Books

The Second Tragedy of Sandy Hook

A new book tells the story of the hoaxers who tortured the parents of victims—and the court battle that brought down their ringleader, Alex Jones.

Alex Jones, in the middle of a crowd, roars into a bullhorn.
Alex Jones speaks into a bullhorn on April 18, 2020 in Austin, Texas. Sergio Flores/Getty Images

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The New York Times reporter Elizabeth Williamson’s Sandy Hook is a crime story, but it’s not the story of the tragedy immediately associated with its title, the 2012 mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school that killed 20 first graders and six adults, as well as the gunman himself. The crime Williamson details happened later, when conspiracy theorists, egged on by alt-right media figures, insisted that the shootings were faked. They instigated campaigns of harassment against the family members of the victims, some of whom were forced to move multiple times as unhinged cranks tracked down their addresses and telephone numbers to circulate online.

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This isn’t a situation with a whole lot of nuance. Any rational person, learning of the torments visited on parents who had already suffered near-unimaginable loss, would be disgusted and appalled. Williamson began covering the story in 2018, when a group of Sandy Hook parents filed suit against the radio host Alex Jones. In her deeply researched and painfully compelling book, Williamson makes the smart choice not to fulminate over the many, florid misdeeds of Jones and his lesser-known collaborators. Instead, she coolly assembles a great wall of evidence and observation, calmly documenting Jones’ myriad lies, and describing his gonzo shenanigans with an often amusing sobriety. Most effectively, she juxtaposes the sincerity of the bereaved parents with the red-faced, ranting Jones, whose broadcasts veer dementedly from hyperventilating proclamations of “TOTAL WAR, PEOPLE!” to pitches for the snake oil supplements whose sales fund his Infowars media empire. If ever a story called for the careful, levelheaded exposition of traditional reportage it’s this one, set against a relentless chorus of yelling. Furthermore, Jones—as he demonstrated last fall in courts in Texas and Connecticut, where he lost defamation lawsuits filed by 10 Sandy Hook families—is perfectly capable of hoisting himself with his own petard.

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Jones got his start in the 1990s on community access TV in Austin, Texas, pontificating ominously about Waco and the Oklahoma City bombing. (That the channel provided, as Williamson puts it, “favorite late-night stoner fodder” helps explain how Jones landed cameos in a couple of Richard Linklater films.) His first wife helped parlay his local celebrity into a viable business distributing videotapes in what she describes as a “snail-mail YouTube kind of thing,” but it was dietary supplements, some of which were sold via a multilevel marketing outfit called Youngevity, that made him rich. In one of the details that makes Williamson’s reporting so vivid, she notes that the couple spent a lot of the $5 million they made per year in 2012 and 2013 on a “Disneyland pool” complex with “basins, waterfalls, stone dining grottos, a restaurant-sized barbecue,” and a tap dance studio for Jones’ wife.

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Jones may be the bellicose villain of Sandy Hook, but the social media platforms that boosted him into this plush tax bracket are the vast, gray, faceless presences that enabled him. (Well, they do have a face in Mark Zuckerberg, who comes as close to gray facelessness as a human being can in Williamson’s account.) When the Sandy Hook families first learned of the conspiracy theories about the shooting—theories that Jones arguably originated and definitely promoted—some preferred to ignore them, believing that a response would only encourage people they regarded as trolls. Only Lenny Pozner—father of Noah Pozner, the shooting’s youngest victim—was, Williamson writes, a regular Infowars listener, and Pozner realized that Jones was not ignorable. He points out to Williamson that Jones would make dark allusions to a topic, telling listeners to “look it up.” Then, “if he can control millions of searches on a particular question, he’s shaping what’s trending,” shaping what the average naïve user perceives as what’s happening on “the Internet.”

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“Trutherism” predates the Sandy Hook shooting, predates even the internet itself, springing from a mindset that the historian Richard Hofstadter identified in a celebrated essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” published in 1964. Williamson, for her part, follows the lead of the parents in referring to the believers in these theories as “hoaxers” rather than “truthers.” One of the particular strengths of Sandy Hook is that it offers many in-depth accounts of and interviews with Sandy Hook hoaxers, a motley crew of misfits and crackpots. One man she spoke with, an unemployed aspiring filmmaker, came to his hoaxer beliefs after he watched a video about Bigfoot recommended to him by YouTube. His interest in that subject caused YouTube’s algorithm to serve him conspiracy videos questioning the 2012 mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado. That in turn delivered to him a “documentary” about Sandy Hook. At the end of this rabbit hole, to his later regret, he found himself working with the hoaxers making “exposés” about a variety of conspiracies. His rageaholic behavior during this period destroyed his marriage, and he ended up living in his car.

