6 Horrifying Realities Of Dealing With Sandy Hook 'Truthers'
On December 14, 2012, Lenny Pozner's six-year-old son Noah was one of 27 people murdered by Adam Lanza in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Pozner has since been consistently insulted and threatened by people who think he and his son were actors paid by the government to stage a crisis for reasons that only make sense to those whose thought processes sound like shrieking lemurs.
Pozner and a volunteer network he founded have been fighting back against these harassers using tactics like threats of legal action and YouTube takedown requests. That sounds like the worst thing in the world, so naturally we wanted to hear his story.
The Conspiracy Theories Began Immediately
Below is an example of the messages Pozner gets every day. If you don't feel like reading it all, let's just say that it begins with "You're a fraud and an asshole" and ends with "Rot in Hell you fucking prick."
We can't really remember the whole middle part, due to blacking out in anger every time we try to read it.
How long do you think it takes conspiracy theorists to turn nasty after a national tragedy? A year? A month? "They emerged immediately," says Pozner. First on the scene was Jonathan Lee Riches, an ex-con infamous for filing countless frivolous lawsuits. In a YouTube video posted two days after the shooting, he argued that Lanza had been mind-controlled by the Illuminati. " left voice mails for Nancy Lanza and Ryan Lanza on December 14. On December 16, Riches descended upon Newtown and pretended to be a relative of Adam Lanza. He got arrested, but he made videos right away about how it was a conspiracy to take away civil liberties."
Riches was soon arrested for violating parole, but he was only the vanguard. Merely glancing around the internet, it's not hard to come across examples of Sandy Hook conspiracy theory "tourism." We found an "inquisitive couple" that visited Newtown a little over a month after the shooting and were shocked to find that people didn't want to talk to them (clearly a sign of a cover-up!). Another theorist's website says they visited in 2014 to argue that the entire town is fake. Shit, why stop there? Maybe the entire USA and its history are an elaborate charade intended to deprive 300 million people of their gun rights.
Gun rights which, you may note, remain unfuckingchanged.
So yeah, picture the craziest person you've ever met, multiply their insanity by 10, and then imagine that they've been cloned to build a small army. That's what Pozner deals with daily. Search for "Sandy Hook conspiracy" on YouTube and you'll get 244,000 results. One 20-minute "documentary" has three million views. Popular talk radio personalities like Alex Jones quickly jumped on board, rallying his fans to the noble "All These Dead Children Are Phony And Their Grieving Parents Are Actors" cause. It's a rabbit hole without end, and Pozner threw himself into it just weeks after the shooting.
And when has Alex Jones ever been wrong about anything?
"I was outraged by what I was seeing unfold, particularly by someone like Alex Jones, who has a sizable audience. So I emailed him in January and called him out for suggesting that this was a staged event and that we were all so-called 'crisis actors' faking our grief. He invited me on his show, but I would have nothing to do with him. It was barely a month after my son was murdered, and I was still in a fog of grief and denial. The last thing I wanted to do was deal with the press."
If conspiracy theorists could name a king without immediately beginning to suspect that their monarch was a reptilian Illuminati stooge, Alex Jones would be that king. His radio show gets two million listeners a week, and his websites and videos pull millions of views. In an article written five days after the shooting, Jones' site said "it would take a fool not to question the motive behind it all: Is this all part of an evil pre-conditioning program?" And that was just the start of their coverage.
You might assume that this kind of craziness would quickly die down as conspiracy theorists find some other target. Sometimes that does happen. This was not one of those times.
At Some Point, Conspiracy Theorists Turn Into Hateful Trolls
Over the years, Pozner's harassers abandoned any pretense of constructing theories and devoted themselves to spewing personal abuse. "These people aren't 'truthers,' they're hoaxers. All of their ridiculous theories have been debunked. They manufacture evidence, falsify documents, and misrepresent facts to create their own whacked-out version of reality."
