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How conspiracy theories went mainstream

We live in an age of misinformation. Sandy Hook was just the beginning.

Infowars founder Alex Jones speaks into a bullhorn at the Texas State Capitol in Austin, Texas, on April 18, 2020.
Sergio Flores/Getty Images

When New York Times reporter Elizabeth Williamson first heard that the family members of Sandy Hook shooting victims were suing Alex Jones, she thought it would be an interesting opportunity to explore whether — as Jones claimed — the First Amendment protected him against claims of defamation for criticizing the family members and sowing doubts about whether the school shooting really happened. She began interviewing the parents, including Lenny Pozner, whose son Noah was killed, and documenting his yearslong battle against Jones and his cadre of conspiracy theorists.

In reporting her book, Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth, she realized that the story was much bigger than that. “Sandy Hook was a foundational moment in the world of misinformation and disinformation that we now live in,” Williamson says. During the Trump era, conspiracy theories that might have once existed at the margins of American political life became a central feature. Conspiracy theorists also seemed more emboldened to act on their beliefs. “I traced a throughline: from Sandy Hook to Pizzagate to QAnon to Charlottesville and the coronavirus myths to the election lie that brought violence to the Capitol on January 6th,” she says. “I started to understand how individuals, for reasons of ideology or social status, tribalism, or for profit, were willing to reject established truths, and how once they’d done that, it was incredibly difficult to persuade them otherwise.”

Jones is now facing several defamation lawsuits brought by family members of the victims in Connecticut and Texas, where his company is based. Last year, a judge in Texas ruled that Jones was liable to pay damages to the victims, citing a pattern of bad faith and refusing to cooperate with court proceedings. This week, a jury trial was supposed to begin to determine how much money Jones owed the victims, but at the last minute Jones filed for bankruptcy, and his legal team moved to have the proceedings shifted to a federal bankruptcy court — a maneuver that forced the judge to delay the trial. A lawyer for the families told the Austin American-Statesman that he expects the trial to take place this summer.

Vox spoke with Williamson about the ongoing legal fights, what she learned about conspiracy theorists, and how the viral spread of lies following the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, relates to the larger threats facing American democracy.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why do you think Sandy Hook drew so many conspiracy theorists?

It was seen by both sides in the gun policy debate as a watershed moment. A crime this horrific, killing so many children, who were so young — both sides in the gun debate knew it would lead to a real battle for legislation. Alex Jones, within hours of the shooting, was portraying it as a false flag operation, a gun grab by the federal government. That became the narrative that took hold. That was one reason.

The second reason is it happened at a moment in history when we had a tremendous uptick in social media use. I talked to Lori Haas, whose daughter was wounded at Virginia Tech, and I said,Can you dig through your Facebook account and tell me, did anyone call you a crisis actor or a fraud or say you staged the shooting?” Lori had gotten very involved in gun control advocacy after the Virginia Tech shooting — she was traveling and going to rallies — so she’d be someone who was targeted. She went through and said, “I can’t find anything but I also didn’t use Facebook very much back then.”

In 2007, when Virginia Tech happened, there were 20 million global users of Facebook. In 2012, five years later, there were more than 1 billion. YouTube had 100 million videos viewed every day in late 2006. In 2012, when Sandy Hook happened, the “Gangnam Style” video that Noah Pozner liked so much had 1 billion views. Twitter was only a year old in 2007; there were about 5,000 tweets a day. By 2012, there were 5,000 tweets every second and 400 million tweets in a day.

There’s another reason why Sandy Hook was one of these watershed moments. It came at a moment when President Obama had just been reelected and there was a reaction to his election in general, this sense that he was an outsider and was going to propose some sort of draconian measures on people. His presidency was fertile ground for a lot of conspiracy theorists.

Parishioners pay their respects at a makeshift memorial to the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting before mass at St. Rose of Lima Church in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 16, 2012.
Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images

What do you think drove the Sandy Hook conspiracy theorists?

It’s less about politics than psychology and a need for social connection and status. Many of the people that I interviewed for the book who are conspiratorially-minded started out being on the political left and then they moved to the far right. What I learned through the psychologists and the political scientists I interviewed for the book, about the motives behind the spread of these conspiracy rumors, is that it can be about fact-finding, it can be about a shared doubt in the official narrative. There’s an element of self-esteem involved — they are possessors of superior knowledge. It’s, as one family member described it to me and psychologists have confirmed, an element of narcissism: You’re the only person who knows. There’s a sort of smugness I noted —I guess you only understand half the narrative at best” — that kind of thing.

When Lenny Pozner entered a Sandy Hook denial Facebook group, he was determined to treat people with respect, to answer their questions and convince them that yes, this crime really happened, using the records of Noah’s birth certificate, his post-mortem examination. He thought presenting the records to them would maybe help convince them of the fact that he was a grieving father of a victim. He quickly learned there was such cohesion among them that he couldn’t do it. They had gathered every night, talking late into the night and praising each other for finding new ripples in the plot. They’d dug through documents. They were building each other up. They’d found, in each other, almost an alternative family. It was much more about tribe and belonging for them than it was about pure politics, even though most of these theories are political in nature.

