CH@T: ‘Sandy Hook’ author traces false narratives from 2012 tragedy

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On the morning of Dec. 14, 2012, a 20-year-old man shot his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, with two rifles and a handgun. He then turned the guns on those inside the school, murdering 20 1st graders and six educators before killing himself. Police later discovered he’d killed his mother before coming to the school.

There have been more than 1,300 school shootings in the U.S. since 1970. The tragedy of Sandy Hook, of course, was the worst mass shooting at an elementary school in U.S. history. Tuesday’s shooting in Uvalde, Texas, adds to that macabre list.

What unfolded afterward in the Newtown shooting was also a tragedy: conspiracy theorists who not only propagated lies about Sandy Hook through social media, but insidiously harassed the parents of the survivors, threatening them online and at their homes in the months and even years that followed. Studies show that at various points as many as 20% of Americans believe that mass shootings like Sandy Hook are hoaxes perpetrated by either the government or some shadow, clandestine entity.

New York Times feature writer Elizabeth Williamson’s book, “Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth,” is a compelling, engrossing account not of the shooting at Sandy Hook, but about what happened in the hours, the days and the months that followed as conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones of InfoWars used their platforms to incite and enrage millions of listeners and followers. (Jones, for example, claimed no one died at Sandy Hook and that child actors were used in the “false flag” event designed to boost gun control measures.) It’s also the story of how false conspiracy narratives and malicious misinformation have gained traction in today’s America.

The News + Record’s Bill Horner III interviewed Williamson for The Chatcast, the podcast of the CN+R and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Carolina. You can find the full 50-minute interview wherever you listen to podcasts. Here’s a portion of that interview, edited for length and clarity.

How did you, as a feature writer for the New York Times, get involved in covering the Sandy Hook story’s aftermath?

It was in the middle of 2018, when the families of two Sandy Hook victims were suing Infowars conspiracy broadcaster Alex Jones in Texas. Initially, I thought that this would be a really interesting test of the First Amendment; Alex Jones, and many of these conspiracy theorists, repeatedly claim it protects the falsehoods that they spread online and the harmful content that resulted in years of torment and threats against vulnerable people — in this case, the Sandy Hook families. But then I talked with Lenny Pozner, the father of Noah Pozner, the youngest Sandy Hook victim, and he helped me understand that Sandy Hook was really a foundational story about how false narratives and misinformation are gaining traction in society. So it goes from Sandy Hook to most mass shootings to Pizzagate, QAnon, Charlottesville, coronavirus myths, the 2020 election conspiracy and then finally the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol.

You built relationships with two very distinct groups as you researched the book — the parents and some of the family members of the victims, and then also some of the most fervent and ardent believers that Sandy Hook was a false flag event. What was it like for you, as a writer and as a reporter, and as someone who works in the truth business, to navigate between these two groups?

Early on, my first outreach was to the families. I started to learn about what had happened to them and I was almost ashamed to say that I really didn’t know what all they endured. With the exception of Lenny Pozner, who made it his life’s work to confront these people — these conspiracy theorists — the prevailing strategy at the time that it was happening, up until they filed those lawsuits six years after the shooting, was to just don’t feed the trolls, remain quiet. Don’t confront these people; it’ll only make it worse.

Without Lenny, we wouldn’t have known really what was happening.

As for the conspiracy theorists, they were much easier to get in touch with and to speak with — and to have very long exchanges with because there’s a kind of evangelical aspect to them. They want you to hear their theories. They want to see if they can convince you. They feel like they’re in possession of superior knowledge.

They’re deeply distrustful of all government narratives, and that distinguishes them, of course, from the rest of us, who are distrustful of some.

And there are, of course, examples of when the government’s lied to us and when there have been cover-ups. But to cross over and suspect every government narrative and every official account, and all mainstream media reports, is another thing entirely that really hint at the psychology.

A lot of them had trauma in their backgrounds, and the biggest thing that they were looking for was a sense of community. They would gather online and embroider these theories, share them, build each other up, and praise each other for finding new ripples in the plot. They had a bond around themselves.

I was talking with Lenny the other day, and I’ve said a couple times in different interviews that it isn’t about getting a sort of psychic income from this. They elevate themselves. And he was saying it’s even more than that — they develop an entirely new personality around this. They become people in possession of this superior knowledge about a major event …

You delve deeply into the “payoff” that the conspiracy theorists get from being a part of the conspiracy community …

Yes, absolutely. So for [radio host and broadcaster] Alex Jones, of course, it’s all about financial gain. In recent years, his revenues have been in excess of $50 million a year. He had this ingenious business model where he would sell diet supplements to people who are distrustful of traditional medicine. He sells untraceable gun components to people who don’t want to register firearms with the government. He sells doomsday prepper merchandise for people who are preparing for the end of times. So that’s one motivation.

