Infowars apologizes for spreading 'Pizzagate' theory. What does that mean for fake news?
Infowars owner and conservative talk show host Alex Jones issued an apology Friday for spreading a theory about illicit activity by a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant. Will this make readers, and propagandists, take caution?
Infowars owner and long-time conspiracy theorist Alex Jones admitted that his site falsely reported and commented on the debunked “Pizzagate” controversy, a theory that alleged that Comet Ping Pong, a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant, had played a role in a child-sex-trafficking ring that also involved Hillary Clinton.
Apologizing to the restaurant’s owner, James Alefantis, Mr. Jones issued a statement Friday.
“I want our viewers and listeners to know that we regret any negative impact our commentaries may have had on Mr. Alefantis, Comet Ping Pong, or its employees,” he said. “We apologize to the extent our commentaries could be construed as negative statements about Mr. Alefantis or Comet Ping Pong, and we hope that anyone else involved in commenting on Pizzagate will do the same thing.”
As fake news stories cropped up during the 2016 general election, the bizarre allegations involving the pizza restaurant and then-Democratic nominee Mrs. Clinton gained traction among some conservatives. Rumors began to spread on the internet alleging that Clinton and her campaign chairman, John Podesta, had played a role in a child-sex-trafficking ring operating in the restaurant’s basement. (In reality, the building has no basement.)
While damaging to the restaurant’s reputation, the theory also proved dangerous to the business and its employees, who received threatening calls from those who bought into the accusations. In December, a man spurred by the allegations entered the restaurant with several weapons, including an AR-15, and fired shots on the premises. The man, Edgar Maddison Welch, of Salisbury, N.C., pleaded guilty to his involvement in this shooting Friday, the same day Jones issued the public apology.
While Jones notes that he is not the creator of the theory, it was discussed and reported at length on his site and radio show. Mr. Welch later said he followed Infowars on social media and listened to Jones's show.
Last month, Alefantis wrote to Jones, demanding an apology and retraction of the posts. While he threatened no legal action against Infowars, he described the content as "defaming," and under Texas law, Jones, who is based in Austin, had one month from receiving the letter to retract the stories or apologize to avoid liability for punitive damages in a libel suit, The Washington Post reported.
“We are not admitting that Mr. Alefantis, or his restaurant, have any legal claim.” Jones said. “We do not believe they do. But we are issuing this statement because we think it is the right thing to do. It will be no surprise to you that we will fight for children across America.”
It is uncommon for Jones to apologize for content on his site, and while fake news has dominated discussions of polarization, the fleeting nature of its propagators makes bringing suits against the culprits difficult, if not impossible.
Whether Pizzagate will cost Infowars any readers is hard to say. As The Christian Science Monitor previously reported, fake news draws readers in by confirming their own biases, and can turn them against mainstream, objective sources that contradict their views.
“The problem is that we are too credulous of news that reinforces our predispositions and too critical of sites that contradict them,” Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., previously told the Monitor.
But a shift toward accountability could prove a small step in the right direction.
“We encourage you to hold us accountable,” Jones said. “We improve when you do.”