Reviews | Alex Jones and the Wellness-Conspiracy Industrial Complex
When Owen Shroyer, a presenter and reporter for Infowars, spoke late last month in the libel trial of his boss, far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, he was asked about the many health products for sale on the Jones website. Among them: diet pills, fluoride-free toothpaste which, according to Jones, “kills the whole SARS-corona family at close range” and InstaHard, a supplement whose purpose I probably do not have to specify.
“Do you know if any of them have been tested to see if they work or if they are good at all?” asked an attorney for Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, whose son Jesse was killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.
“Well, we test the products on our own,” Shroyer said.
“You mean you take them?
“And you’re still here, so you must be fine?”
“Yeah. It works for me.”
Jones’ trial was a spectacle, full of bizarre asides from Jones and embarrassing mistakes from his attorneys, and I was not surprised when Jones lost big. He has claimed for years that the Sandy Hook shooting was a hoax — a false flag operation staged by the left to bolster the case for gun control. His lies added to the grief of parents who lost children at Sandy Hook; Last week, at the culmination of this first of several defamation cases brought by parents, a Texas jury awarded Heslin and Lewis nearly $50 million in damages.
But it was what the lawsuit revealed about Jones’ finances and how Infowars operated as a business that I found most intriguing. In particular, we’ve seen how incredibly lucrative Jones’ schtick can be and, despite the parents’ victory, how difficult it could be to block the money flowing to conspirators like Jones.
The problem lies in the symbiotic relationship between bogus, unregulated health products and bogus political claims. Call it the welfare and conspiracy industrial complex. Jones produces a relentless barrage of outrageous, thin-sourced, or outright misleading content in hopes that some of it will go viral. When people click on the stories and land on his site, they are bombarded with advertisements for snake oil. He claims to offer people truths they won’t get from the mainstream media, but that’s backwards. Conspiracy theories are best seen as a marketing tool for its real products – InstaHard, BodEase, Diet Force and all sorts of oils, tinctures and supplements.
Jones was one of the pioneers in linking external remedies to external political demands, but he is not alone. Over the past decade — and particularly during the pandemic — the internet has been overrun with influencers peddling what some researchers have called conspiracya worldview that blends New Age ideas of alternative health with a Trump-era penchant for alternative facts. The Los Angeles Times reported last year that leftist welfare circles in California had become fertile ground for the QAnon conspiracy theory. The crossover has been particularly evident in the anti-vaccine movement. Today, vaccine skeptics are more comfortable on the MAGA-loving political right, but some of the movement’s early supporters, like Robert F. Kennedy Jr., were more closely aligned with the left. As Rolling Stone said, “anti-vaxxers got pounded red.”
The comfort between feel-good ideas and conspiracy theories seems odd, but when you dig into these movements, you find considerable overlap. Matthew Remski, a journalist who covered the link, argued that wellness philosophies are rooted in beliefs that “nothing is as it seems”, “everything happens for a reason”, and “everything is connected”. This set of beliefs, he wrote, “laid out a cognitive and psychological welcome mat for conspiratorial fascinations, up to and including QAnon.”
Stephanie Alice Baker, a sociologist at the City University of London who studied wellness influencers, said there is a quest for “purity” and “awareness and awareness” at the heart of wellness culture, which makes it particularly vulnerable to conspiracy thinking. She told me that she noticed that the prevailing practices in wellness – things like doing a cleanse, taking supplements to rid your body of vague “toxins” and experiencing “ascension” or “the awakening” – shared an underlying moral framework with political slogans like “Drain the swamp” and “Make America Great Again”. People who have refused to be vaccinated against Covid often indicate a feeling of being clean; some even called themselves purebloods.
Then there is a shared distrust of elites. Many of Jones’ conspiracy theories ask readers to be skeptical of mainstream media and government authorities. Its health products make similar claims; many are touted for their origins in Eastern medicine or because they annoy the Food and Drug Administration, big pharma, and multinational biotech corporations.
In politics and health, these influencers see themselves as “providing refuge from the mainstream, which they view as compromised and corrupt and associated with conformity,” Baker said.
But beyond the philosophy, there’s the money: Selling unregulated health products is big business. Bernard Pettingill Jr., a forensic economist hired by the plaintiffs in the Jones lawsuit, testified that Free Speech Systems — the legal entity under which Jones operates Infowars — averaged $55 million in annual revenue sales in the Infowars store from 2016 to 2019.
In 2018, Facebook, YouTube, Apple and other tech companies kicked Jones out of their services, but while the platform reduced Jones’ reach, it didn’t really affect his business. Plaintiffs’ lawyers present text messages from its employees — part of a cache of messages its lawyers mistakenly sent to plaintiffs — that showed the company sometimes earning $700,000 or $800,000 a day after the deplatform. Free speech generated $65 million in revenue in 2021, Pettingill testified.
The numbers also suggest that much of the money was profit. A text message from Infowars COO revealed that out of $110,000 in packaged survival food sales – you know, to eat when the new world order takes over or something – nearly $70,000 was “ pure profit”. Jones testified that margins varied by product. “Some products are 20%. Some products do 60%,” he said.
Plaintiffs’ attorney argued that the only way to stop Jones’s string of lies was to hit him with a judgment high enough to put him out of business forever. But I’m not sure that’s possible. For one, there’s a question about how much Jones will actually have to pay — Texas’ strong anti-crime laws could significantly reduce the indemnity of the jury. But even if Jones is stuck with a multi-million dollar punishment, he can still settle down again.
A more permanent solution to the Jonesian lies would be to tackle the huge market for alternative health products. Current law prevents the Food and Drug Administration from regulating a wide range of supplements, and even where they have authority, regulators have been lax in applying the rules. Jones is a one-man argument for radical change. By better monitoring the alternative health market, regulators can reduce two scourges at once.
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