Inside Story

Bearing the unbearable

Parents of the Sandy Hook victims took on conspiracy theorist Alex Jones with stunning results

Matthew Ricketson Books 10 October 2022 2628 words

“Angry, mendacious and heedless”: Alex Jones speaks to reporters outside his second defamation trial last month. Michelle McLoughlin/Reuters

Imagine the worst experience of your life. Double it. Now imagine a popular talk show host telling millions it didn’t happen. Worse, that you had staged it.

You can stop imagining because this is what happened to parents of the twenty children murdered at Sandy Hook elementary school in 2012. Infowars host Alex Jones told his audience that the mass shooting had been faked to strengthen the case for tougher gun control laws.

Infowars’s report on the day of the attack was headlined “Connecticut School Massacre Looks Like a False Flag Say Witnesses.” What was going through Jones’s mind, we might wonder, when he declared, “Don’t ever think the globalists that have hijacked this country wouldn’t stage something like this”?

What is remarkable, and is documented so compellingly in Elizabeth Williamson’s book, Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth, is that these and other flagrantly untrue statements didn’t crush the parents.

One of them, information technology consultant Lenny Pozner, was already a regular listener to Jones’s far-right Infowars program when the shooting occurred. His six-year-old son Noah was among the victims. In January 2013 he heard a segment insinuating that Noah’s mother Veronique had “performed” an interview with Anderson Cooper in CNN’s TV studio while pretending to be in Newtown, Connecticut.

Pozner sent a strongly worded complaint to the program. Responding, an Infowars producer thanked him for sharing his “point of view” and said Jones would like to speak to him. But the producer wanted to know, “How can we confirm that you are the real Lenny Pozner?” Pozner later learned that the split-second glitch in the CNN broadcast that Jones had identified as evidence of fakery had actually been created by the Infowars production team when they converted the interview from its original format to the one used on their own platform.

Pozner was not interested in exposing his family to further hate by appearing on air. But he did begin assembling documents about Noah’s life and posting them on his Google+ page. The flood of negative, carping responses led him to contact the Sandy Hook Hoax Facebook group and subject himself to several hours of online grilling by people demanding he provide evidence for the most minute details of the shooting and accusing him of making money “trolling the internet.”

The group’s site manager drove off anyone who seemed willing to give him a fair hearing. Williamson is struck by the group’s determined defensiveness. “They were a ragtag army of errant thinkers holed up in a Facebook fortress, fending off intrusions of truth.”

Reading about these events is disturbing enough, but the feelings of Noah’s parents and other Sandy Hook families as the campaign against them unfolded are scarcely imaginable. Pozner tells Williamson he felt like a spectator to his own loss, adding: “We thought the internet would give us this accelerated society of science and information, and really, we’ve gone back to flat earth.”

Jones was only one of the early deniers, and he pursued the issue — according to Dan Friesen, who co-hosts a podcast, Knowledge Fight, devoted to critiquing Jones — because of the threat the massacre posed to his pro-gun agenda. “Once there are kids that are dead, Alex can recognise that denial may be a useful tool. On some level he knows that if these events are real, it’s a decent argument for gun control.”

So far, so bad. Williamson goes on to describe an ugly dance between Jones and a coterie of academics pushing conspiracy theories about Sandy Hook, including Maria Hsia Chang, a retired China scholar from the University of Nevada, James Tracy, a journalism professor at Florida Atlantic University, and James Fetzer, a professor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota.

Chang posted the addresses of the families whose children were killed at Sandy Hook on her blog, Fellowship of the Mind, prompting people to appear at their homes, follow them and look through their rubbish bins searching for proof that the attack was a sham.

Tracy was among the first conspiracy theorists to use the term “crisis actors” — people employed to play the role of grieving families — about Sandy Hook. “Why are select would-be families and students lingering in the area and repeatedly offering themselves for interviews?” asked a January 2013 Infowars article drawing on Tracy’s speculation. “A possible reason is that they are trained actors working under the direction of state and federal authorities and in coordination with cable and broadcast network talent to provide tailor-made crisis acting that realistically drive [sic] home the event’s tragic features.”

Fetzer, for his part, drew on an undefined “research group” to compile a book whose title left no room for doubt about his view: Nobody Died at Sandy Hook: It Was a FEMA Drill to Promote Gun Control. (FEMA is the Federal Emergency Management Agency.)

