Technology Policy Brief #64 | By: Maureen Darby-Serson | August 9, 2022
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Photo taken from: The New York Times / Briana Sanchez
Last month, conspiracy theorist Alex Jones was ordered to pay the families of the Sandy Hook massacre over $49 million in damages for spreading false claims that the mass shooting was a hoax. He was forced to pay to a group of parents that sued him and to an individual parent that sued him separately. And this is just one recent instance of a conspiracy theorist being forced to face the music after making hurtful claims about individuals or events.
Recently, there has been a significant increase in the number of defamation cases over misinformation and fake news. Many of these cases end in the defendant paying large sums to the plaintiffs for damages. How and why are these conspiracy theorists being told to pay this much money?
Defamation suits are lawsuits where one party (the plaintiff) sues another party (the defendant) because they have been “injuring their reputation”. So, Sandy Hook parents sued Alex Jones for saying that the mass shooting was staged and that they were all paid actors. The parents argued that this hurt their reputations. They won this argument.
How can Alex Jones pay that much money? Because he has made his $135 million fortune off selling misinformation to anyone who would listen. Many of the past defamation suits for defamation have been with major money makers.
For example, Fox News reached a settlement in 2020 to pay the family of a Democratic National Committee staffer who was shot during a robbery gone bad. But Fox News reported that this staffer was behind the 2016 presidential election leaked emails and he was murdered for leaking those emails. The leak turned out to have been carried out by Russian hackers.
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The question of why misinformation like this gets spread cannot be answered but at least the courts are getting it right and awarding the large sums of money conspiracy theorists make off of the pain of others to those who suffer the most.
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