And some of the smaller-time hoaxers had similar efforts. They were raising money online. Wolfgang Helbig, a former educator down in Florida, raised more than $100,000 to fund two dozen trips to Newtown and an endless pursuit of public records that he thought would somehow convince him of the veracity of this false theory that he was extending.

For most people, I would say it really was a kind of psychological benefit — they developed a new persona around themselves, and for that reason, it’s very difficult to get these people to let go of these theories. Once they embrace them, they’re really reluctant to give up on it.

As a result of the efforts of people like Lenny Pozner, so much of what used to be online about Sandy Hook hoaxes has been scrubbed from sites like YouTube. What relief has that given the family members of the victims of Sandy Hook?

Lenny told me that when Noah was sleeping, he used to go into his room and sort of just inhale his scent, you know — that sort of baby scent that children have.

And I immediately thought about what he had been saying about traces of Noah’s life that were online and what happened to him — his short life, his death, the truth of how that happened. These were children so young; there were so few facts about their lives to begin with because they were so brief.

And then there were thousands upon thousands of videos and websites and this material devoted to saying the shooting didn’t happen, or that these people were liars, or that these children didn’t exist — so that if you Googled Sandy Hook, the lies were the first thing to come up.

The thing that really drove Lenny was this idea that Noah’s scent, his essence, could not be erased; his legacy had to be preserved. Not only his, but those of all the victims and their families and the story of what really happened. And that was the driving thing for him.

In writing the book, you confronted hoaxers with the truth — you’d prove something to them, and then they’d shift the argument to another little kernel of something they’d latch on to that was a lie … What was what was that like for you, as a journalist, to try to be an arbiter of truth to these folks?

It was frustrating, you know, telling them the facts.

Kelly Watt, who is a mom of two children and a grandmother of two, has a house cleaning business in Tulsa, Oklahoma. And Sandy Hook became an obsession of hers. Her particular point of inquiry was, Who cleaned up the school after the massacre?

And she made hundreds of phone calls and really tormented people with these questions. She fed these questions to Wolfgang Helbig, who we mentioned earlier was one of the Big Sandy Hook conspiracy theorists, who then put these questions into public records requests over and over and over.

And in actual fact, the records had been released — the name of the company, exactly what happened, what was done, what was removed, how it was disposed of. All of those things were a matter of public record already. So it was about the request, rather than about the actual facts.

I found that record. I called the company. It took me grand total of one phone call to find out that the company is called Clean Harbors, and they do biohazard cleanup. They actually cleaned up Ground Zero after 911. They explained to me what happened, but I already knew that because it was public record with every detail.

And when I brought that to Kelly Watt and showed it to her, I said, “How could you for years be pursuing this?” And she just sort of said, “Well, I didn’t know that. Well, that company actually doesn’t do that.”

I said, “No, I confirmed with them. They did, in fact, do that. And the records exist, and they have been accessible to you all these years.”

And she just turned around and said, “Where are the receipts?”

So there’s always some other thing. It means too much to someone like Kelly Watt. She’s gotten too much out of this … she now calls herself an author and a researcher and an investigator. She’s never going to be convinced. And here’s the New York Times interviewing her — that never would have happened if she hadn’t grasped on to this theory.

So the real answer in confronting these people successfully is to try and get to people before they embrace these theories, and teach them a little bit of skepticism and social media hygiene.

What’s been the response to the book?

I’ve been really gratified by the reviews of the book. I think people who have read it and studied it understand that it’s less about the violence on that terrible day in 2012 and much more about the violence that would await us if we don’t do something to rein in the spread of misinformation and disinformation in this country.

The families [of Sandy Hook] themselves who have read it, in reading Lenny’s story, have gained a new understanding and what it meant both to him personally, and for them, to have him decide to make it his life’s work — to fight back against Alex Jones, and all of these conspiracy theorists, and to identify new tools for battling back against that. So that’s been a really hopeful part of it.

And most importantly, I just so grateful to the families for trusting me with their stories. They relived this terrible chapter in their lives because they want to help all of us, and because despite everything they’ve been through, they have hope that there will be change.

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