Inside Alex Jones’s ‘Tangy Tangerine’-Fueled Empire
Fans of Infowars don’t just buy in to the conspiracy theories peddled by Alex Jones, they actually buy. Mr. Jones has amassed a fortune by pitching health products and weapons components as antidotes to the frightening worldview he broadcasts.Published OnSept. 7, 2018CreditCreditImage by Natalie Reneau for The New York Times
AUSTIN — More than ever before in his two-decade career built on baseless conspiracy theories, angry nativist rants and end-of-days fearmongering, Alex Jones is being called to account.
In a Texas courthouse, his lawyers are battling defamation claims resulting from one of his most infamous acts: spreading false reports that the Sandy Hook massacre of 20 first graders and six adults was an elaborate hoax.
In Silicon Valley, Facebook, YouTube and, as of Thursday, Twitter, under pressure to better curb hate speech and incendiary misinformation, have largely cut him off. On Friday, Apple removed the Infowars app from its App Store, eliminating one of the final avenues for Mr. Jones to reach a mainstream audience.
Mr. Jones’s latest stunt — turning up on Capitol Hill this week to call attention to his claim that he is being unfairly silenced on ideological grounds — led to an embarrassing rebuff by a conservative Republican senator.
The big question for him now is whether his bluster — and the implicit support he has received from President Trump, who has channeled bogus or misleading claims promoted by Mr. Jones and echoed his complaints of anticonservatism by technology companies — will be sufficient to see him past his current peril. He is facing a legal, public opinion and social media reckoning that poses the most serious threat yet not just to his ability to inject the outlandish into the mainstream, but also to the lucrative business he has built.
Mr. Jones likes to portray his digital channel, Infowars, as a media outlet, and he is quick to wrap himself in the First Amendment. But in business terms, it is more accurate to describe Infowars as an online store that uses Mr. Jones’s commentary to move merchandise. Its revenue comes primarily from the sale of a grab-bag of health-enhancement and survivalist products that Mr. Jones hawks constantly.
A close look at his career shows that he has been as much a canny if unconventional entrepreneur as an ideological agitator. He has adapted to — and profited from — changes in both the political climate and the media business even as he has tested, and regularly crossed, the boundaries of acceptable public discourse.
For more than two decades, Mr. Jones, who is 44, has built a substantial following appealing to an angry, largely white, majority male audience that can choose simply to be entertained or to internalize his rendering of their worst fears: that the government and other big institutions are out to get them, that some form of apocalypse is frighteningly close and that they must become more virile, and better-armed, to survive.
“I’m not a business guy, I’m a revolutionary,” he said in an interview in August.
If it is a revolution, it is one that he has skillfully monetized. His fundamental insight was that his audience is also a nearly captive market for the variety of goods he peddles via Infowars’ website and his syndicated radio show — products intended to assuage the same fears he stokes.
Alex Jones spoke to the media on Tuesday as officials from Facebook and Twitter testified on Capitol Hill.CreditEric Thayer for The New York Times
Infowars and its affiliated companies are private and do not have to report financial results publicly. But by 2014, according to testimony Mr. Jones gave in a court case, his operations were bringing in more than $20 million a year in revenue. Records viewed by The New York Times show that most of his revenue that year came from the sale of products like supplements such as the Super Male Vitality, which purports to boost testosterone, or Brain Force Plus, which promises to “supercharge” cognitive functions.
Court records in a divorce case show that Mr. Jones’s businesses netted more than $5 million in 2014. Court proceedings show that he and his then-wife, Kelly Jones, embarked on plans to build a swimming pool complex around that time featuring a waterfall and dining cabana with a stone fireplace. Mr. Jones bought four Rolex watches in one day in 2014, and spent $40,000 on a saltwater aquarium; the couple’s assets at the time included a $70,000 grand piano, $50,000 in firearms and $752,000 in silver, gold and precious metals, in a safe deposit box, court documents say.
People who have worked with him or studied his business said his revenues had probably continued to grow in recent years.
But his problems are mounting. At least five defamation suits against Mr. Jones, including three filed by Sandy Hook families, are moving forward. Last month, a Texas judge ordered Mr. Jones and officers in his web of limited-liability companies to provide depositions to lawyers for the parent of a Sandy Hook victim in coming weeks, testimony that could shed new light on Mr. Jones’s operation.
He is also facing complaints of workplace discrimination from two ex-employees, a fraud and product liability case and a nasty court battle with Ms. Jones, now his ex-wife. She says that the couple have spent a combined $4 million on their four-year battle over custody of their three children and disputes over the business.
