The bizarre political rise and fall of Infowars' Alex Jones

Key Points
  • Alex Jones has spent much of the past 23 years on the outskirts of political society, spreading conspiracy theories and lies.
  • With the rise of Donald Trump, a Jones supporter who has been described as the "human distillation" of the conspiracy theorists' paranoid worldview, Jones appeared likely to finally make it into the mainstream.
  • But now it seems the rise of Trump may have put Jones' fringe media empire in jeopardy.
Alex Jones from Infowars.com speaks during a rally in support of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump near the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S., July 18, 2016.
Lucas Jackson | Reuters

This was supposed to be Alex Jones' moment.

Jones has spent much of the past 23 years on the outskirts of political society, spreading conspiracy theories and lies about some of the most tragic events in modern American history. He is "almost certainly the most prolific conspiracy theorist in contemporary America," according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

With the rise of President Donald Trump, who has been described in media outlets as the "human distillation" of the conspiracy monger's paranoid worldview, Jones appeared set to finally make it into the mainstream. But now, amid a global backlash against the chaotic forces Jones helped propel, the social media companies that fueled his rise may have closed him out for good.

This, in turn, has sparked accusations of bias against Silicon Valley. Right-wing news site Breitbart on Wednesday published a video, shot soon after Election Day 2016, showing executives at Google and parent company Alphabet expressing displeasure at Trump's win, potentially playing right into the hands of conspiracy theorists like Jones, who preaches on his website and radio show that the top tech companies are out to get people like him.

For years, Jones had railed against global power structures that he said were conspiring to control the levers of power. At last, a politician was saying the same thing, and millions of people were hearing the message, not just on YouTube, but on television and in the pages of America's most widely circulated newspapers.

"You have an amazing reputation. I will not let you down," Trump told Jones in an interview from Trump Tower in December 2015.

Alex Jones and Sen. Marco Rubio square off outside Senate hearing
Alex Jones and Sen. Marco Rubio square off outside Senate hearing

It was a startling admission from the front-runner for the Republican nomination for president. Among the tragedies that Jones has said were orchestrated by the government: the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995; the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks; the 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school shooting, and the Valentine's Day 2018 shooting in Parkland, Fla.

They are all, to Jones and his followers, part of a grand, secret government operation designed to control people's minds and take away Americans' guns.

Conspiracy, Inc.

It was a worldview that Jones explored at 20 years old as a media personality in Texas, cultivated as a widely syndicated talk show host after 9/11, and later mastered with the rise of social media. With his rambling, paranoid videos on YouTube, and screeds on his websites Infowars, NewsWars and PrisonPlanet, Jones, who is 44 years old, reached an audience of millions each week for years.

Through sales of products such as Brain Force Plus, advertised as the "next generation of advanced neural activation and nootropics," the operation has raked in millions of dollars. The model is simple: Jones stokes fear — about the toxicity of fluoride, or the imminent apocalypse — and then sells products to remedy those fears, such as Superblue Fluoride-Free Toothpaste ($11.95) and the Infowars Life Survival Shield X-2 ($29.95).

Unlike typical talk show hosts, Jones does not make any money from the syndication of The Alex Jones Show, according to a 2017 New York Magazine profile of Jones' business model. Instead, Jones offers his shows to Genesis Communications Network, a syndication provider, for free. In exchange, Jones has access to hundreds of radio affiliates around the country, which he uses to hawk his wares.

"In effect," the article says, "Alex Jones is running a nationwide, daily, four-hour infomercial for his dietary supplements."

And the gig pays handsomely. Jones' operations were raking in more than $20 million a year in revenue by 2014, Jones has said in court testimony. On his show, Jones often sports a Rolex. Court records reviewed by The New York Times show he once bought four of those luxury watches in a single day. It's possible that Jones was also receiving payments for ads on his YouTube pages, though many of his major advertisers fled earlier this year after facing scrutiny.

But now it seems the rise of Trump may have put Jones' media empire in jeopardy.

The pitfalls of Trump and tech

With critics complaining about the role of "fake news" in contributing to the success of Trump and other far-right candidates around the world, as well as rampant harassment of minority groups and women, social media companies were forced into addressing demands from the public for more accountability.

"He kind of became a symbol for the tech companies' unclear, arbitrary enforcement of their terms of service, and their seeming misunderstanding of the moment they are in," said Angelo Carusone, the president of Media Matters, a left-leaning watchdog organization that monitors right-wing media.

That moment came to a dramatic head last week, when Jones heckled Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., outside a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. Lawmakers were prepping to grill Dorsey on his platform's role in spreading disinformation during the 2016 presidential election.

Just weeks before, Facebook, Apple and Google's YouTube largely removed Jones from their platforms after parents of children who died during the Sandy Hook massacre sued him, accusing him of inciting his followers to harass them and ruin their lives. Jones accused parents of the Sandy Hook students of being "crisis actors."

Jones' removal from the major social media platforms could spell disaster for his business, which is based on a constant stream of new followers buying his merchandise. And it compounded personal problems for Jones, whose wife successfully sued him in Texas court in 2017 over custody of the couple's three children, accusing him of being a "cult leader."

The court ruled to grant Jones' wife, Kelly Jones, the ability to dictate the residence for their children, and granted joint custody to both parents. Jones' attorney argued that Jones is not a cult leader but instead a "performance artist" and a satirist. Jones later rebutted his lawyer's argument, saying, "I believe everything I'm basically saying."