I think it also has something to do with the abject horror of what happened at Sandy Hook. It seems almost psychologically easier to deny that it happened.

You’re absolutely right. A lot of people, in the earliest days of the Sandy Hook Hoax Facebook group, were young moms who had children around the same age. One who I interviewed, Tiffany Moser, said, “I got online and I was like: I am here for anyone who can tell me that these babies didn’t die the way they told us they did.” That was a significant group of people early on. They couldn’t face the horror of it.

When Lenny had the confrontation with the Sandy Hook Hoax group, some of the moms DMed him on the side, and they went on to found a group, Conspiracy Theorists Anonymous. They realized how awful this was, what people were doing to the families — he convinced them and they became really committed volunteers. A lot of these young moms also became the core of the HONR Network, which Lenny founded, to take this disinformation down.

Why did this fight to have the conspiracy theories taken offline fall almost entirely on the shoulders of the parents of the victims?

Robbie Parker, one of the parents, talked about how for years he was determined not to let bullies like this get to him. That’s a persistent reaction to this kind of thing: Don’t feed the trolls and they’ll go away. Lenny was the parent who, because he had a tech background and knew how social media algorithms will keep peddling disinformation to people who are mildly interested in it, he said, “It’s not going to work.” But he had a hard time persuading anybody to help him. He was appealing to the Connecticut congressional delegation and the FBI when people started making threats and calling his house.

It was really the families themselves who realized this isn’t just happening to us, and it’s not ending after a year or after the gun debate dies down. It’s persisting and metastasizing to other high-profile mass shootings. And now it’s Pizzagate, now it’s the coronavirus — the fact that these theories started attaching themselves to every major mass shooting was what convinced family members that this was not going to end, that this was a societal phenomenon, not a Sandy Hook phenomenon.

A couple attends a Pizzagate demonstration outside the White House in on March 25, 2017.
Michael E. Miller/The Washington Post via Getty Images

What can big tech companies do to better protect people like the Pozners and other victims’ families from damaging conspiracy theories?

They need to do more to stop the algorithmic spread of this material. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that this is a business model for them. As Kara Swisher has said repeatedly: “Enragement is engagement.” Incendiary material keeps people online longer, and going back and forth — that is absolutely what their business model is maximized to encourage. The longer you stay online, the more time they have to scarf up personal details, preferences, and desires. They send you more content to keep you online even longer, and sell it to advertisers who target you for things you want to buy. That’s the model.

To the degree that that can be disrupted, we’ll all be better off. Hany Farid espoused this idea that the big tech companies don’t get Section 230 protection from defamation claims if they use that defamatory material and send it to people to try to keep them online. If it’s part of their business model, they should be held liable for damage it causes. That struck me as a pretty elegant solution.

The other thing I think is getting into the psychology of people. Sander van der Linden at the University of Cambridge did that ingenious study using an online game to show people how the sausage is made so they can use that desire for superior knowledge the next time they encounter a conspiracy theory online. The game asks them to design their own viral conspiracy theory. You have to, for the game, demonize some group. You figure out how to make it go viral, so when you encounter a conspiracy theory online, you’re more likely to report it and less likely to spread it. He’s seen a lot of success with it in the realm of election lies. It shows a lot of promise because it gets to people before they embrace a conspiracy theory and refuse to let go.

What’s the connection between the lies and conspiracy theories that lead people to deny that Sandy Hook happened, and the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6?

One thing that has been a throughline is that the audience for this has never really changed. The genius of Alex Jones, like Donald Trump, is that they have identified a segment of the American population that is deeply distrustful of all government narratives, of all sources of “official” quote-unquote information like the mainstream media, and they have turned them into a constituency.

It’s a target market for Jones’s products: diet supplements and alternative cures for people distrustful of traditional medicine, untraceable ghost gun parts, doomsday prepper merchandise, and so on. Roger Stone made the connection for Trump to go on Alex Jones’s show because he’d identified his audience as deeply distrustful, paranoid, or suspicious of outsiders. They were so distrustful and looking for someone to back. That person became Donald Trump.

Like with Sandy Hook, the people who coalesced around the 2020 election lie were people that were really impervious to outside challenges. Anyone who came to them with outside facts, those people weren’t only villains in the plot, they were actually threats to this worldview and this social group they’d formed around this idea. They’d defend it with confrontation, or even violence.

The families have been fighting Jones for a long time now. How are they feeling about the lawsuits?

You’d think the families have reason to be incredibly cynical about the way things work, but they still believe that justice is possible and that their story can help improve things for the rest of us because they’re seeing the impact of the world of disinformation in communities all over the place and not just Newtown. I’m just so inspired by that belief. I did a book event recently and one of the questions was, “Are you more or less hopeless after writing this book?” I was like, “How could I be hopeless when they’re not?” They’re incredibly hopeful. They’re pushing, and they believe that the misery that they went through could be put to good use — which to me is just marvelous, and also heartbreaking.