At the same time, the crackdown on Mr. Jones in August by the social media giants — he has been largely banned by Facebook, YouTube, Apple, Spotify and even Pinterest — poses a severe test by limiting his access to his audience. The early evidence is that the bans have substantially reduced his reach — and that was before a double blow this week when Twitter imposed a permanent ban on his account and the account for Infowars and Apple removed the Infowars app from its store.
Apple had already removed Mr. Jones’s show from its podcast service on Aug. 5. On Friday, an Apple spokeswoman said the app was removed under company policies that prohibit apps from including content that is “offensive, insensitive, upsetting, intended to disgust, or in exceptionally poor taste.”
Mr. Jones will be forced to rely even more on his Infowars site and his radio show, which is heard on more than 100 stations nationwide.
True to form, Mr. Jones is using the challenge to move more product.
For several days in August, after the ban by the social media companies, his online Infowars Store offered deep discounts under an all-caps banner that read, “FIGHT THE BULLIES, SAVE THE INTERNET, SAVE INFOWARS.”
A man working for Infowars speaks to gun rights activists in Dallas.CreditAdrees Latif/Reuters
The best-selling Survival Shield X-2 nascent iodine drops were discounted 40 percent, to $23.95, while Alpha Power, a product marketed as boosting testosterone and vitality to “push back in the fight against the globalist agenda,” was half off, at $34.95.
“The enemy wants to cut off our funding to destroy us,” Mr. Jones said on his broadcast, concluding a segment about being banned by the social media companies with a sales pitch for another product. “If you don’t fund us, we’ll be shut down.”
Mr. Jones operates from behind bulletproof glass at an Austin industrial park, in a dimly lit hive of studios and cluttered, open-plan desks. He invited a New York Times reporter there for an interview on two conditions: that the location of his headquarters not be specified and that he would record audio of the interview.
There are no identifying signs outside. Inside, there are split-screen security camera monitors throughout, which Mr. Jones checks as he passes by. There are guns in the building for protection, he said. He added that armed snipers are positioned on the roof, then in a phone call the next day said that he had made that up. He wouldn’t say how many employees he has, but in 2017 court testimony he said he employed 75 people, plus 10 contractors.
Mr. Jones talked for nearly three hours, bouncing around the room, raising his voice, feigning menace, replaying themes and entire riffs from his show.
“I am here giving you the unfiltered truth of my soul,” he said.
He insisted that his troubles are proof that a globalist, leftist cabal aims to silence him.
He claimed advance knowledge that technology companies, Chinese communists, Democrats and the mainstream media would “try to use me as a 2018, 2020 campaign issue — to hurt Trump, to misrepresent what I’ve said, to project it on Trump, and to go after the First Amendment and legitimize the censorship of all the Republican congresspeople.”
It was classic Alex Jones: a nonstop mix of flimsy fact, grievance, paranoia, ideology, combativeness and solipsism.
Mr. Jones often exhorts his listeners to “investigate” the hoaxes and theories he advances, pleas that may have inspired criminal acts by some of his followers.
Mr. Jones’s ex-wife, Kelly Jones.CreditGabriella Demczuk for The New York Times
In 2000, Mr. Jones and his cameraman, Mike Hanson, infiltrated Bohemian Grove, an annual camping retreat for global business and political leaders near Monte Rio, Calif. The pair shot dim video of a pyrotechnic spectacle that Mr. Jones wrongly claimed was an “occult ritual.”
Early in 2002, a heavily armed man entered the grounds and set a fire. Citing Mr. Jones’s reports, he said he was convinced that child abuse and human sacrifices were taking place at the retreat.
A similar scenario unfolded more than a decade later, when during the 2016 campaign Mr. Jones helped spread the “Pizzagate” hoax, that Hillary Clinton and Democratic operatives were running a child sex ring from a pizzeria in Washington, D.C.
An Infowars listener, Edgar Maddison Welch, entered the pizzeria in late 2016 armed with a military-style rifle to investigate and rescue children he believed were being held captive, firing the gun inside the restaurant as patrons fled. He is serving a four-year jail term.
Mr. Jones for years spread the false claim that the Sandy Hook shooting was a fraud, and that the victims’ relatives were actors in a hoax planned by government “gun grabbers.”
In 2015, after Leonard Pozner, whose son Noah died at Sandy Hook, got one of Mr. Jones’s Sandy Hook hoax broadcasts removed from YouTube, Mr. Jones showed viewers Mr. Pozner’s personal information, and maps to addresses associated with his family, according to court documents.
Lucy Richards, an avowed Infowars listener, subsequently went to prison for issuing repeated death threats against Mr. Pozner. The Pozner family lives in hiding, and is suing Mr. Jones for defamation.
