In late April, one week before a trial began that would decide how much Alex Jones should pay the families of first-graders murdered in the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, the conspiracy theorist filed a motion in federal bankruptcy court. Jones, at the helm of a multi-million dollar right-wing media echo chamber, sought relief from the financial reckoning that was surely coming. Having spread lies that the shooting was a government fabrication and these grieving families (and even their dead children) were actually paid actors, having subsequently lost defamation suits filed by parents of 10 victims, Jones asked the court to approve a settlement fund of $10 million, to be paid to those families.
Meaning he would dictate their settlement, and likely never face those families.
When Elizabeth Williamson first heard about the bankruptcy plea (which has yet to be decided), she thought back to when she interviewed Jones for her new book, “Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth,” (without question the best thing I have read this year so far). She begins with an excruciating tick-tock of the shooting, then spirals outward, in ever-encompassing events, laying the groundwork for QAnon, Pizzagate, the Jan. 6 insurrection and the end of a shared American narrative.
But the meat of the book is a series of extraordinary portraits of online trolls who created a vast community centered on the lie that Sandy Hook was a hoax and its victims the actual perpetrators. Naturally, this brought Williamson to Texas, and the front door of Alex Jones and InfoWars.
She told me: “The incredible lengths he seems to be going through to delay jury trials and monetary damages, it resonated with me. He rarely confronts the targets of his falsehoods. (When they met), he didn’t get in my face or bark 2 inches from my eyes. He was leveling accusations against me and (the Times), from as far away as he could get in a conference room. He was seeking corners of the room. He was not used to this. After all that litigation, he has not faced those families, and that is what’s coming.”
Author and journalist Elizabeth Williamson in New York in 2021. Her new book explores the Sandy Hook massacre and the subsequent culture of misinformation and conspiracy. (Beowulf Sheehan )
Williamson covers politics and the Sandy Hook fallout (among other topics) for The New York Times. We spoke by phone recently. The following is a shorter version of a longer conversation, condensed for clarity and length.
Q: There’s a scene in your book, just after the shooting, in which one of the parents is answering press questions and clearly nervous and sort of smiling through pain — which is immediately seized on by online theorists as evidence that the massacre didn’t happen. Is that the exact moment when this started?
A: Actually, go back. It starts the day of the shooting, on Alex Jones’ broadcast. Within hours of the shooting, listeners were calling and pleading with him: “Tell us this was a false flag, tell us this was a government pretext for confiscating firearms.” There are two guys in Chicago, Dan Friesen and Jordan Holmes, whose podcast (“Knowledge Fight”) would eventually pull apart that initial broadcast, and what happens is that Jones slowly starts to come around to the conspiracy. When he realizes 20 first-graders were killed, he understands, as did many Americans on the right and left of the gun debate, that this will be a watershed moment and lead to a big battle over gun policy. Which came to pass.
Q: The story gets so big that I wondered if you had planned on a different book.
A: I did, yes. In the middle of 2018, when I first learned that the families of two Sandy Hook victims were suing Alex Jones, I thought it would be an interesting test of whether the First Amendment, as conspiracy theorists and Alex Jones claim, protects falsehoods spread online by millions of people that then result in years of torment and threats to vulnerable individuals. In this case, the Sandy Hook families.
But when I was talking to Leonard Pozner — the father of Noah Pozner, the youngest victim — he convinced me, and then I learned for myself, that Sandy Hook was really a foundational story of how false narratives and disinformation gained traction in America. You can trace a through-line from Sandy Hook to Pizzagate, QAnon, the violence on Jan. 6, 2021. I became interested in how this happened and what it means for the rest of us. Also, who are the people who embraced these theories despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary? The families thought at first if they just ignored it ... except Lenny, who would not ignore this. Because the same thing spread to every high-profile mass shooting after Sandy Hook, and that was new. (The families) watched these same crazy claims latch on to all these other shootings and they said they need to raise the alarm: This isn’t going away.
Q: Tell me about those who spread the conspiracy. Were they cherry-picking evidence? Only acknowledging facts that suited a narrative already decided on?
A: All of that, which is why social media played a crucial role. Conspiracy theorists have always been with us, but tended to be isolated — your uncle in Mount Greenwood who tells you theories at the family reunion or the guy on the “L” with Xeroxed sheets about JFK. Social media allows those individuals to find each other. They became a self-reinforcing group. They meet online, they talk, they cherry-pick published reports, police reports, the pile of documents that show this shooting happened. They look for what they call anomalies, then praise each other as they present new ripples in the plot.
Q: Which is why it’s so hard to have a conversation with people who believe this.
A: Right, because the first thing they say is, How do you know it’s not true? The biggest thing, though, is they don’t want to give up their community. Which is why I spent so much time with Kelly Watt, that woman in the book from Tulsa who owns a cleaning business.
She told me she always wanted to be a first-grade teacher. Which is stunning since she spent years tormenting the parents of first-graders. She didn’t finish college. There was a disappointment there, and she started embracing theories early on. In the ‘90s, she was convinced that liberals in the Department of Education were indoctrinating Tulsa public school children to turn them into compliant liberals. Which sounds like the Critical Race Theory debate now. And she used a lot of the same tactics that she deployed against Sandy Hook officials in Newtown, Connecticut — a barrage of phone calls, turning up at school board meetings, demanding information, trying to raise an alarm, building crates of “research” in her attic. In the meantime, her family was falling apart.
Q: Some of these people are isolated from their own families.
