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There are a number of people and websites that make money by spreading conspiracy theories and other 'fake news'. I think InfoWars is probably the most notorious, but it's only one of a multitude of similar sites and people out there.

Let's say for now we have definitive proof that the person hosting a site that spreads conspiracy theories does not believe their theories are true, say they are recorded making fun of their watchers for believing the nonsense they say, including explicitly saying they make it up because people will pay to hear it.

If this person benefits only from advertising from people watching their site, are they in any way guilty of fraud by telling people something they didn't believe to get ad revenue?

In another example let's say they had a close relationship with a group that profited more directly from the conspiracy theory. Say they are spreading the dinar revaluation theory (the claim that the US is going to, somehow, try to repair Iraq's dinar currency by elevating it from its near-worthless current state back to what it was worth prior to 9/11, for some reason. Thus, supposedly, one should buy up dinar now before the US suddenly increases its value to 100 times its current value). Say after the person preaches about how much it makes sense for the dinar to be raised by the government they then point everyone to a website that sells dinar, at a huge markup, and in exchange the person receives some kickbacks or other benefits for recommending the site.

Would the person be guilty of fraud for spreading a conspiracy theory that encouraged people to make a bad financial investment they would benefit from?

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    ## Steven King does not believe his stories are true ## People are allowed to profit from fiction.
    – Dale M
    May 10 '21 at 22:17
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    I think a differentiating factor here is the way the material is presented. Fiction novels are usually obviously so, and purchased in the fiction section of a(n online) bookstore. These theories are presented as truth. I'm not saying it's fraud, and don't think it's 'safe' as a society to prosecute it as such, just don't think this is the best analogy to make that point.
    – TCooper
    May 11 '21 at 1:07
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    It's worth noting that the speaker's belief about the truth of their statements can make a difference in civil libel cases in the US. Statements against public figures must be made with "actual malice" to be libelous (NYT v. Sullivan), which means in practice that you have to prove that the speaker knew the statements to be false (or that they had reckless disregard for the truth.) However, this is different from the crime of fraud or any criminal liability. May 11 '21 at 11:58
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    to what it was worth prior to 9/11 — did 9/11 have much of an impact on the value of the dinar? Iraq was not involved, nor were any Iraqis.
    – gerrit
    May 11 '21 at 15:12
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    @gnasher729 The difference is between being mistaken (legal) and potentially committing fraud (illegal).
    – Barmar
    May 11 '21 at 15:16
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Most probably not. The elements for fraud generally include:

  • a stated fact that is false and material to the fraud
  • the fraudster's knowledge (or willful ignorance) that the fact is false
  • the fraudster intending that the mark should be suckered as a result
  • the mark's ignorance that the fact is false
  • the mark's reliance on the false fact
  • the mark has a right to rely on the false fact
  • the mark has an actual damage/injury resulting from it all

It'd be really hard to prove all of that to get to fraud... not impossible, but very improbable IMO.

It'd be much easier for your dinar scheme to go after him for securities violations or similar.

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    Well, for civil fraud the low bar to clear is "preponderance of the evidence" i.e. "more probable then not". An interesting question is whether paying for the service of obtaining information in itself is an injury already if the information is known to be wrong to the seller. E.g., telling your prospective customer "I'll give you proof that the Earth is flat and the Commies eat babies", but telling your friend "these idiots even pay for my pamphlet!". May 11 '21 at 14:20
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    @Peter-ReinstateMonica I'd submit that paying for incorrect information is a defective product problem.
    – webmarc
    May 11 '21 at 16:26
  • That's an interesting take! May 11 '21 at 17:03
  • In the question's dinar theory example, the falsity is material. In the general "getting paid to spread conspiracy theories you don't believe" case, the falsity is not material. May 11 '21 at 18:54
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    It depends. For example if Tucker Carlson is the huckster, a judge has agreed that he's "not stating actual facts". Basically, determination of right to rely upon statements cannot be divorced from context.
    – webmarc
    May 11 '21 at 19:24
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Let's say for now we have definitive proof that the person hosting a site that spreads conspiracy theories does not believe their theories are true, say they are recorded making fun of their watchers for believing the nonsense they say, including explicitly saying they make it up because people will pay to hear it.

