On December 14, 2012, I covered the murder of 20 school children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Even then, it struck me – and no doubt many others – as a watershed event.
If the country could tolerate a mental patient gunning down first graders as they squat in a school toilet – doing nothing to address gun violence – nothing would ever change. Even in a country accustomed to mass killings, what could be worse?
For the families of the victims, however, there was a grim coda to the murders that is the subject of Elizabeth Williamson’s disturbing and important new book. Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth. Almost immediately, conspiracy theorists insisted that the murders had not really taken place. That it was in fact a “false flag” operation designed to promote a gun control agenda. The afternoon the news broke, Alex Jones, the pompous radio show host The Alex Jones Show and the website Information wars, said “My instinct is, with the timing and everything that happened, it’s staged.” For years after, a ragtag collection of conspirators used Facebook groups and YouTube videos to promote their theories, and Jones – who made money pushing water purifiers and dietary supplements on his radio show and its website – gave them a forum. His audience has grown. “Your reputation is amazing,” former President Trump told Jones in a 2015 interview.
The conspirators could be shockingly indifferent to the pain of the families. When Robbie Parker, whose 6-year-old daughter Emilie was killed, smiled nervously at the start of a press conference, it was taken as evidence he was a ‘crisis actor’, hired to play the grieving father.
Parents were inundated with calls and emails telling them their children had been spotted somewhere, Williamson writes. The harassment went far beyond simple social media trolling. The families of the victims have had their home addresses and financial data published. They were followed in the street. “I won’t be satisfied until the caskets are opened,” Williamson said, citing one of the more forceful pranks.
It’s tempting to dismiss people like that as stupid or uneducated. In fact, several of the most prominent conspirators have taught at well-known public universities. James Fetzer, a retired philosophy professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth, has written a free PDF book titled No one died at Sandy Hook which has been downloaded at least 10 million times, Williamson notes in his book.
“Unimaginably, over time, the words ‘Sandy Hook’ would come to symbolize a grim development in America’s cultural and technological history, turning a school massacre into a battle for truth,” writes Williamson.
A parent would become the unlikely hero of the story Williamson tells. Lenny Pozner, whose son Noah was among the victims, initially tried to engage the conspirators, joining their Facebook group one night to answer their questions. Pozner himself was an occasional listener to Jones, and figured he could speak the language of pranks. The effort largely failed. “Let’s bump that dude, we have no proof he’s real,” Williamson wrote, the group’s moderator announced after three hours.
So Pozner fired back. At first, he called for help from Facebook and the other big social media companies, which — legally protected from lawsuits for content passing through their doors — had little incentive to stop the flow of misinformation. Facebook, as Williamson puts it, is “tailor-made for toxic groups — anti-vaxxers, white supremacists, conspiracy theorists — to find and recruit new members.”
But Pozner learned that families could sue when conspirators used copyrighted material, such as family photos, and he formed a group of volunteers who monitored the web for violations. He was also one of a handful of families who sued Jones and the Hoaxes for libel and won.
In a way, his effort succeeded. Jones hasn’t publicly mentioned the words “Sandy Hook” in a long time. But Pozner would pay the price for his activism, having to move repeatedly when hoaxes published his home address, Williamson writes. Nor is it clear that his efforts changed many minds. Take a look at the comments posted whenever a mainstream media article about Sandy Hook appears on YouTube. And Posner’s efforts haven’t stopped similar conspiracy theories from emerging after other mass shootings. “I recognize scripted PR when I hear it,” Jones said of one of the survivors of the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
A columnist at The New York Times, Williamson is a compassionate storyteller and thorough reporter who never loses sight of the larger issues that Newtown presents. “Sandy Hook occurred on the cusp of a profound shift in American politics, in which politically expedient ‘alternative facts’ reinforced objective truth,” she wrote.
In other words, there’s a straight line between Sandy Hook and other outlandish claims being made right now about the 2020 election and Covid vaccines. The United States has always had its share of conspirators. What has changed is the internet, which has made it easier for them to find each other and share half-baked ideas. At a time when facts have never been more accessible, Williamson writes, truth has become an increasingly elusive commodity. Or, as Pozner himself put it, “We thought the internet would give us this accelerated science and information society, and really, we’ve returned to flat earth.”