Despite his dispiriting experience with the Facebook group, Pozner continued his efforts, this time by writing opinion pieces for newspapers pointing out the extent to which he and other Sandy Hook families were being besieged by online hoaxers and by Jones. In 2014 he set up his own online group, HONR, attracting volunteers willing to help him push back against the conspiracy theorists.

The new group began asking the online tech companies to take down blatantly false information, citing specific violations of their terms of service. But they were blanked. Notices about pornography would get the online companies’ attention but little else did, writes Williamson, noting both the irony and the hypocrisy. “The publication of pornography is supported by the First Amendment, enshrined by the courts as a signal test of free-speech principles,” she writes:

But here were the social platforms, scurrying to take down porn while trotting out the First Amendment to explain why they didn’t remove abusive content. Why? Because despite what they say, the platforms are all about pleasing their advertisers, most of whom don’t want their ads adjacent to sexually explicit content.

Pozner and his volunteers then found a stronger lever — copyright laws. The 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act prohibits unauthorised use of copyrighted content on any digital medium, regardless of whether the material is registered with the US Copyright Office. The act doesn’t make internet service providers liable for unwittingly displaying infringing material, but it does require them to remove it once a complaint is received.

To illustrate their posts, the conspiracy theorists would copy images of Noah or other victims of the shootings and then upload them. That’s copyright theft, Pozner thought, and began filing takedown notices, with significant success. When he succeeded in having a picture of Noah removed from an Infowars item in 2015, Jones was apoplectic — admittedly his resting disposition — and spent almost two hours railing against this dire curtailing of his free speech.

Undeterred, Pozner and HONR continued filing notices. When James Fetzer’s book was published they shamed Amazon into removing it from sale. Mainstream media began publicising their efforts and eventually both Fetzer and Tracy were forced to leave their university posts.

In the way of the internet, though, Fetzer released a free PDF of his book that was downloaded at least ten million times. It was like playing Whac-A-Mole with the “conspiratorial–industrial complex,” as Williamson calls it.

Williamson, a journalist with the New York Times, begins her book by reminding readers of what happened on 14 December 2012 when Adam Lanza, a twenty-year-old former student of Sandy Hook who had been showing clear signs of mental disturbance since he was eleven, shot and killed his mother at their home and then drove to the school in Newtown, Connecticut. There, he used three guns to kill twenty children aged six or seven, and six of their teachers, before turning one of the guns on himself.

The details Williamson provides are bleak. Lanza was 183 centimetres tall but weighed only fifty kilos and slipped through the school’s gates and bollards “like a letter through a slot.” The Lanza family gave their home to Newtown after the killings, and the small town’s officials ensured the Lanza house and all its contents were destroyed to prevent anything finding its way onto the murder-memorabilia market.

This was the worst school shooting in American history except for the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech, where twenty-seven students and five faculty members were killed before the gunman, Seung-Hui Cho, committed suicide. As appalling as that shooting was, even more appalling was the age of the victims at Sandy Hook.

That in itself was a core reason for denying it happened, Williamson discovers when she tries to find what she terms “patient zero” — the origin of the conspiracy theories about the shooting. Although some inflammatory content from the time has been removed from the internet, the remaining records brought a disheartening realisation. “Within hours of the shooting,” she writes, “a mass of people more or less simultaneously decided that the shooting was faked.”

From the distance of a decade, writes Williamson, the shootings at Sandy Hook are clearly “the first mass tragedy to spawn an online circle of people impermeable and hostile to reality and its messengers, whether the mainstream media, law enforcement, or the families of the dead.” Since then, almost every high-profile mass tragedy — including the mass shooting at Uvalde elementary school in Texas earlier this year — has generated similarly disturbing online theories.

Lori Haas, whose daughter Emily was among the seventeen injured at Virginia Tech in 2007, tells Williamson the reaction to the Sandy Hook shootings was familiar from her own experience except in one respect. “We didn’t have the disinformation campaigns and the fuel that social media platforms generally give them.”

Facebook had twenty million users globally in 2007; by 2012 the figure exceeded a billion. Around one hundred million YouTube videos were viewed daily on average shortly before the Virginia Tech shooting; by 2012 the “Gangnam Style” video had become the first on YouTube to be viewed more than a billion times. Twitter was barely a year old in 2007, with 5000 tweets sent each day; by the end of 2012 the number was 5000 tweets per second. When a University of Miami political scientist set a up a Google alert for the term “conspiracy theory” in 2011 he received five media articles a day; by 2016 the daily number was between fifty and one hundred.