"I think you can call it downfall," said Jonas Kaiser, a researcher at Harvard University's Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, who has spent the past two years studying extremist attitudes online.

But experts warn that Jones' diminished public prominence — his "downfall" — may not be the last of him. Extremist ideology has a way of reappearing in unexpected ways. And Jones' followers believe the world is out to get them.

"Obviously we won't be able to know where he's going," Kaiser said. "The people who are following will follow him."

Jones did not respond to multiple requests for comment from CNBC, and Infowars did not make him available for an interview. The White House declined to comment.

From the fringes to the mainstream

Despite his broad reach and prolific output, Jones' impact on politics was relegated to the fringes for much of the first two decades of his career.

Starting in 1997, Jones put out his first documentary. In the time since, he has produced more than a dozen others, which he describes as documenting "the emergence of the New World Order, world totalitarian government, the steady erosion of the Constitution and national sovereignty in the United States, government corruption, corporate fascism, eugenics, martial law and the encroaching police state."

Trump's rise signaled that Jones could have a shot at moving away from the fringes. Millions of voters were lining up to support a candidate who also believed in conspiracy theories and in secret cabals who controlled the economy.

Trump's decision to appear on Jones' show in 2015 may have been an odd choice for someone running for president. But Trump was an unconventional candidate. At that point in the race, Trump's only serious challenge came from Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. Months later, Trump would falsely insinuate that Cruz's father was associated with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, providing no evidence for his claim.

The Cruz conspiracy theory was part of a uniquely Jones-ian pattern. Trump's political rise, after all, was predicated on his claims that former President Barack Obama was not a U.S. citizen. In his final campaign ad, Trump warned of the "global power structure" that controlled Washington.

It was an echo of the "all powerful shadow state" that Jones had been warning about for years, including in his 2009 documentary "The Obama Deception." And it was a preview of the attacks against the so-called "deep state" that Trump would lead as president.

Twitter permanently suspends Alex Jones and Infowars accounts
Twitter permanently suspends Alex Jones and Infowars accounts

"It is surreal to talk about issues, here on air, and then word-for-word hear Trump say it two days later," Jones said on his broadcast in 2016. In an in-depth profile of Jones published last year, Buzzfeed News called Trump the "human distillation of Jones' anti-establishment, anti-globalist, pro-libertarian, massively paranoid worldview."

To be sure, Jones' theories are more outlandish than anything that has emerged from the White House. While Trump rails against the mysterious "deep state" that is out to attack his presidency, and says special counsel Robert Mueller is leading a "witch hunt," Jones has accused Mueller of being a literal demon and a child molester.

Media Matters' Carusone said it was the extreme outlandishness of Jones' claims that made it impossible for the major social media companies to justify maintaining his pages.

"He became a symbol for the larger information problems that we are dealing with right now," Carusone said.

After his social media banning, Jones' public reach appeared to collapse. Despite an initial, immediate spike, readership on Infowars, and views of the videos posted to his main Facebook and YouTube pages, fell by about 50 percent in the three weeks following the ban, according to an analysis of traffic data conducted by The New York Times.

After years of cultivating a following, Jones had 2.4 million subscribers on YouTube at the time his account was removed. In comparison, Fox News has about 1.7 million subscribers. Trump's campaign account has fewer than 150,000.

While Jones maintains his internet broadcast, and has appeared on shows hosted by others, his main outlets for reaching new followers no longer exist.

Further into the darkness

After Jones' main social media accounts were taken down last month, he shot back on his show: "The more I'm persecuted, the stronger I get."

Experts say it may be too soon to assess what comes next for Jones. There is some evidence that barring hateful voices from social media — referred to as "deplatforming" or "no platforming" — can be effective.

Joan Donovan, a researcher at Data and Society, told VICE's Motherboard last month that there tends to be a rise in attention immediately following someone's removal from tech platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. But she said that "generally the falloff is pretty significant, and they don't gain the same amplification power they had prior to the moment they were taken off these bigger platforms."

Kaiser, the Harvard researcher, said that the bans will be a "huge blow" to Jones' ability to reach new audiences, citing his research on YouTube's recommendation algorithm. In his research, Kaiser found that Jones was often recommended to YouTube users who were watching content from Fox News.

Kaiser said that Jones was a far-right "beacon" — a sort of gateway who could bring conservatives looking for right-wing media into the extreme fringes via YouTube's recommendations.

Jillian York, the director for International Freedom of Expression for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, noted that deplatforming has historically been effective at reducing the power of white supremacist groups and terror organizations. But she noted that those groups are primarily focused on recruiting young, unsuspecting members.

"When we are talking about somebody like Alex Jones, I think it's a little different. I don't see him utilizing these platforms to recruit unsuspecting people. I see him as using them to rile people up in a frenzy, and then follow his lead," she said.

York warned that Jones could be made out to be a "martyr" in the eyes of many who subscribe to his ideology.

It's a talking point that those in Jones' orbit were quick to adopt.

"You succeeded in turning Alex Jones into a free speech martyr, meaning his message will become louder than ever," Paul Joseph Watson, an editor at Infowars, posted on Twitter following the first round of bans.

And even where social media companies have more success at blocking Jones' pages from reappearing, experts warn that blocking the man is not the same thing as blocking his ideology.

"It's not like the things that Alex Jones was saying are being scrubbed from these algorithms," Caruso said.

WATCH: Jones speaks ahead of tech exec hearings

Infowars' Alex Jones speaks ahead of tech exec hearings
Infowars' Alex Jones speaks ahead of tech exec hearings