Ken Paulson, director of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University, also believes that the decision won’t have the detrimental impact on free speech some fear, but he says the outsized value of the damages in the case is meant to make a point. “I’ve monitored libel cases for 40 years, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a less sympathetic defendant,” he says. “What he did was just despicable, and at a level that would be hard to rival. The jury is just conveying its utter disgust and anger and attaching a really big number like a billion dollars to their outrage.”
Yet Paulson does believe something has changed post-judgment—not least because of the ongoing debate around the future of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act
“If there were no Section 230, this would send a massive chill through every online organization in the US that hosts comments of any sort,” Paulson says. It would signal a huge shift in platforms’ approach to policing the content posted on their sites, in large part because they’d want to avoid a massive financial punishment of the type Jones has just been walloped with. “For various reasons, including legal risk and a platform’s own standards regardless of legal risk, companies will continue to engage in content moderation,” says Indiana University’s Tomain. “At the same time, individuals will continue to seek redress in courts when they believe that the law provides a remedy based on the speech of others.”
“Large platforms have an important role to play in not giving extra oxygen to false claims that cause concrete injuries,” says Mathias Vermeulen, a disinformation expert and director of AWO, a digital rights agency. “Some of them have taken good steps to prevent such claims from being monetized on their platforms. But that never has been a real deterrent for mass-disinformation producers like Jones, who continued to thrive financially even when they were banned from these platforms.”
Now the billion-dollar judgment sets a precedent that not only can cases be won, but those who are found liable could be on the hook for monumental damages. “The lesson that anyone should take away from this is that if you use your freedom of speech to defame or to engage in fraud, you will face consequences,” says Paulson.
This could mark a sea change in how people speak on social media. For decades, shock jocks and conspiracy quacks wanted to be the next Alex Jones, rich atop a sea of true believers. Now his name is permanently associated with that landmark financial figure—one that stands to ruin him. No one will aspire to that. “Some speakers seem to be under a false impression that defamation law doesn’t apply to social media and that they can say anything they want without consequence,” says the University of Florida’s Lidsky. “This damages award is a corrective to that false impression.”