That's the trick they use. Publicly, they present themselves as "truth-seekers." How can you get mad at someone who wants to investigate the facts or "have a conversation"? After all, they're "just asking questions." But privately, all they do is spew hate and quibble pointless technicalities so their little bubble doesn't collapse. For example, to contribute to the public record, Pozner released Noah's death certificate. Hoaxers immediately started picking it apart, trying to hold their ideas together with a bunch of nonsensical arguments about font choice and layout like someone fixing a broken sofa with duct tape, if the sofa were also on fire.
He's also seen plenty of pictures like this one, which accuses his family of being fake based on the logic of ... uh ... Noah's mom being incapable of leaning over?
Though we do question the research abilities of a site that lists the wrong URL in its own logo.
That's the pleasant stuff. Lately, he's been dealing more with messages along the lines of these:
Day after day of "No one shot any innocent civilians" from people who seem capable of doing exactly that.
You're also welcome to listen to some threatening phone calls he received, if you were feeling too upbeat and optimistic today. Get your slur bingo card out.
Those are all examples Pozner rattled off in moments -- the first examples that popped into his head. A few seconds of browsing comment sections will turn up more:
Tel Aviv? Guess if you're gonna let the hatred flag fly, might as well have it at full mast.
Yes, misappropriation of country music is the real tragedy.
It's been three years of threats, insults, and reminders that people think his deceased son never existed. Oh, and it doesn't help that Pozner's Jewish. "That's always thrown into the mix, and then the comments on YouTube videos are always anti-Semitic." Remember, the harassers have to keep finding new angles to keep things fresh, to keep the mob from getting bored. "The latest rumor is that I produce pornography. Obviously, this a ridiculous lie. Hoaxers invent stories, and their followers accept them as the truth without doing any fact-checking."
Pozner showed us one video, creatively titled "Fuck You, Lenny Pozner," which was tagged "Noah Pozner, Hoax, Pedophile." Hey, why not toss that in too? In lieu of showing it to you, because it contains both pornography and an extremely graphic picture of a dead child, we're going to let you take a breather with this video of a baboon reacting to a magic trick:
Feel free to watch it twice. It's only 16 seconds and we've got four more entries to go.
Feeling refreshed? Let's continue ...
Sandy Hook Was A Perfect Storm For Conspiracy Theorists
The thing to remember about conspiracy theories is that they're not built out of thin air. The "anomalies" and errors in the official record are very real. Witness memories are imperfect, reporters get sloppy on tight deadlines, mistakes get made. One news outlet got the dates mixed up (saying Noah was killed on December 15th instead of the 14th) and that's all the crackpots needed ("THEY ADMIT HE DIDN'T EVEN DIE THAT DAY!!!"). Of course, if 100-percent perfect reporting is your standard, then World War II was also a hoax. No non-hoaxes have occurred in world history, but in the world of conspiracy theorists, each new error or misprint sends the mob into another frenzy.
When 141 people were killed in a 2014 terrorist attack on a school in Peshawar, Pakistan, Noah's face appeared in the hands of a mourner at a vigil there:
What, no elaborate theory that Pakistan doesn't actually exist, internet?
Metabunk (Snopes' more conspiracy-minded cousin) concluded it was either an intentional message of solidarity or an accident, because when you're Googling images to print out for your memorial to 132 murdered children, you're probably not in a calm, fact-checking mindset. But it just reignited harassment of Pozner, because to hoaxers it was further proof of a vast international conspiracy. "Noah's image was seen in a BBC broadcast. When hoaxers caught wind of this, they created the myth that he was being identified as a victim of the shooting in that country." You know, as if the conspirators weren't able to come up with enough fake victims, we guess?
Apparently, the vast international cover-up has a really slim budget for stock photography.
But while there have been conspiracy theorists "investigating" every national tragedy, none have been quite as persistent and venomous about harassing the victims as the Sandy Hook truthers. Why?
"Sandy Hook was particularly traumatic," says Pozner, "primarily because of the age of the victims. That put a spotlight on the parents, who were constantly hounded by the press for statements. Some of these interviews didn't sit right with the conspiracy-minded, especially those who feared that the tragedy would be used as a pretext for gun control. So they looked for anything to paint us as villains."
Reminder: a pretext for gun control that never happened.