In 2018, Lenny and Veronique Pozner, seven other Sandy Hook families and an FBI agent targeted by the conspiracists sued Jones for defamation. More or less simultaneously, the biggest social media companies, including Apple, Spotify, Twitter and YouTube, began dropping Jones and Infowars from their platforms. Even the streaming site YouPorn dumped Jones, saying without a trace of irony, “Hate has no place on YouPorn.”

In the four years since then, the defamation cases have been wending their way through the courts. They may seem straightforward: surely claiming parents faked their own children’s deaths for financial gain is about as egregious a statement as you could make? But, as one of the lawyers representing the families pro bono remarks, proving defamation in the United States is harder than proving personal injury.

This is especially so in the case of public figures, who must prove they were defamed with malice or a reckless disregard for the truth. Jones’s lawyers have argued the Sandy Hook parents are public figures because they have lobbied publicly for tighter gun controls. One judge described this as “a very interesting question of law” given the parents were “involuntary” public figures “speaking after their child was murdered in one of the most horrific shootings in American history.”

Alex Jones’s circumstances had meanwhile undergone a curious change that paradoxically rendered him more vulnerable, even as his notoriety has soared. His relentless fanning of conspiracy theories had turbocharged the popularity of Infowars, as had his bromance with Donald Trump, doubling traffic to his site to fifty million views a month and boosting viewings of its YouTube videos to in excess of a billion. In 2013 Jones’s business was already bringing in US$20 million in revenue yearly.

“Jones got away with saying all this stuff before because he didn’t have an audience,” says Kyle Farrer, a lawyer representing Pozner. “Who cares what some guy yelling at clouds is saying? But now his megaphone is significantly bigger. He’s talking to this big audience and now he’s saying this crazy stuff that has a real effect on people. It’s like his rise is his downfall.”

For Farrer’s fellow lawyer on the case, Mark Bankston, the only threat Jones takes seriously is one that threatens his business. “If you make him understand that these kinds of ‘journalistic’ practices have a cost and an effect, and that he won’t be able to profit off of causing pain to a family, I think that’s a victory too.” Particularly if that message is heard by his acolytes and imitators.

Jones’s growing problem was that no matter how ridiculous we might find his unhinged ranting or his non-stop promotion and selling of products with names like Prosta Guard, Real Red Pill, Superblue Fluoride-free Toothpaste and Combat One Tactical Bath Wipes (“Baby wipes for middle-aged men who serve in a thrown-together militia out in the woods”), he was slowly, ineluctably being drawn into courtrooms where he had to abide by others’ rules.

This was unforgettably illustrated in one of the lawsuits playing out since Williamson’s book went to press. As a clip from the Law and Crime Network shows, Judge Maya Guerra Gamble found that she needed to talk to Jones as if he were a disobedient third-grader.

Judge: You must tell the truth. This is not your show. You’re already under oath. You’ve already violated that oath twice today. It seems absurd to instruct you to tell the truth again while you testify but here I am. You must tell the truth while you testify. This [pointing to the witness box] is not your show… Do you understand what I have said to you?

Jones: Yes, I believe what I said is true.

Judge (cutting him off): You believe everything you say is true. But it isn’t. Your beliefs do not make something true.

In the end, the answer to the question of what went through Jones’s mind as he began spouting his bile against the relatives of the Sandy Hook victims in 2012 is: who cares? The reason why he is “angry, mendacious and heedless of the wreckage he creates,” as his former wife, Kelly Nichols attests, is less important than the fact he is at long last being held to account for his words.

So far he has lost every one of the defamation cases launched against him, not least because he has refused to cooperate in the standard legal process of discovery and given judges little choice but to rule against him. Now that he has filed for bankruptcy the key question is: will he be able to sequester his wealth from awards for damages or will his business be ruined?

That he is in this predicament rather than continuing to rant with a voice that sounds, as Williamson puts it, like “twenty miles of rough road” is because of the determination of the Sandy Hook parents, along with all those who lent their expertise to the task. Asking what has been going through their minds, not just on 14 December 2012 but in the ten years since then, is the more pertinent question. It is also a much harder one to answer, particularly if you really do stop to imagine walking a mile in their shoes. •

Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth
By Elizabeth Williamson | Penguin Random House | $49.99 | 482 pages