In January 2016 — three years and one month after 6-year-old Noah Pozner was murdered at Sandy Hook his father Lenny was enjoying a day with Noah’s two sisters. The pleasant day was interrupted by phone calls from an unknown number. Four calls in five minutes. Lenny listened to the first message and closed his phone returning to his daughters. Later that evening, at home, he put on headphones, so his daughters could not hear, and played the rest of the messages. The first two said:
Did you hide your imaginary son in the attic?
Are you still fucking him, you fucking Jew bastard?
Sandy Hook: Ground Zero For Post-Truth World
As a lifelong Southwest rural Ohio resident, I’m accustomed to red hats, Fuck Joe Biden flags, and conspiracy theories posted on Facebook. In 2020 I read them in the comment section of the Preble County Health Department. Today I read them in the comment section of Ohio GOP politicians who represent Southwest Ohio. Some, though, are not in the comment section. They are posted by the GOP politician. The willingness to spread, and not silence, these lies prompted me to read Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth by Elizabeth Williamson.
It’s a long read — 450 pages — and the first four or five chapters are difficult. Williamson does an excellent job forcing the reader to face this dark moment in American history. But the book, as the title suggest, is also a deep dive into the danger conspiracies pose to our democracy. Williamson interviews amateur conspiracy theorists and online agitators. She interviews attorneys and reports on academic research and political theorists. She also, of course, interviews Alex Jones and his ex-wife Kelly, the pair who built a financial empire at Infowars — on the bodies of murdered kids.
Due to the book’s length, and the depth of the reporting, I won’t write a traditional book review. However, it is important to note one of the main heroes is Lenny. Williamson details Lenny’s years-long battle to end the conspiracies — culminating with his courtroom victories against Alex Jones.
GOP Leverages Conspiracies
As Williamson weaves Lenny’s story — and the story of other Sandy Hook families — together she builds her argument that Jones may have laid the groundwork for a post-truth world, but conservative politicians like Ted Cruz and charlatans like Donald Trump — whose Big Lie is lifted from the Infowars playbook — perfected the game.
Trump rose to power posting whataboutisms, insinuations and conspiracies and, after he was elected, he pushed even more conspiracies. In 2017 when many hoped he would transition to becoming more presidential, Newtown officials sent him a letter asking him to publicly acknowledge the Sandy Hook massacre occurred — town officials thought it might silence the hoaxers. Trump ignored the letter.
It will be a 2018 U.S. Congressional hearing about Sandy Hook that further underscores the lack of humanity, accepted as normal, by the GOP.
When a father, whose daughter was murdered at Sandy Hook, is asked to testify before Congress, Cruz shows there is no bottom. The father, one of Alex Jones’ first targets, moved to Oregon in the aftermath of the mass shooting, yet years after the murders — and 3,000 miles away from the crime scene — he is confronted on a public street near his home by a hoaxer ginned up on YouTube conspiracy videos. But Cruz, unconcerned about the man’s plight, begins his questioning — first by mangling the slain girl’s name — then by using his time, not to better understand Sandy Hook, but to push conspiracy theories that conservatives were being silenced on social media (despite Ben Shapiro receiving the most daily interactions on Facebook.)
Sandy Hook, The Big Lie, The Insurrection
Countless GOP minions would promote the Big Lie (that the election was stolen) and this led to the January 6 Insurrection. In the aftermath of the attack, 147 GOP politicians would vote to overthrow the election. Although immoral, this is unsurprising. As a Standford University professor Williamson quotes in the book says,
“For those who are pushing the fraud narrative, the actual truth is beside the point. The idea that the election was stolen is becoming a tribe-defining belief. It’s not about proving something at this point. It’s about showing fealty to a particular description of reality.”
This is visible in Southwest Ohio. GOP representatives currently in office took to social media, on Jan. 7, 2021, in the aftermath of the violent attack to condemn the Insurrection. On the first anniversary, in 2022, they were mute. The lie mainstreamed by the GOP. It may be Lenny’s attorney who best explains why.
“A large portion of our political culture has perhaps correctly deduced that there are things that are way more useful, more potent, and more powerful than truth.”
Surveys show 70 percent of Americans get their political news from social media — a troubling trend. But even more troubling when you understand that social media’s bread and butter is content that generates outrage. The more outlandish, the greater the interactions, so algorithms push the content, further amplifying outrage. This is why nearly every post by Jim Jordan, a Republication Congressman from Ohio, follows a basic format:
- Name a legitimate problem
- Offer no viable solution
- End with a polarizing statement (for Jordan its often ‘Joe Biden’s America’)
Jordan, who is unskilled at legislating, but highly skilled at provocation, now has an ally on Twitter. With Twitter firmly under the control of a billionaire oligarch — whose understand the monetary value of controlling content — a new wave of misinformation and outrage is unfolding.
It’s detrimental to our freedom because angry, confused and misinformed voters are the easiest to manipulate.
Williamson does offers suggestions, and if you only have time to read part of her book, just read that section (at the end of the book). A major part of the solution, she says, is de-platforming bad actors. As she, and others, have reported, the origin of the Covid vaccine misinformation campaign — those lies peddled by GOP politicians — can be traced back to 12 entities*. As Williamson notes, deplatforming those 12 would have saved lives. Another approach is following in the footsteps of Lenny. Lenny educated himself on U.S. laws. He wrote op-eds. He filed complaints with Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Google to have content removed. He sued Alex Jones (and won). He painstakingly, and humanely, confronted hoaxers online. He concludes stronger regulation of social media companies is needed. He would know. His personal information — everything: social security numbers, cell phones numbers and home addresses – is online. That’s how the demented conspiracy theorist was able to leave those disturbing messages on his voice mail. It’s why credible threats on his life occurred.
The attack on his freedom was caused by bad actors protected by bad public policies.
Ending this assault on freedom begins at the local level. State and local politicians — including members of the U.S. Congress — need their feet held to the fire whenever they amplify conspiracies. And, if they choose not to confront conspiracies posted in the comment section of their posts — call them out while also posting the correct information. But more importantly create new content streams. Write posts. Write op-eds exposing their lies. Because, in a country where the fathers, mothers, grandparents and siblings are denied the freedom to visit a murdered child’s grave we deserve elected officials with the moral courage to silence the voices of bad actors.
If we, as individuals, let the lies go unchecked the U.S. will be controlled by a political party that lacks the integrity to confront George Santos.
*Sorry to break it to you but your local commissioner or state representative did not do exhaustive Covid vaccine research — or even have an original thought — they just pushed Covid misinformation spoon fed to them by conspiracy theorists.