It's also a case study in how the availability of information doesn't mean people are well-informed. The conspiracy-minded with a particular kind of confirmation bias have mountains of information to sift through for that one nugget that supports their "side." "Unfortunately, the internet gave them all the ammunition they need," says Pozner. "You could find out anything you wanted to know about a family member. One reason this may not have happened to the parents of Columbine is because the Internet was in its infancy back in the 1990s ... there were no social media pages like Facebook, where people divulge the most intimate details of their lives."
For example, the conspiracy theorists especially like to harp on the fact that Noah's mother wore lipstick to her son's funeral. In their minds, that's proof she's an actor, because what grieving mother would bother to put on lipstick? You know, something that's probably part of a comforting daily routine?
"How dare you not be a disheveled wreck for us to hurl insults at?!"
But had she not worn lipstick, they'd be making the opposite argument. "What kind of callous mother wouldn't bother to get dressed up for her own son's funeral?" There's always an explanation, always a way to warp reality to make the conclusion they've already arrived at make sense.
If you can even figure out what this is trying to say, we'll give you a goddamn trophy.
You Learn What Makes Conspiracy Theorists Tick
You have to have a, well, unique worldview to think that you live in a world in which scores of people will happily collect a paycheck pretending to be the victims of an unthinkable tragedy so the government can take advantage of a mourning nation. And Pozner's noticed a trend among those who hold that view. "I used to think these people were open-minded truth seekers. Not so. For the most part, they're socially reclusive narcissists. They're literally in their own little world."
Studies back his observations up. Conspiracy theorists often feel that they have no control over their lives in the grand scheme of things, but their theories at least assure them that there is a grand scheme. The people secretly running the world may be evil, but at least there's someone in charge, and we aren't randomly hurtling through space until we all die. Their lives matter. Now remember that picture of Noah in Pakistan? How could a supposed vast international conspiracy be so sloppy? Hoaxers thought the government did it on purpose to taunt them. That's their mindset: In a world where parents sometimes see their children murdered, the conspiracy theorists are really the ones in the middle of the story. It's all about them.
"Question everything ... except why an all-powerful shadow society spends its time taunting nobodies on the internet."
"For some people," says Pozner, "that helps them cope with how uncertain and fragile life really is." Sandy Hook was, after all, an especially powerful reminder of life's fragility. So while we might stereotype hoaxers as lonely basement dwellers, Pozner noted that a lot are parents with kids who can't process the idea that what happened to Pozner could happen to them. "They don't want to believe that someone could look a six-year-old child in the eyes and pump bullets into their face. No matter how fantastical the theory might be, it's easier to accept than that reality." It's almost enough to make you sympathize with hoaxers, except for the part where they sent a grieving father death threats for three straight years.
But then there are the people profiting from it all. Conspiracy theories are a big business. Alex Jones makes $10 million a year, enough to keep him in only the finest bottled-water-filled fallout shelters for life. It's easy to find overpriced books promising to tell you the "truth" about Sandy Hook, and it's just as easy to find sections within them dedicated to spreading lies about Pozner and Noah. Meanwhile, the fundraiser for Pozner's HONR Network is sitting at 235 dollars (sorry to disappoint you, crazy man who accused Pozner of making millions).
Hopefully sitting at just a bit more after this article.
It Becomes A Self-Sustaining Cycle
Okay, you've seen how soul-crushing all of this can be. So why does Pozner seek this stuff out every day instead of ignoring it?
"The perspective that if you ignore them the theories will dry up and die is an old one," he says. "It's total bullshit. It doesn't apply anymore. Modern-day conspiracy theories are like a thought virus. And the only thing a virus wants to do is replicate. The troll just wants to create more trolls ... I get hate mail from some as young as 15. 'We're watching you, we're going to get you, you're a traitor, and we're going to bring you to justice.' A certain amount of the population is easily suggestible."
If you Google Pozner or Noah's name, the top results are a 50/50 split between legitimate information and hoaxer sites. And it used to be worse. "It used to be 90 percent garbage and 10 percent good stuff. That's when I got busy and went after websites and videos that defamed the memory of my son. Today there's less libelous material out there, but it's a constant struggle."
Protecting the good name of a murdered six-year-old shouldn't be a full-time job.
