Ted Anderson, a precious metals dealer, hoped to attract business for his gold and silver dealer when he started a radio network in a Minneapolis suburb a few decades ago. Soon after, he signed a brash young radio host named Alex Jones.
Together, they ended up shaping today’s misinformation economy.
The two have built a lucrative operation out of a tangled system of niche advertisers, fundraisers and the promotion of media subscriptions, dietary supplements and survival products. Mr. Jones became a conspiracy theory heavyweight, while Mr. Anderson’s company, Genesis Communications Network, flourished. Their money-making scheme has been replicated by many other misinformation peddlers.
Mr. Jones eventually gave up his addiction to Genesis, as he expanded beyond radio and attracted a large following online. Yet they were once again intertwined in lawsuits accusing them of fueling a false narrative about the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Mr. Jones was found liable by default in these cases. Last month, plaintiffs’ attorneys dropped Genesis as a defendant. Christopher Mattei, one of the attorneys, said in a statement that Genesis’ involvement in the lawsuit would have diverted attention from the main target: Mr. Jones and his media organization.
The move freed Genesis, which states on its website that it “has established itself as the largest independently owned and operated talk radio network in the nation”, from the stiff penalties that most likely await Mr. Jones. But the cases, soon to be presented to juries to determine damages, continue to shed light on the economics that contribute to generating misleading and misleading claims in the media landscape.
The proliferation of lies and misleading content, especially in the run-up to midterm elections this fall, is often blamed on a gullible public and growing partisan divide. Misinformation can also be hugely profitable, not just for bold names like Mr. Jones, but also for companies that host websites, run ads or syndicate content in the background.
“Disinformation exists for ideological reasons, but there is always a connection with very commercial interests – they always end up together,” said Hilde Van den Bulck, a media professor at Drexel University who studied Mr Jones. “It’s a small world filled with networks of people finding ways to help each other.”
Mr. Jones and Mr. Anderson did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
Genesis was born in the late 1990s as a marketing ploy, working “hand in hand” with Midas Resources, Mr Anderson’s bullion business, he said. He told media watchdog FAIR in 2011: “Midas Resources needs customers, Genesis Communications Network needs sponsors.
Alex Jones and his catastrophic worldview fit perfectly into the equation.
Genesis began syndicating Mr. Jones around the time he was fired by an Austin station in 1999, the host said this year on Infowars, a website he operates. It was a complementary, if sometimes fractious, partnership – “a kind of marriage made in hell,” Ms Van den Bulck said.
Archived footage shows the pugnacious and pontificating Mr Jones spreading dire claims about the inevitable demise of the dollar before introducing the bespectacled and generally mild-mannered Mr Anderson to offer extended slots for safe-haven metals like gold . Sometimes Mr Jones would interrupt pitches with rants, like the time in 2013 when he cut Mr Anderson more than 20 times in 30 seconds for shouting ‘racist’.
Genesis’ roster also included a gay comedian; a former ACLU attorney; Hollywood actor Stephen Baldwin; longtime psychologist Dr. Joy Browne; a home improvement expert known as the “Cajun Contractor”; and a group of self-proclaimed “normal guys with normal views” talking about sports.
But eventually, the network developed a reputation for a certain type of programming, promoting its “conspiratorial” content on its website and telling the MinnPost in 2011 that its advertisers “specialize in preparedness and survival.”
Several shows were run by firearms enthusiasts. There was a Christian rocker who opposed gay rights and a politician who espoused unfounded theories about the actors in the crisis and the nationality of President Obama. One program promoted lessons on how to “store food, learn the importance of precious metals, or even survive a gunfight.” Jason Lewis, a Republican politician from Minnesota who faced backlash during the 2018 election season after his misogynistic on-air remarks resurfaced, had a syndication deal with Genesis and a campaign office at the address of Genesis.
Ties between Mr. Jones and Genesis began to loosen about a decade ago, when Mr. Jones struck a deal for Genesis to handle only about a third of his syndication deals. Today, about 30 stations include Mr. Jones in their programs, according to a review by Dan Friesen, one of the hosts of the Knowledge Fight podcast, which he and a friend created to analyze and chronicle Mr. Jones’ career. Of these, more than a third relegated it late at night and early in the morning. Several stations have replaced Mr. Jones with conservative hosts such as Sean Hannity or Dan Bongino.
Mr. Jones’ relationship with Mr. Anderson continued to fade after 2015, when the Minnesota Department of Commerce shut down Midas. The agency called Midas and Mr Anderson ‘incompetent’ and ordered the company to compensate customers after they ‘regularly embezzled money’.
Now, the Midas website redirects to a multi-level marketing company selling the same supplements that populate the Genesis online store. The supplement company founder has a show syndicated by Genesis and has also appeared on the Mr. Jones show.
But Mr Jones has his own business selling Infowars-branded supplements, as well as products such as Infowars masks alongside bumper stickers declaring Covid-19 a hoax. One of his lawyers estimated that the conspiracy theorist generated $56 million in revenue last year.
“The inability to have that kind of symbiotic link between gold sales on affiliate radios has really hurt their connectivity,” Mr. Friesen said of Mr. Jones and his former benefactor. “At that point, Alex needed to diversify the way he funded things a bit more, and Ted kind of took a back seat.”
But in 2018, the families of several Sandy Hook victims sued Mr. Jones and also named Genesis as a defendant. Lawyers for the families cited Mr. Anderson’s frequent appearances on Mr. Jones’ shows and said Genesis’ distribution of Mr. Jones helped his lies reach “hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people.” “.
Mr. Jones, Genesis and other defendants are “concocting elaborate and false conspiracy theories tinged with paranoia because it moves the product and they make money,” the lawyers wrote.
After the lawsuits were filed, Genesis and Mr. Jones were rejected for liability claims coverage by West Bend Mutual Insurance, which began working with Genesis in 2012, according to court documents. After being dropped as a defendant, Genesis continued to solicit donations, claiming online that his “freedom of speech is at stake.”
The litigation demonstrates the increasingly important role of lawsuits as a stick against those accused of spreading false and misleading information. In 2020, Fox News settled millions of dollars with the parents of murdered Democratic aide Seth Rich, whose death was falsely linked by the network to an email leak before the 2016 presidential election.
Smartmatic and Dominion sued Fox News and other conservative media and figures last year after election tech companies were targeted with unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud and are seeking billions of dollars in damages. While Smartmatic and Dominion continued to threaten legal action, several of the electrical outlets broadcast segments that attempted to clarify or debunk conspiracy theories about voting system companies.
“This seems like, for the first time in a long time, a very concrete path to holding people accountable for the harm they cause and how they benefit from that harm,” Rachel E. Moran said. , postdoctoral fellow at the Center for an Informed Public at the University of Washington.
Genesis told the court in a filing last year that it was simply accused of being “a distributor of radio programs – the radioland equivalent of the newspaper deliverer – not the author, not the publisher, not the broadcaster. “. The filing argued that the company “has no brains; he has no memory; it cannot form the intention.
The families’ lawyers responded that the network should be “treated the same as a newspaper or the publisher of a book” with a high degree of awareness of the “hoax story that Genesis repeatedly broadcast to a broad public, over several years”.