I'm guessing you're asking if this is 'wire fraud'. I expect that if the advertised offer is that "people will pay to hear it", then so long as they actually hear it, that's not fraud. It would be different if people paid to hear it and then they failed to deliver what people wanted—if they didn't hear what they had paid for. If the customers are satisfied, it doesn't matter how the seller values it. Different people can legitimately value the same goods/services differently. A salesperson selling fairy unicorn dolls to little girls does not have to believe in fairies themselves.

It is also highly dangerous for the purposes of Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Belief to set any sort of 'truth' standard on what is allowed to be said. Who gets to decide 'the truth'? Authoritative sources are sometimes wrong. New discoveries can sometimes contradict a widespread 'common sense' orthodoxy, and sound crazy. The Earth is spinning around the sun. Time passes at different rates for different people depending on how fast you move. If you think a claim is wrong, the proper response is to present the evidence and argument you think proves it wrong, not try to silence it or punish it. That only drives it underground, where the glamour of being persecuted and the absence of contrary arguments only makes it stronger and more persuasive. And there are always other people who think many of our beliefs are false and crazy! We don't want to be persecuted for wrongthink ourselves. Tolerance for and a listening openness to differing beliefs, even beliefs we hold in contempt, makes our own beliefs safer and more secure. As Noam Chomsky put it: "If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all." If we don't grant freedom of belief to other people, why should they grant it to us?

It's probably also worth noting that this isn't "definitive proof", as they may instead be lying when they say they don't believe it. Somebody who believes in conspiracy theories may deny it in conversation with someone (e.g., an employer or a friend or family member) who would treat them negatively if they were discovered to 'believe in conspiracy theories'. "No, of course I don't believe in banned religion X/heretical politics Y! It's all a load of nonsense!" The same goes for any socially unacceptable heresy. People who are commonly persecuted for their beliefs frequently hide them.

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    The second example in the question is a well-known scam. Perhaps address that as well? May 11 '21 at 10:20
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    Isn't deciding the truth what the legal system is for? Despite Freedom of Speech, we already allow people to punish others for libel, or for making claims when it harms their business (see, for example, the current Dominion Voting Systems lawsuit), and it seems like that has a better chance of clearing things up than trying to disprove claims outside of the courts. May 11 '21 at 17:06
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    @user3153372: no, the legal system is for deciding whether and how to apply the government’s monopoly on pro-active violence.
    – jmoreno
    May 12 '21 at 1:38
  • the premise at the beginning of the answer eerily sounds like facebook's business model :)
    – Thomas
    May 12 '21 at 21:15
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Generally speaking, this is only true in the case of statements about publicly held securities presented in a manner that suggests that it can be relied upon.

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People don't have to believe Alex Jones and Infowars to find the content entertaining. My boyfriend enjoys Jones because he likes watching the man's crazy antics as he defends that chemicals in the water "turn the freakin' frogs gay". There's also the case that, on that matter, Jones is right for the wrong reasons: Frogs are especially sensitive to chemical changes in the water and several frog populations have dramatically dropped due to sensitivity to chemical sensitivity in the water, which means a lower breeding population overall. Yes, chemicals in the water does dramatically reduce the rate of tadpole eggs quite noticeably... but I doubt it's because frogs are now batting for the other team.

Jones makes his money the same way that people on any television show from Fox to CNN to Fox Mulder do: Ad revenue. It's only a problem if he is being untruthful in this avenue.

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    This doesn't seem to answer the question in any way.
    – bdb484
    May 11 '21 at 2:07
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    Alex Jones also sells a number of products that he promotes on his show, including making various claims about what the products do.
    – Ryan M
    May 11 '21 at 4:43
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    "I doubt it's because frogs are now batting for the other team." It's because it's turning them intersex and infertile, instead, which is presumably what he meant by "gay". pnas.org/content/99/8/5476
    – nick012000
    May 11 '21 at 8:02
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    It's a lot harder to justify Alex Jones' claims that the families of the Sandy Hook victims are liars as just good fun. Some people obviously do believe his dangerous lies.
    – Eric Nolan
    May 11 '21 at 9:00
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    @Obie2.0 They're both a part of LGBT, which could be described as "gay" by someone who's a non-expert and doesn't care about offending them.
    – nick012000
    May 11 '21 at 22:20

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