“It took me about a year, with Sandy Hook, to realize that the whole thing was fake.” That’s what radio host and accused conspiracy theorist Alex Jones said on his InfoWars show in 2014. Now, eight years later, Jones is on trial in a defamation case in which two parents of children who died in a 2012 school massacre are seeking $150 million in damages.
Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis are seeking damages not only for emotional harm caused by claims the massacre was a “false flag” attack designed to push for stricter gun control laws, but also for death threats from people who believe in the conspiracy theory espoused by Jones .
At the center of the defamation trial are comments Heslin made in 2017 during a televised interview with Megan Kelly. Recalling the day of the Sandy Hook shooting, Heslin said, “I was holding my son with a bullet hole through his head.” Shortly after the interview aired, InfoWars host Owen Shroyer disputed Heslin’s claim, claiming the timeline of events made it “impossible” for her to hold her child.
The trial in Texas, which began July 25, is the first of three against Jones over his claims about Sandy Hook. Jones was found guilty of defamation in each case, and the trials are now deciding how much he will pay in damages. Here’s everything you need to know about the ongoing trial.
Who is Alex Jones and what is Sandy Hook?
Alex Jones is a media personality best known for his radio and YouTube show InfoWars. Jones, 48, is a conservative and an avid conspiracy theorist. Jones has championed conspiracy theories such as Pizzagate, the idea that a Washington DC pizzeria was involved in a child and sex trafficking ring sponsored by several high-ranking Democrats and, most recently, the discredited theory that Donald Trump won the 2020 election. helped finance pro-Trump rallies on January 5 and 6 that precipitated the siege of the capital.
A recurring theme in Jones’ theories is the concept of a “false flag” operation — an event staged to precipitate political action. He said the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, where one person died as white nationalists and neo-Nazis clashed with local counter-protesters, was a false flag operation “to try to bring down Trump.” He accused Jason Kessler, who organized the right-wing rally, of being a federal agent.
Sandy Hook was the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut at Sandy Hook Elementary School. In it, 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot and killed 27 people. Lanza first shot and killed his mother at home, then moved on to the school where he massacred 20 children and six adult staff members before killing himself.
Despite the strange conspiracies in which Jones engages, he enjoyed a large and influential audience. The YouTube channel for InfoWars had 2 million subscribers before it was booted from the platform in 2018 (.) Former President Donald Trump appeared on his show in 2015 when he was a presidential candidate.
InfoWars generated more than $165 million in revenue over a three-year period, InfoWars producer Daria Karpova said in court on July 29. Much of that money was through products sold on his website, including health supplements and survival gear.
What did Alex Jones say about Sandy Hook?
Of all the conspiracy theories espoused by Jones, the claim that Sandy Hook was a “hoax” is the most infamous. Jones at one point claimed the massacre was a false flag operation by the Obama administration, designed to speed up stricter gun laws.
“My guess is, with the timing and everything that happened, this was staged,” Jones said on the day of the massacre. He compared the shooting to Adolf Hitler’s 1933 plan to seize total power by burning down the German parliament and declaring martial law. “Why did Hitler blow up the Reichstag? To take control,” he said on the show, “why do governments set these things up? To get our guns!”
Jones began to question the legitimacy of the parents whose children were killed in the massacre. Before speaking to the media about his daughter’s death the day after the shooting, bereaved parent Robbie Parker was seen holding a folded sheet of paper. Jones claimed the paper was evidence of a conspiracy: “It appears members of the media or government have given him a card and are telling him what to say as they direct the reaction to this event,” Jones wrote on InfoWars.
Jones later claimed on InfoWars that several parents were laughing happily before giving media interviews in which they immediately burst into tears.
“The whole thing was a huge hoax,” Jones said in 2014. “It took me about a year, with Sandy Hook, to realize the whole thing was fake.”
Central to Jones’ defamation case against Heslin and Lewis are statements made on Sunday Night Live with Megyn Kelly in 2017 and a subsequent episode of InfoWars.
“I lost my son, I buried my son, I held my son with a bullet hole in his head,” Heslin said of his 6-year-old son, who was killed in the shooting. InfoWars host Owen Shroyer implied that Heslin made up some or all of the story on the June 26, 2017 episode of InfoWars.
“The fact checkers on this said [it] it can’t be true,” Shroyer said, according to court documents from 2018. “He claims he was holding his son and saw a bullet hole in his head. That is his claim. Now, according to the timeline of events and the coroner’s testimony, that is not possible.”
Testifying in court on July 28 and 29, Shroyer admitted he did not properly fact-check the report that listed his comments about Heslin’s claims.
Why did the parents receive death threats?
Several parents of children killed in the Sandy Hook massacre have reported receiving abuse and death threats from people they believe are actors in the staged event. “Alex lit the flame that started the fire,” Heslin said in court Tuesday. “Other people brought wood to add.”
One such perpetrator was a 57-year-old woman who was jailed in 2017 for sending a voicemail to a grieving parent saying “you are going to die, your death is coming soon”. Another man is in jail for approaching the sister of Victoria Soto, a teacher who was killed in the massacre, and “angryly accusing” that Sandy Hook never happened and that Soto “never existed.”
In testimony Tuesday, Heslin said he suffered abuse online and on the street, and that his home and car had been shot at. “My life is in danger,” he told the jury. “I fear for my life, I fear for my safety.”
Lenny Pozner, another father of a Sandy Hook victim, told Now This News in 2018 that his family had moved 7 times in the previous 6 years due to safety concerns. “Alex Jones is like [WWE] news,” said Posner, who also won a defamation lawsuit against Jones last year. “Some people enjoy it, they can suspend their disbelief and enjoy what they hear. Some people look at it and think it’s real.”
Jones defended himself by saying he never actively incited violence. “I never said you go to people’s houses,” Jones said at the 2019 Joe Rogan Experience.
What is a defamation trial?
Platforms like Facebook and Twitter have struggled with disinformation, as they find it difficult to strike a balance between preserving free speech and curbing harmful misinformation. Alex Jones himself played a key role in this balancing act, being among the first accounts profiled.
Alex Jones’ ongoing legal battles will determine whether US courts are an effective means of recourse for victims of harmful misinformation. “Speech is free, but you have to pay for lies,” Heslin and Lewis’ attorney Mark Bankston told the jury in his opening statement.
For his part, Jones is trying to recast the trial as a free speech debate. When he arrived in court on July 26, he came with a piece of tape tied around his mouth that read the phrase “save the first,” in reference to the First Amendment. “If questioning public events and free speech are banned because it might hurt someone’s feelings, we are no longer in America,” Jones said in a statement last month.
Jones went on to broadcast episodes of InfoWars, where he denounced the case as a “show trial” and a “distraction.”