On Father’s Day 2017, Mr. Jones went on Infowars in a brief broadcast to offer the Sandy Hook parents “my sincere condolences” for the loss of their children in “the horrible tragedy” in Newtown, Conn. He said he wanted to “open a dialogue” with the families because it was essential for the nation to come together rather than “letting the MSM misrepresent things,” referring to the mainstream media.
In the Times interview, Mr. Jones suggested that blame for the pain of the Sandy Hook families rests not with him but with the media and inconsistencies in coverage of the shooting.
Mr. Jones operates from behind bullet-proof glass doors at an Austin industrial park, in a dimly lit hive of studios and cluttered, open-plan desks.CreditIlana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times
“I was covering a giant phenomenon of people not believing media anymore because they’ve been caught in governments’ lying so much,” he said.
Alex Jones grew up in a conservative, upper-middle-class family in the Dallas suburb of Rockwall, the son of a dentist.
There was nothing particularly unusual about him during those days, except a conspiratorial nature and, from high school on, as he put it in court testimony, a commitment to “seeking out ways to get on air.”
Mr. Jones was inspired, he has said, by “None Dare Call It Conspiracy,” a 1971 book by Gary Allen that advanced the conservative theory that domestic decision making is not guided by elected officials, but international bankers and politicians. Mr. Allen also sold similarly-themed recordings by mail order.
While a community college student in Austin, Mr. Jones landed a show on Austin community access cable hawking outlandish conspiracy theories.
When Kelly Jones met him in Austin in the late 1990s, Mr. Jones was wearing a bumblebee costume in the Texas heat, doing promotional stunts for a local radio station.
He dropped out of community college, and with money from his father, produced “documentary” videos, starring himself, about 9/11 being an inside job, “police state” abuses and the “new world order” he claimed was being engineered by the Bilderberg Group, an annual gathering of prominent financiers, economists and political leaders.
He bought airtime on shortwave radio, and broadcast his theories out of an unused nursery in his house with “choo-choo” train wallpaper, Ms. Jones said in an interview.
To the extent that his early shows were informed by coherent political thought, he was a libertarian, suspicious of Republicans and Democrats alike; Ron Paul, the three-time presidential candidate and libertarian icon, was an occasional guest.
Mr. Jones with Roger Stone during the Republican National Convention in 2016.CreditBen Jackson/Getty Images
But with the election of President Barack Obama in 2008, Mr. Jones discovered that nasty partisanship was a moneymaker.
In court in 2014, he said, “We have had company meetings in the last two years preparing for the eventuality of a Republican takeover,” which he considered a threat to his business, because when attacking Democrats in power, conservatives could “be more provocative, more interesting and so it gets more viewers.”
Mr. Trump, who entered electoral politics spreading the false assertion that Mr. Obama might not have been born in the United States, was a welcome surprise for Mr. Jones. He found in Mr. Trump a kindred anti-intellectual with an outsider’s perspective and a willingness to entertain conspiracy theories and disseminate fact-challenged assertions.
The two men were connected by Roger Stone, a longtime adviser to Mr. Trump who is a paid host on Infowars. In December 2015 Mr. Stone arranged for Mr. Trump to do a 30-minute interview with Mr. Jones.
The themes promoted by Mr. Jones sometimes make their way through the media ecosystem and win the attention of Mr. Trump, like a bogus assertion about the slaughter of white farmers in South Africa that the president invoked last month. In the wake of steps by the social media companies to ban Mr. Jones, the president has also repeatedly voiced concerns nearly identical to those expressed by Mr. Jones about efforts by technology companies to silence voices from the right.
On Infowars last month, Mr. Jones suggested that he is coordinating his message with Mr. Trump.
“We advise the president,” Mr. Jones said. “We’ve got all the documents. We’ve got the proof. Other people are scared to tell him what’s going on.”
Two White House officials said they were not aware of any recent contacts between Mr. Jones and the president.
Infowars operates through a series of interlocking companies, none of which publicly reports its results. But a rough picture of the operation’s scale can be gleaned from the documents detailing its financial condition in 2014.
One entity — created to house the supplements business — generated sales of $15.6 million and net income of $5 million from October 2013 through September 2014, according to an unaudited profit and loss statement viewed by The Times. During the same period, another entity, possibly recording overlapping revenues, listed net income of $2.9 million and sales of $14.3 million, with merchandise sales accounting for $10 million, advertising for nearly $2 million and $53,350.66 in donations, according to an unaudited company statement.
A supplement called “Advanced Liver Cleanse Pack” sold by Infowars.CreditAlyssa Schukar for The New York Times
Since then, current and former business associates said, the Infowars empire has continued to thrive.
