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In a win for victims and facts, Alex Jones is being held accountable for misinformation

James Alan Fox and Michael Rocque Opinion contributors
Published 6:00 a.m.  ET Nov. 19, 2021

As a result of Monday's ruling by a Connecticut judge, InfoWars founder and right-wing commentator Alex Jones must pay damages to the families of victims of the Sandy Hook school massacre for his unsupported claims that the shooting was a "giant hoax.:

Whatever the size of the yet-to-be-determined award, it is an important victory for the plaintiffs - but also for opponents of conspiracy theories that stifle our ability to understand and prevent such tragedies.

There is a long history of dubious, half-baked conspiracies related to mass shootings. The "false flag" theory, which suggests that these incidents are staged or perpetrated by government operatives, has been linked to large-scale massacres in El Paso, Texas, Dayton, Ohio and Boulder, Colorado.

Students who survived the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, have been called "crisis actors" after they became vocal proponents for gun control.

Ripe for conspiracy theories

Several rampage shootings, including the 2017 massacre at a Las Vegas outdoor music festival, have been falsely blamed on Antifa.

And in arguably the most bizarre and outrageous case, some conspiracy theorists speculated wrongly that the spate of school shootings in the late 1990s were orchestrated by then-President Bill Clinton.

The alleged evidence? A map showing the locations of the shootings as falling on a pair of straight lines that cross at Clinton"s hometown of Hope, Arkansas.

As high-visibility events, mass shootings are ripe for conspiracy theories. They can proliferate online, where anonymous posting allows people to advance baseless notions about secret cabals committing murder - claims that then spread like wildfire on social media platforms. The increasing political polarization, in which each side is quick to vilify the other, makes for fertile ground for conspiracy theories to be fomented and embraced, even in the absence of any hard evidence.

When a horrific tragedy occurs, it is psychologically beneficial to cast blame on a group or organization that one feels is evil to begin with, rather than accept the potentially random nature of mass shootings.

Stretching the logic

Just as questionable conspiracy theories seek to assign blame, mass shootings frequently spawn allegations of legal culpability, often involving a logical stretch in an attempt to assign fault.

For example:

* Lawsuits against the McDonald's Corp. following the 1984 fatal shooting of 21 victims at a California franchise and against Cinemark in connection to the 2012 massacre at a Colorado theater that invoked a claim of inadequate security. It would seem unreasonable, however, to expect armed guards and metal detectors at the entrances or to have servers and ushers carry firearms.

* Rather than accept a settlement offer by the state, the families of two victims of the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre sued for wrongful death, claiming the university failed to warn students promptly enough after an early morning double homicide inside a dorm followed hours later by the massive shooting rampage. The Virginia Supreme Court overturned a jury verdict for the plaintiffs since university officials had reasonably believed (although incorrectly) the dorm shooting was domestic in nature and that the campus community was not in danger.

* The manufacturer of the 100-round magazine employed in the 2019 Dayton mass shooting was sued even though its possession (as opposed to use) is not actually prohibited under Ohio law. Also, the lawsuit following the Pittsburgh Synagogue shooting argued that the gun lobby contributed to the gunman's anti-Semitic views.

* Eli Lilly Pharmaceutical was sued in connection to a 1989 massacre at a Kentucky printing plant when an employee who was on long-term disability for depression killed eight and wounded 12 after being prescribed Prozac. However, the medication only helped the disgruntled gunman to gather the energy and will to carry out an assault he had been planning for months prior to taking the drug.

These are just a few of the so-called third-party lawsuits that attempt, often unsuccessfully, to hold government bodies or deep-pocket corporations responsible financially for the murderous actions of some angry or hateful individual. They, in effect, deflect blame from the person truly responsible for deliberately and methodically executing innocent victims. The winners are insurance companies that have capitalized by underwriting mass shooting indemnification policies.

The lawsuit against Jones, however, involves his direct responsibility for promoting emotional distress and harassment of grieving families. In an effort to gain fame, fortune and followers, he recklessly spread false claims without producing a shred of evidence that the shooting was staged. As such, his deeds are not protected as free speech, just as shouting fire in a crowded theater is dangerous unless there is evidence of smoke or flames. This lawsuit against Jones - and the victory for the families - is anything but frivolous.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Professor of Criminology, Law, and Public Policy at Northeastern University and a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors and co-author of  "The Will to Kill." Follow him on Twitter@jamesalanfox. Michael Rocque is Associate Professor of Sociology at Bates College and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.

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