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Alex Jones is a kook, but some people listened. Media literacy can help

InfoWars website coordinator Alex Jones gives a speech to Trump supporters before the Electoral College votes are counted in Washington D.C., on Jan. 5, 2021. (Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
InfoWars website coordinator Alex Jones gives a speech to Trump supporters before the Electoral College votes are counted in Washington D.C., on Jan. 5, 2021. (Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

My six degrees of separation from Alex Jones, the convicted Comte of crackpot conspiracies, runs through Scarlett Lewis, who has honored me with several interviews in recent years. An alumna of Boston University, where I work, she lost her 6-year-old son Jesse in the Sandy Hook shootings that Jones mocked as a hoax.

Last week, a Texas jury awarded Lewis and Jesse’s father, Neil Heslin, $45 million-plus in compensatory and punitive damages for the disinformation Jones spread via his Infowars site. (The 2012 massacre took place in Connecticut, but Texas is home to Jones’s business.) “I forgive Alex Jones,” Lewis told me last year. “Forgiveness does not mean, however, that you do not hold someone accountable for their actions.”

The pain that will forever haunt her has become the animating crusade of her life. Lewis left her job as a CEO’s executive assistant to become an evangelist for social and emotional learning (SEL) in schools. That was the first thing Lewis taught me: research supports SEL, which teaches emotion management, empathy and non-violent decision-making, to blunt the pathologies that turned former Sandy Hook student Adam Lanza into a mass killer of 26, before he turned the gun on himself.

I fear I’ll never learn Lewis’s compassion and fortitude; they’re as much nature as nurture. (Our last talk, about the Uvalde shootings, occurred as Lewis was driving home from New Hampshire after one of her many SEL presentations at a high school. I worried about her having an accident, but she graciously granted the interview.) Still, she has taught us all another vital lesson. By wringing not just money from Jones, but a courtroom repetition of his belated admission that Sandy Hook was horrifically real, she and Heslin gave a public seminar on the pricelessness of truth.

As they testified last week, their agony was just beginning when Lanza shot Jesse on that awful December day. Jones subsequently streamed his vile disinformation to thousands of people for whom critical thinking is a pencil they haven't sharpened for years. Some directed death threats and other harassment at Sandy Hook parents, including Lewis and Heslin.

May I suggest pairing SEL with media literacy classes? SEL seeks to thwart the Lanzas of the world. Media literacy aims to inoculate youth from poison like Jones’.

Granted, neither can ever restore what Lanza took. I first covered Lewis during a 2018 presentation of her SEL curriculum to a New York state school district, where she told the hushed crowd about grocery-store encounters with parents who’d say, Oh my God, I have to bring multiple kids to multiple events. “Do you know how I hear that?” Lewis said. “Wow. You get to run multiple kids to multiple places?”

Yet from Supreme Court justices who agree on little else, to members of Congress, a swelling chorus holds that parsing reputable from rancid media is no mere educational frill. Many conspiracy theorists are beyond reason. But a 2019 RAND report suggested that, done right, media literacy courses “could be a useful tool for combating Truth Decay.”

Jones’ trial would make an effective case study, as it exposed his self-destructive buffoonery. He compulsively shoveled misinformation about Sandy Hook parents even as the damages trial was underway. His lawyers inadvertently sent his phone records to the plaintiffs’ attorney, revealing that Jones had lied about Infowars’ profitability.

"Rabbit hole” is too kind a metaphor to describe the unreality afflicting cranks who believe Jones’ dreck.

As for his falsehood that Sandy Hook was a pro-gun control hoax? "Rabbit hole” is too kind a metaphor to describe the unreality afflicting cranks who believe Jones’ dreck. He and his ilk scuttle forth from a cockroach nest, which won’t be incinerated by just a $45-million-plus haircut. Or by the pending damage awards from other parents’ lawsuits against Jones.

Lewis, taking the long view, founded the Choose Love Movement to develop and promulgate a free SEL curriculum. In court last week, she lectured her tormentor in words befitting a media literacy course.

Truth — truth is so vital to our world. Truth is what we base our reality on, and we have to agree on that to have a civil society. … When you say those things, there’s a fringe of society that believe you that are actually dangerous.

Her words would also benefit those enthralled with Donald Trump’s election lie psychosis.

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Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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