Media literacy

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


My six degrees of separation with Alex Jones, the convict County crazy conspiracies, goes through Scarlett Lewis, who has graced me with several interviews over the past few years. An alumnus of Boston University, where I work, she lost her 6-year-old son, Jesse, in the Sandy Hook shootings, which Jones mocked as a hoax.

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

The pain that will haunt her forever has become the animating crusade of her life. Lewis left her job as an executive assistant to a CEO to become a social and emotional learning (SEL) evangelist in schools. That’s the first thing Lewis taught me: Research backs SEL, which teaches emotional management, empathy, and nonviolent decision-making, to alleviate the pathologies that transformed the former Sandy student. Hook, Adam Lanza, into a 26-year-old mass murderer, before turning the gun on himself.

I’m afraid I’ll never know the compassion and courage of Lewis; they are both natural and nurtured. (Our last conversation, about the Uvalde shooting, came as Lewis was driving home from New Hampshire after one of her many high school SEL presentations. I was worried she was in an accident, but she graciously granted the interview.) Yet she taught us all another vital lesson. Snatching not just cash from Jones, but a courtroom repeat of her belated admission that Sandy Hook was horribly real, she and Heslin gave a public seminar on the invaluable truth.

As they testified last week, their agony had only just begun when Lanza shot Jesse on that terrible day in December. Jones then spread his vile misinformation to thousands of people for whom critical thinking is a pencil they haven’t sharpened in years. Some have directed death threats and other acts of harassment against Sandy Hook’s parents, including Lewis and Heslin.

May I suggest combining SEL with media literacy classes? SEL seeks to thwart the Lanzas of the world. Media literacy aims to inoculate young people against a poison like Jones’.

Surely neither can ever restore what Lanza took. I first covered Lewis at a 2018 presentation of her SEL program at a school district in New York state, where she told the hushed crowd of encounters at the grocery store with parents who would say, Oh my god I have to bring multiple kids to multiple events. “You know how I hear that?” said Lewis. “Wow. Can you get multiple kids running in multiple locations?”

Yet, from Supreme Court justices who disagree on little else, to members of Congress, a growing chorus argues that analyzing the reputation of rancid media is no mere educational frill. Many conspiracy theorists are beyond reason. But a 2019 RAND report suggested that, done right, media literacy classes “could be a useful tool in combating the decadence of truth.”

Jones’ lawsuit would serve as an effective case study, as it would expose his self-destructive buffoonery. He compulsively shoveled out false information about Sandy Hook’s parents even as the lawsuit for damages was underway. His lawyers inadvertently sent his phone records to plaintiffs’ attorney, revealing that Jones had lied about Infowars’ profitability.

“Rabbit hole” is too kind a metaphor to describe the unreality that plagues eccentrics who believe in Jones’ dreck.

As for his lie that Sandy Hook was a pro-gun control hoax? “Rabbit hole” is too kind a metaphor to describe the unreality that plagues cranks who believe in Jones’ dreck. He and his ilk come out of a nest of cockroaches, which won’t be incinerated by just a $45 million plus haircut. Or by the pending damages of lawsuits from other parents against Jones.

Lewis, taking a long view, founded the Choose Love movement to develop and promulgate a free SEL program. In court last week, she lectured her tormentor in words worthy of a media literacy class.

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 these things, there is a segment of society that thinks you are dangerous.

His words would also benefit those captivated by the psychosis of Donald Trump’s election lie.

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