The trial of Alex Jones, the far-right conspiracy theorist, who for years propagated the lie that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax, has produced some remarkable moments over the past week, not least when Jones was told that his own attorney had accidentally released two years’ worth of Jones’s text messages to his legal adversaries. For sheer schadenfreude, however, it’s hard to beat an exchange between Jones and judge Maya Guerra Gamble in which she reminded him that “you must tell the truth while you testify”.
“I believe what I said was true,” Jones answered. The judge’s riposte has since been shared hundreds of thousands of times: “You believe everything you say is true, but it isn’t. Your beliefs do not make something true. That is what we’re doing here. Just because you claim to think something is true does not make it true.”
This was life as scripted by Aaron Sorkin: a self-serving liar being told, to his face, that the reality-denials from which he has built a staggeringly lucrative empire have no force in the courtroom (one of the messages handed over by Jones’s attorney revealed that his Infowars website had been making as much as $800,000 a day from its online store). Who hasn’t fantasised about the truth finally catching up with those trading in alternative facts: the scammers, bullshitters, fanatics and demagogues for whom the 21st century often seems a paradise of shameless self-gratification?
Although Jones has since claimed that the trial was a “victory”, albeit one whose current bill runs at more than $49m, even he was forced during its course to admit that the Sandy Hook attack was “one hundred per cent real”. For the millions who followed these humiliations on social media – not to mention the bereaved parents who have suffered years of appalling threats and abuse thanks to the conspiracies Jones promotes – this was a painfully overdue vindication of the hope that truth can defeat deceit. How far, though, does the resounding declaration that “your beliefs do not make something true” suggest some kind of precedent is also being set?
The world isn’t short of fantastic, harmful untruths ... it has never been easier to mobilise mass sentiment around rival realities
The world isn’t short of fantastic, harmful untruths. From the spectre of climate change denial to the ugly idiocy of Trump’s “stop the steal” and the attempted insurrection of 6 January 2021, it has never been easier to mobilise mass sentiment around rival realities. Yet truth retains at least one advantage: that reality itself can be counted on to support it. In contrast, every lie requires further lies to stay alive. If I falsely claim that (say) I never received a particular text message, I need to shield this claim from every scrap of contradictory evidence. If I were telling the truth, an honest investigation would vindicate me. However, preserving a fiction means weaving further fictions around inconvenient facts.
Unfortunately, although all of this is beautifully applicable when it comes to empirical inquiry, it has little to do with how and why most people arrive at beliefsin the first place. “I believe what I said was true,” Jones told Gamble. Her response, that this doesn’t make anything true, was magnificently correct. But it also contained an implicit counterpoint. Truths cannot, by themselves, make people believe anything. And in order to grasp what does, we need to look beyond bare facts towards the claims of value, purpose and identity that mobilise these into stories about what matters – and why.
There’s something brutally precise about the name “Infowars” in this context. Browsing its headlines on the day of the verdict, I learned that Jones was the victim of a “show trial”, that the prosecuting lawyer told the jury to “take him out” and that problems with global supply chains will persist because “the system is being sabotaged”. It’s a heady mix of paranoia, selective quotation and counter-narrative. But it’s also an amplified exemplum of the ways in which, to some degree, all of us make sense of the world: by seeking patterns and connections amid overwhelming complexity; by following the guidance of others who give form and focus to our frustrations; by becoming part of communities that promise to defend “us” against an alien, malevolent “them”. You may nod at this description but the newspaper you’re reading, right now, does a version of this very thing. And while you and I may feel certain we are on the right side, it’s an uncomfortable truth that we hold this belief for reasons that are as much tribal and cultural as rational.
None of this diminishes the ethical or practical importance of disinterested truth-seeking but it does suggest that, for all its force, it is also an exercise that can only take place after certain norms, practices and boundaries have been accepted by all involved. This is precisely why we have courtrooms, judges, lawyers and juries in the first place and why it’s vital that their sifting of truth from belief remains a last recourse. If the kind of common ground that enables us to engage with reality can be defended only by legal coercion, we are in a dangerous place.
Like millions of my tribe, I watched Jones’s humbling with relish and relief. At last, righteous justice was not only being done, but being dignified by the drama and rhetoric it deserved! When it comes to the larger scheme of things, however, I worry that the most important lesson is precisely the opposite of what I might wish it to be.
Belief is a battleground and conspiracies thrive not so much upon irrationality as upon division, condescension and the sheer profitability of unaccountable untruth. As is painfully true of our planetary context, the lessons we most urgently need to learn are ecological rather than argumentative, systematic rather than self-righteous.
They’re about the incentives embedded in information systems and the divisions and mistrust that these feed on. In the grander scheme of things, the last thing any of us can afford is to believe that simply being right will save us.
• Tom Chatfield is an author and philosopher. His latest book is How to Think