The heart of the business is sales of lightly regulated nutritional supplements that purport to improve health or virility or both.
“Supplements are popular,” Mr. Jones said in the interview. “They’re good. They’re a fast-growing market. I use it to fund the operation. Other revolutionaries rob banks and kidnap people, O.K.? I don’t do that.”
By late 2012, Mr. Jones decided to create a supplement line of his own, a move that would allow him to reap more of the profits. The next summer, he recruited his father, David R. Jones, to leave his dental practice and help manage the family business, negotiating a deal for Dr. Jones to be paid what he was making previously — $300,000 to $500,000 a year — plus an additional bonus of 20 percent of the profits from the entities he created.
When Dr. Jones came on board, the business was in disarray. In court testimony, he said he found a series of “green notebooks stuck in a cabinet” outlining a number of entities that had been established over the years.
Dr. Jones set about evaluating the business, getting the corporate entities sorted out, and creating opportunities to expand the supplement business.
The company struck deals with a number of manufacturers, slapping its Infowars Life label on a range of products. A 2014 agreement with one of its most prominent suppliers, Global Healing Center, shows that the manufacturer made at least eight products for the brand, including “Super Male Vitality” a private label of Global Health’s Androtrex, purchased wholesale for $14.99 and advertised on the Infowars Store for $69.95.
Kelly Jones compared Mr. Jones’s marketing to that of a televangelist, preaching to his faithful, selling cures and soliciting donations. His customers buy in — and then they buy. For every threat he raises, there is a solution for sale.
Matt Redhawk is the founder of My Patriot Supply. The company sells water filtration systems, emergency survival food and other products on Infowars targeting consumers in the preparedness movement, “from someone who is preparing for a job loss or a weekend without power, up to the full blown Armageddon,” Mr. Redhawk said in an interview.
“Controversy sells. You can’t ignore the fact that there is a method there,” he said.
“Preppers” are an important market segment for Infowars, and ads on its website bring better response than on other conservative media shows, said Chad Cooper, who owns Infidel Body Armor, based in San Tan Valley, Ariz. He spent about $5,000 a month on Infowars advertising for his civilian body armor line until recently, when he suspended his advertising because Infowars started selling ads to too many of his competitors.
While he does not take in Mr. Jones’s show — “he’s a nutter,” he says — “I’ve spent quite a bit of time on the phone with these Alex Jones people who order from me,” and described them.
“They’re nonbelievers in what the media tells them. They think there’s more to the story,” he said. “They think there’s aliens, and the government knows about that and they’re not telling them. They’re all religious, and they’re very concerned about the direction the government is going.”
“He’s really good at scaring people,” Mr. Cooper said of Mr. Jones. “He gives them that sense of urgency — they need to hurry up and do something. Now.”
Last February, two former employees came forward with allegations that they faced discrimination at Infowars. In interviews, they depicted Mr. Jones as the leader of a racially charged workplace.
Robert A. Jacobson, 43, started working with Mr. Jones in 2004 as a video editor, and said that over the years he was taunted for being Jewish. He said that the harassment escalated after August 2015 when Mr. Jones interviewed David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard.
Ashley L. Beckford, who was hired as a production assistant in June 2016, said that she was called racial slurs, paid less because of the color of her skin and forced to fend off unwanted sexual advances, including from Mr. Jones. Ms. Beckford, 32, said that an employee once called her a “coon,” that she was shown swastikas in the office, that Mr. Jones once grabbed her buttocks, and that staff members repeatedly used the term “fat black bitch” around her.
On his show, Mr. Jones denied the allegations and called both former employees liars.
Mr. Jones’s image and credibility as a provocateur are closely linked to his credibility as a marketer of supplements and other products.
Consequently, sales of the fluoride-free toothpaste he promotes might decline if he recants his bogus claim that fluoridated water causes cancer and stunts the brains of children. Demand for Infowars-branded gun components that can be purchased without a firearms permit might fall if he backs off his predictions of a looming civil war.
Mr. Jones had cited a desire to express contrition to the Sandy Hook parents as a reason for agreeing to be interviewed. But many times during the interview, his efforts at apology morphed into new theories.
“The idea they’re pushing is that you can’t ever question anything,” he said, “they” referring to anyone who criticizes his twisting of the truth. “I don’t think you can establish that anything is 100 percent fact.”
Jack Nicas and Kitty Bennett contributed reporting.
A version of this article appears in print on Sept. 7, 2018, on Page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Reckoning Imperils Infowars Founder’s Soapbox, and His Empire.