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Sandy Hook ushered in new era of conspiracy and lies, author finds

Photos of Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre victims sits at a small memorial near the school on Jan. 14, 2013 in Newtown, Conn.
John Moore
Getty Images
Photos of Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre victims sits at a small memorial near the school on Jan. 14, 2013 in Newtown, Conn.

On Dec. 14, 2012, a gunman shot and killed 26 people, including 20 first graders, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Robbie Parker's 6-year-old daughter Emilie was among those murdered.

The next day, Parker became the first family member to speak publicly about the shooting. Stepping up to the podium, Parker emitted a nervous, half-laugh before he gathered himself together and began to reminisce about Emilie's short life.

New York Times journalist and author Elizabeth Williamson says that Parker's reflexive response to the tragedy would later become fundamental to a massive conspiracy campaign that claimed what happened at Sandy Hook was a sinister government plot designed to encroach upon gun owners' rights.

Alex Jones, who hosts a conservative radio show and the website InfoWars, broadcast Parker's statement repeatedly, Williamson says, and "People picked up on this and this laugh, this sort of split-second moment in a several minute long, just anguished presentation, and they said that this small, gasping laugh was evidence that [Parker] was lying."

Denying that the Sandy Hook mass shooting had occurred became "a highly symbolic thing," Williamson says. "People did this for reasons of ideology. They did it for, in Alex Jones' case, profit. They did it for psychological reasons. There was a tribalistic bonding that happened around this."

Williamson's new book, Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth, examines how conspiracists tormented the victims' parents by accusing them of being "crisis actors." In the years since the tragedy, the families have endured relentless online abuse, stalking and personal threats. In 2016, Parker was visiting Seattle with his family when a man approached him on the street and accused him of lying about Emilie's death, as Williamson recounts.

"That 3,000 miles away from Newtown, he would be accosted four years later by someone who believed the lies about Sandy Hook ... gives you an idea of the power of these lies and the way they travel," Williamson says.

Some Sandy Hook parents have fought back, battling online platforms to take down much of the hoaxers' content and suing Jones for defamation. Jones has lost four defamation suits to Sandy Hook parents and is now facing scrutiny from the House select committee examining the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol. Williamson sees a direct a connection between the lies spread about Sandy Hook and those told about the 2020 election.

"In the Cold War, it took a sophisticated foreign adversary like Russia to sow nationwide discord," she says. "Now all you need is an Alex Jones or even a guy with a smartphone who has access to social media. That is a really ominous development, and it also points to the next election, because we don't really need Russia to sow disruption in our politics anymore. We are doing a pretty good job of it ourselves."

Interview highlights

/ Dutton

On details that conspiracy theorists cite as "evidence" that the shooting was fake

On the day of the shooting, ... there was just this outpouring, as we all remember, of grief and generosity and offers of help. At some point, somebody delivered port-a-potties to an area outside the firehouse. It was probably a local merchant. ... No one really knows how they got there, but they were put there because the place was teeming with family members, with first responders, with media, and somebody probably thought that would be helpful.

[One conspiracy theorist] repeatedly requested some kind of receipt, some kind of documentation. He was convinced that the appearance of these port-a-potties was evidence that the whole thing had been planned in advance and that every possible contingency had been provided for before the shooting actually occurred. That was one such claim. Years worth of public records requests went into this.

On the absurdity that conspiracy theorists believe the massacre was a government hoax

You'll recall that in December of 2012, President Obama had just been reelected. Newtown went for Mitt Romney. So the idea that this town had coordinated and cooperated with the newly re-elected president to stage a seamless plot as a pretext for confiscating American's firearms is just beyond absurd. It certainly pales as a whopping falsehood to any of these specious details that these "hoaxers" ... could possibly dig up showing anomalies in the reporting or initial errors in what was broadcast or strange reactions by parents.

On the difference in the online treatment of the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007 and the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012

In 2007, the worst school shooting in American history occurred in Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. That was 32 people killed and 17 wounded. I went and talked to Lori Haas, whose daughter had been wounded in that shooting. And I actually asked her, "Can you go through your Facebook page and just tell me if anyone came to you with a conspiracy theory or called you a liar?" Because she was very visible in an effort to change the nation's gun policies in the aftermath of Virginia Tech. So she went back and she said, "Boy, I'm really looking. I don't see anything. Here are condolences. Here are some people wanting to know if I'm going to attend this or that event or rally." And so here was a woman who is very active in the gun control effort post Virginia Tech, who couldn't find a single thing.