That struggle will continue. Remember, JFK assassination conspiracy theories are still going strong more than half a century later. You have 37 percent of American voters who think global warming is a government hoax, 24 percent think the government knew about 9/11 in advance, 20 percent think vaccines cause autism, and 7 percent think the moon landings were faked.
But if your uncle started talking up the Oliver Stone JFK movie as if it were a researched documentary, you'd probably roll your eyes and change the subject. He's just being skeptical of The Man, right? But Sandy Hook proves how toxic this belief system can be, especially once the believers start to dehumanize their targets.
"Conspiracy theorists are so concerned with the technical aspects of an event," says Pozner, "that they fail to empathize with the victims. They'll watch the footage of JFK being shot over and over again looking for anomalies and fail to see the tragedy these people had to endure ... They don't see the woman who lost her husband, who has to raise her children without a father, who's scared out of her mind and wants to get out of that car... that's not a conspiracy, that's very real life."
Turns out that with enough recitals of "Back, and to the left," you can forget this is graphic footage of a murder.
But try convincing a true believer who, at this point, has become addicted to that endless rage. As Lenny Pozner can tell you, slamming up against this brick wall of callous delusion is exhausting: "A good part of my day is spent devoted to this cause, and the task often seems overwhelming. I have some devoted supporters who help lighten the load, but it's still draining. I feel like I need to unplug. It just ... it just stresses me out. There are too many crazy people and not enough resources."
Still, There Are Tiny Hints Of Progress
Pozner does get glimpses of daylight here and there. "Today, our most energized volunteers are former deniers. With the help of a lot of good debunking material out there, they've had a chance to look into these Hoaxer claims and realize that they don't hold up." Pozner described a "moment of clarity" when all the pieces fall into place for a hoaxer. Occasionally they apologize, but most of the time they simply quietly return to their lives. Even at the end, they won't admit they were wrong.
Still, progress is progress. "I do have plenty of worthwhile accomplishments to feel good about. I would consider the firing of a tenured professor who defamed my son as a major victory ... On the downside, places like Twitter have been a constant cesspool of abuse. I have zero respect for Twitter."
We can't begin to imagine why.
That "tenured professor" is James Tracy, who used his position to promote his views and harass Pozner. He still hounds Pozner through his personal conspiracy site. Pozner and his team of volunteers have also had hundreds of YouTube videos taken down, blogs shuttered, and books pulled. "The HONR Network, goes after hoaxer videos -- not to be confused with conspiracy theory work in general, which is critical of news or government and can often times be healthy for a free and open society. We look to takedown videos, books, and websites that defame and slander murdered children and surviving family members."
Pozner hopes HONR will grow into a support network, but as anyone who's ever organized anything more complicated than a dodgeball team knows, this sort of work isn't easy -- especially when it involves dedicating yourself to a task that can make you hate humanity. "Trolling has no boundaries. I'm hoping the HONR Network can evolve into both a victim support organization and a platform for taking action against those who torment the families of violent crime victims."
Believe it or not, grieving parents have bigger concerns than skeptical YouTubers "Just asking questions."
Meanwhile, the hoaxers do fight back. Alex Jones' Infowars wrote multiple articles fanning the fires after HONR got one of his documentaries pulled from YouTube, and they're a multi-million-dollar operation. It's a fight that's one-sided because it's so hard for bystanders to comprehend that a fight between parents whose children were murdered and people who send those parents death threats could even be happening.
You can also learn more about HONR's mission here, if you're interested. But either way, please remember this:
Conspiracies do happen. Politicians make backroom deals, celebrities cover up sexual assault, and rich people stash their money in secret places to avoid taxes. But before you find yourself tempted to go down a conspiracy theory rabbit hole that involves a supposedly staged tragedy, stop to acknowledge the humans involved.
Conspiracy theories persist because they're fun -- an X-Files episode playing out in the real world. Everyone wants to feel like they're the truth seeker slaying the monster. But when you find yourself spamming death threats to a grieving father because you detected a factual error in a news report, you're no longer the truth seeker; you're the monster.
You can donate to HONR's fundraiser here. You can find Mark on Twitter, and he also has a story collection.
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