordered to pay almost a billion dollars in damages in a lawsuit brought by the Sandy Hook parents.

Jones’ InfoWars website was one of the main sources – perhaps the main source – of “false flag” stories that appeared around the Sandy Hook shooting, repeatedly peddling the idea that it was “as phony as a three-dollar bill,” an act staged by government liars and their media accomplices who just want to take your guns.

The Deep State.

“Why did Hitler blow up the Reichstag – to get control!” Jones raged, in a representative sample. “Why do governments stage these things – to get our guns! Why can’t people get that through their head?”

This was good for business. During the trial, the attorneys for the family members of the Sandy Hook victims introduced evidence showing that Jones’ audience and daily revenues (from the sale of nutritional supplements, T-shirts and other merch) shot up in September 2014 as he began to make these claims.

A company official estimated that Jones made at least $100 million since he began peddling the Sandy Hook lies. His InfoWars show aired on 150 radio stations, and the website got 40 million page views a month.

So Jones lost his lawsuit, and was walloped with an astounding damages award. There is great satisfaction in that fact – and great satisfaction that, at enormous time and effort and expense, the Sandy Hook families were able to hold him accountable.

But even as the award was announced, Jones was on the air laughing about it, mocking the plaintiffs, gushing hateful lies.

Among decent folks, Jones suffered a tremendous loss.

Among Jones’ audience, though, it’s probably just time to step up their support. We don’t yet know what difference, if any, this will make in those quarters. Some folks, including “mainstream” figures like Marjorie Taylor Greene, are already holding him up as a victim, a free-speech martyr, a persecuted man of the people, a valiant enemy of the Deep State.

Even if the award completely takes Jones out of commission – which would be great, obviously – it can’t take away the poison he peddles. It’s flowing through our national bloodstream now.

Every mass shooting in this country is now accompanied by a conspiracy claim that it was a “false flag.” Every one. They bubble up in the obscure corners of the web, get shared on the far-right social media sites, and migrate to the mainstream ones. They’re originated by QAnon influencers and others of that ilk, and they spread on fringe media sites, and they’re shared by individuals on their own social media feeds.

Just regular folks participating in the discourse.

These claims get shared and repeated, liked and retweeted, even as the fact-checkers chase after them, hurling facts like cotton balls in the wind.

It’s the Sandy Hook template, on repeat.

“In all the shootings since Sandy Hook, there was this existing storyline,” Amanda Crawford, a journalist professor at the University of Connecticut, told the website Grid in a story earlier this year.

“They don’t need to prove that XYZ mass shooting wasn’t real. All they have to do is go, ‘Here’s all this stuff we put out there about Sandy Hook, and if the government did it in Sandy Hook, then they did it in Pulse, and they did it in the next shooting and the next shooting.’

“And so it’s just now this conspiracy overlay that they can put over any mass shootings.”

One post at a time.

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