But I think that points to what actually happened: The 2007 social media make up was a tiny fraction of what it was in 2012, when Sandy Hook occurred. ... While maybe some people had some conspiracy theories around Virginia Tech, they had no means for spreading them the way they did in 2012.

On how Lenny Pozner, father of victim Noah Pozner, was successful in his efforts to remove content on hoaxer Facebook groups

The thing that he discovered that became kind of a main tool in his toolkit was the copyright laws. ... Lenny maintained a memorial Google Plus page to [his son] Noah that included a lot of images of Noah and his sisters and videos of him. And these conspiracy theorists would go onto that page and lift the images and use them in videos in making false claims and blog posts and Facebook pages and such. So [Lenny] owned that material. So that is something that is within the rules that violates these social media platforms' terms of service. So he could get that material taken down. So he and his HONR Network volunteers amassed lists by the thousands of videos, posts and various claims that were made about Sandy Hook using those images, and the companies would take those down.

On why removing content made Pozner a target for Alex Jones and his followers

[That] was one thing that these individuals couldn't stand. They didn't care that the families would make statements talking about how they had moved so many times because their address was being put online, or the torment that it had put their surviving children through. ... They didn't care about any of that. They did care if their material was being taken down. That, to them, was a violation of their First Amendment rights. ... So [Alex Jones] flew into a fury when this happened, and that was all really it took to gin up a lot of fury out there among his listeners against Lenny. ...

[Lenny] has lived in hiding ever since he began to engage these individuals, the hoaxers, the spreaders of Sandy Hook conspiracy theories. They have repeatedly posted his personal information, his Social Security number, his phone numbers and those of Veronique, his ex-wife, his family and extended family, online. He has moved, at this point, about a dozen times.

[Lenny] has lived in hiding ever since he began to engage these individuals, the hoaxers, the spreaders of Sandy Hook conspiracy theories. They have repeatedly posted his personal information, his Social Security number, his phone numbers and those of Veronique, his ex-wife, his family and extended family, online. He has moved, at this point, about a dozen times, mostly because these people keep posting his address online.

At one point, there was a conspiracy theorist who had spread some of these lies about Sandy Hook, who was living around the corner from him. ... [Lenny] doesn't allow people to see his face [in interviews]. He doesn't allow himself to be photographed in the media, and these conspiracy theorists had picked up a detail in the railing of the balcony of his apartment building outside the window and tracked the building and posted it online. Another time, a man who has since been convicted of assault, called him the day he moved in, or a couple of days later. and read his new address to him over the phone. So he's never been able to really settle until very, very recently, because he's in constant fear that someone is going to take action based on what they believe that they read online.

On why Pozner says he won — despite being doxxed and tormented

There was a thing that Lenny told me early on that really stuck with me. He told me about how after Noah died, that he was searching for anything that smelled like him, clothes that maybe hadn't been washed, anything that smelled like his son, because he remembered how he would, at night, go into [Noah's] room when he was sleeping and he would inhale that scent, that if you have children, anyone knows of a sleeping baby. That really resonated with me, because what he was saying was that all trace of Noah was gone by a few months afterward. He couldn't find that scent. And what he was basically saying was Noah's essence online, the record of his life and death, was in danger of being obliterated in similar fashion by these lies. Where if you googled "Sandy Hook," you would find not an accounting of the crime or a tribute to the victims – you would find these lies. And he realized that if this continued, if he didn't try to stop it, that Noah would fade, like his scent, to nothing and that his legacy would not survive.

And [Lenny] has succeeded. If you check it out, if you google [Noah] today and you google the "Sandy Hook shooting," you will find a factual representation. You will not find lies and conspiracy theories and Alex Jones broadcasts. And to [Lenny], that is a victory. The other thing is that Alex Jones, his name is never mentioned any more without that being attached to him, that this was the person who spread lies about Sandy Hook that resulted in years of torment of these families. And that also, to Lenny, is a victory.

Sam Briger and Joel Wolfram produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.