Sandy Hook mass shooting unleashed the fake news battle

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Michell Eloy

(crop to show middle): “They [the families of Sandy Hook shooting victims] believe in the system still, despite everything that's happened to them. They feel like there will be some change, and that if people hear this and they get mad enough, that they will help them,” says Elizabeth Williamson, author of “Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth.” Credit: Dutton.

The 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut — in which a gunman killed 20 first graders and six instructors — birthed an online community hostile to reality, one that fed off itself despite evidence to the contrary. 

That’s according to Elizabeth Williamson, author of “Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth.” She’s also a New York Times feature writer. 

She says following the tragedy, families quickly felt like they were inundated with attention and were adrift in a sea of (mainstream) media coverage. She cites a quote from Leonard Pozner, the father of the youngest Sandy Hook victim, Noah Pozner: “We felt like spectators to our own tragedy.”

Conspiracy theories started to quickly form too, and Alex Jones started his daily “Infowars” radio show as details of the shooting were coming out. 

“His listeners were … pushing him to say, ‘Wasn't this a false flag, an event staged by the government as a pretext to confiscate Americans’ firearms?’” she recalls. “And eventually, that's where he went. … Because he does have a pro-gun agenda … [he could see that] denying that the shooting ever happened or [pushing] that it didn't happen the way the government and the official narrative said it did — was useful to him.”

The internet and social media also helped bring together a community of conspiracy theorists that fed off each other, Williamson notes. 

“When people gather online to share their suspicions, first of all, they start from a place where they're deeply distrustful of the federal government, typically. They distrust all official narratives of major events … especially if they're coming from the mainstream media. …  These are people who have found a new purpose. … This was something where they could all latch on, they could gather together, they reinforced each other,” she explains.

However, Sandy Hook families filed four defamation lawsuits against Alex Jones in mid-2018. Jones spent years obstructing the process by not delivering documents and not showing up for depositions, Williamson says.  

“Finally, at the end of last year, judges in Texas and in Connecticut, where the suits were filed, ruled him liable by default, meaning that beginning in April, he will appear in jury trials. But the total goal of these trials, and there will be three of them, will be to determine how much Alex Jones has to pay the Sandy Hook families in damages. So it's a resounding victory for them.”

How are the families doing now, nearly 10 years after the shooting? Williamson says people she spoke to for the book have a grace that blows her away. “They believe in the system still, despite everything that's happened to them. They feel like there will be some change, and that if people hear this and they get mad enough, that they will help them.”

Read an excerpt from Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth by Elizabeth Williamson

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