A: Yes. I learned so much from the daughter of Kelly Watt, who is smart, together, successful. She doesn’t see a heck of a lot of her mom and says Sandy Hook turned her from a Tulsa cleaning lady into a citizen journalist, a researcher, someone being tapped by Ph.D.s to write a chapter for a book called “Nobody Died at Sandy Hook.” It’s a social status she never had and was extremely reluctant to give up. As her daughter said, there’s a narcissism there. She sees herself holding superior knowledge. She’s smug and wants to persuade you and win over someone from the mainstream media.
Another one, Wolfgang Halbig, raised more than $100,000 to secure public documents and bolster his theory that none of this ever happened. He made more than two dozen trips to Newtown, he tormented families on their phones, he turned up at their houses. And he got income out of this. And he had been a school safety official in his younger days. He wanted to be a safety consultant in retirement, so he even actually approached Newtown and said that he wanted to help them and be paid for that and when no one responded, he turned into this unbelievable troll, committed to proving false theories.
Q: How did you approach them?
A: What I found was that, in almost all of these individuals, there is a kind of evangelism. They want to persuade you of their point of view. A lot of these people also became content providers for Alex Jones. A number of them also had some kind of trauma in their background. Kelly Watt, even while she was involved with looking into Sandy Hook, her son was in the hospital and later diagnosed with colon cancer. And even then she would still not get off the phone with me. They want to recruit you.
Q: Superior knowledge is useless unless you share it.
A: Exactly. Or unless you can school somebody. There’s a woman in Berkeley I talked to who kept saying if she worked at The New York Times, “here’s what I would be investigating, here’s what I would ask those families.” Did I know how the families “have doxxed” her? Which was rich coming from a retired University of Nevada professor who has made it her retirement occupation to dox every family touched by this massacre.
Q: How do they respond to glaring inconsistencies in their theories? They’re obsessed, for instance, that portable toilets arrived a little too quickly to the school parking lot once it was obvious there would days and days of work ahead. This told them that the shooting was planned between Newtown and the feds.
A: Remember, this shooting happened barely a month after Obama was reelected, and Newtown did not vote for Obama. They voted for Romney. Yet somehow, this hyper-democratic New England town seamlessly cooperated with a president they didn’t support. How do people respond when you point things like that out? Sometimes with smugness. But often with a kind of scramble for the next thread to pull. Again, Kelly Watt, her big question was: OK, who cleaned up the school? She sent that to Wolfgang, who then filed extremely graphic public-record requests, saying there had to have been skull fragments, brain tissues, 50 to 60 gallons of blood — who cleaned it up?
If you look at records released by the state police, they escorted a company called Clean Harbors into the school. (The police) counted how many containers of material were brought out and where it went, what happened to it. They swore the individuals (who cleaned) to secrecy. They forbid cameras or recording devices while the job was being done. I called Clean Harbors, which confirmed they cleaned the school. The report was in the public records, which were released without any FOIA request. When I confronted (Kelly Watt) with that, she said, “Well, Clean Harbors doesn’t do that kind of work.” So I said absolutely they do. They also cleaned up after 9/11. She said, “I haven’t seen that.” I said it’s there for you to see and if this has been your theory for many years, why didn’t you look? And so she replied: “OK, where are the receipts?” There’s always another question.
Q: When parents began fighting back, why do they go first after copyright infringements?
A: That was the ingenious tool in Lenny’s kit. (Leonard Pozner) had tried to join a Sandy Hook hoax Facebook group and use the records of his son’s life and death to answer questions, entertain theories, treat them with respect and maybe if they still didn’t believe, at least it might get them to stop going to the memorial websites and maligning parents in the comment sections. But no. He tried to appeal to social media companies and couldn’t get them to answer an email.
Then he realized you could nail (hoaxers) for using the images of their loved ones from families’ Facebook pages and memorial websites. These hoaxers would often lift images from these places, then put those images in their YouTube videos and websites — and that material belonged to those families. So social media companies were required by law to take those down, and because these companies are loath to run afoul of copyright law, rather than say “Hey, take out that image,” they would just nuke the entire YouTube channel or pull the plug on the website.
Q: Which makes conspiracy theorists furious.
A: Well, exactly. It didn’t matter what you call them. But the thing they really can’t stand is having to take their material down, which is what helps them raise money and give them online notoriety. And Lenny was getting stuff taken down by the thousands. At the same time, it also earned him the enmity of these people. Then the threats intensified.
Q: You end the book on a positive note, saying the parents won. But the story also suggests Pandora’s box is open. So what have they, or anyone, really won?
A: There is an emotional aspect and a practical aspect. On the practical side, (misinformation) is now a front and center topic of conversation. In Congress, on the right and left, it’s one of the few areas they can agree on, that this is beginning to threaten our democracy and the way we do business as a nation. The fact that Alex Jones has not spread more lies on Sandy Hook, the fact that every time his name is mentioned now, you can expect there to be a mention of Sandy Hook, that’s important.
But there’s another thing. In the days after Noah’s death, Lenny looked for something that smelled like his son. Similarly, Noah’s scent online, if you will, if Lenny didn’t fight now, lies would come to the top when you searched Sandy Hook, and stories of the victims would get obliterated by those lies and then Noah’s legacy would disappear, just like his scent. That drove Lenny. He has to keep the memory of his son pure, and I think that’s how many of these families see it. Their story is sacred, and they won’t allow it to be lost.