While I had escaped Jones’ world, fragments of the country continued to look alarmingly similar. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, as powerlessness gave way to fear, it became apparent that the same ethos that fueled Jones for decades had become ubiquitous.
I don’t fault individuals for being skeptical of institutional power, and I understand that simple answers are preferential to uncertainty. When I first started listening to Jones in 2008, at age 19, I myself fell into that alluring trap. I believed that vaccines were potentially dangerous, that fluoride in the drinking water lowered IQ levels, that Monsanto was creating genetically modified foods that led to higher rates of cancer and illness, and that an ultra-rich, clandestine group was behind it all in order to keep the populace sick and servile.
But over time — as I stood behind a camera and watched Jones ignore, conflate, misrepresent and fabricate information — my critical thinking skills improved. Unfortunately, my education in media literacy came from learning how to circumvent it in others. I learned the difference between causation and correlation. I began paying attention to the source, the context and the medium of online content. I didn’t understand the importance of editorial processes and journalistic integrity until I saw firsthand how easily misinformation was weaponized to garner attention and exploit fear. But more than anything, the catalyst that shifted my perspective was my long-time partner, Lacey. She consistently pushed me to question my actions, to develop clear principles and to become more empathetic. If I didn’t have someone close to me — a compassionate, intelligent person who cultivated a safe space for open communication — I don’t think I would’ve been able to endure the slow, painful, all-consuming internal erosion that resulted in personal growth and edification.
While it may be comforting to think Jones’ excommunication from social media has rendered him irrelevant, the reality is that Jones has spent years building his own platform and cultivating a devoted following. Though it might be more difficult for Jones to reach new people, he has an endless capacity for reinvention and a knack for redirecting the collective focus onto himself. For now, as reactionary media continues to embolden the worst in their listeners, and opportunists like Jones prey on the ignorant and vulnerable, conspiracy theories, and those who adhere to them, aren’t going away anytime soon.
As I watched from a distance, a mask tightly fitted to my face, protesters gathered around Jones. “This is 21st century war,” he shouted into a megaphone. The protesters cheered with wide-eyed enthusiasm as colorful signs fluttered in the air: “We are not prisoners; Rebellion is essential; Freedom is greater than safety.” Even a few children held placards reading, “Down with corona-panic,” and “Shutdown the shutdown.”
As I watched the protesters — most of them without protective masks — I thought back to the years I spent behind a camera. Had any of these people watched the videos I filmed, the reports I edited, the lies I helped disseminate? Had they fallen victim to Jones’ impassioned rants, discovered a deep-seated prejudice in his hate-filled rhetoric? Was Trump to blame for emboldening Jones and his ideas during the 2016 election, or the media for not recognizing his influence sooner? I wanted to go up to the protesters and tell them I understood their fear, their anger. I wanted, somehow, to convey that there was freedom in acknowledging you didn’t have all the answers, strength in admitting you were wrong. But I didn’t think it would mean anything coming from a stranger, so I kept quiet.
Having conversations with conspiracy theorists can be frustrating, especially if you aren’t well acquainted with the people you’re taking to. Paper-thin arguments often give way to accusatory anger when challenged. But maybe that’s the only way to help turn the tide. If we know someone who is drawn to absurd ideas, perhaps the responsibility falls on all of us to, at the very least, speak to one another. I have to believe there’s value in constructive confrontation and attempting to reason with the unreasonable, because it worked for me.
At the rally, Jones’ voice cut through the applause. “God bless you all for standing in defiance of this tyranny,” he said. “Choose freedom, choose America, not fear, not propaganda.” As the crowd cheered, oblivious to the irony of Jones advocating the rejection of fear, I made eye contact with a man standing nearby. “Can you believe this?” he asked with a grin, whistling and waving a sign reading, “Give me liberty or give me death.”
“Yes,” I said, nodding from behind my mask, wondering if he understood the implications of the words hoisted above his head, “Unfortunately, I can.” His smile faded as I turned to walk away. Jones began chanting “Texas!” and then “USA!” as the crowd followed suit, many of them wide-eyed, watching, as I once had, through the cameras on their phones.