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Elizabeth Williamson in all black.
Elizabeth Williamson. Beowulf Sheehan
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Williamson also interviews Kelley Watt, a Tulsa woman so deeply involved with the hoaxers that, in 2019, she turned up at the Wisconsin trial of James H. Fetzer, a retired professor and author of a Sandy Hook hoax book who was being sued by Pozner for defamation. (The jury awarded Pozner $450,000, but the trial put him through the excruciating task of proving that Noah actually lived and died.) Watt is a high-functioning hoaxer, oriented in time and space, but moronically convinced of her own shrewdness and the merits of her gut feeling that “too many of those parents just rub me the wrong way.” She’s bizarrely obsessed with a certain kind of photogenic kid; Williamson notes that Watt maintains a supremely creepy Pinterest board called “Beautiful Children,” full of pictures of angelic tots, many with gigantic limpid eyes photoshopped onto their faces, Margaret Keane style. How could the Sandy Hook parents be legit, an indignant Watt asked Williamson, when none of them sported “messy buns,” “cute torn jeans,” or “Tory Burch jewelry”? Later, Williamson interviews Watt’s daughter, who has little hope that her mom will snap out of it because, she says, “her whole identity has been built on this for so many years.” The daughter suspects that Watt “feels bad that she in some way hasn’t accomplished something. It’s really important for her to be seen as someone really intelligent and good at research.”

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That’s key, Williamson argues, to Jones’ success, and from the seeds of the Sandy Hook hoaxer subculture have sprouted many current conspiracy theories, from QAnon to COVID denial. Fringe media opportunists like Jones know that “debunking” a news story or crisis will drive phenomenal amounts of eyes and ears to their websites and products. Some small percentage of those people—the isolated, the insecure, aimless—will become fanatical, like Watt or the dozens of delusional people who stalked and harassed the Sandy Hook parents. Jones’ calls to his audience to “look it up” are more than just savvy bids to game Google searches. They make his screeds interactive, assuring people who feel otherwise insignificant that, with their “research,” they’re participating in and contributing to a vitally important cause.

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When Williamson finally landed an interview with Jones, it took place in a small room at Infowars HQ in Texas. She found him and his rants about the First Amendment shopworn and “tiresome,” but her masterful description of the encounter is anything but. Playing tough, Jones blustered at her with his usual abandon, but Williamson noticed something odd about his body language:

He was moving away, not toward me, parading around the room, seeking the corners. If he wanted to intimidate me, why not lean over the desk and get in my face? It struck me later that Jones may have needed that distance. People often ask: How can Jones or anyone attack the victims of mass murder? The answer: from afar. Jones doesn’t talk to actual people. He preaches to an invisible audience, an abstraction that makes it easier to absolve himself when its members act on the hatred he sows.

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Distance may also allow Jones to ignore the results of his actions, but it’s not just distance that destroys the capacity for empathy in people with internet poisoning. Online communities, disembodied yet all-consuming, can foster solipsistic, self-feeding outrage and fury. (Anyone who’s found themselves disproportionately incensed over some minor online slight can testify to that.) One of the most chilling anecdotes in this book packed with shocking stories comes from that filmmaker who ended up living in his car. Having fallen away from the hoaxer cause, he wanted nothing more than to regain custody of his 4-year-old son. A woman he knew from the hoaxer scene promised to help him clean up his social media accounts, and he gave her his Facebook password. She then sent him a video of herself erasing every image of his child from his photo albums as striptease music played.

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Sandy Hook hoaxers justify their abuse of the victims’ families with the delusional claim that the parents are not parents at all, but paid actors in a scheme to take away Americans’ guns. This instance of gleeful cruelty, however, was inflicted not on an allegedly powerful miscreant but on a former ally fallen on hard times. It’s cruelty for cruelty’s sake, fermented in a digital crucible. Pozner told Williamson that he draws a distinction between Jones, who basically doesn’t care about the truth as long as cash keeps rolling in, and the rando believers whom he suspects are struggling “to carry the pain of women and children being executed.” That’s an incredibly generous view that doesn’t take into account the mystifying quantity of free-floating spite out there, looking for a place to land and breed.

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Spite didn’t, however, find a permanent home in Sandy Hook. Pozner started an organization, HONR, that developed strategies for people targeted by denialist hate groups. At the beginning, one of the few tools at his disposal was a copyright takedown notice; Pozner and HONR volunteers filed thousands of these complaints whenever hoaxers posted material including photos of the Sandy Hook victims. Complaints of obvious lies and harassment, however, usually got them nothing but boilerplate responses from Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms—until the plight of the Sandy Hook parents became more widely known and the tech companies were sufficiently embarrassed. Williamson argues that such companies should, like traditional publications, be liable for defamatory claims published on their platforms.

The courtroom victories of the Sandy Hook parents against Jones and his cronies makes for a satisfying ending to Sandy Hook. Jones has sworn to appeal the Connecticut decision; it’s hard to see how any court could decide in favor of such an inveterate, callous, and heedless liar. But it’s also hard to see how YouTube or Facebook could be held responsible for vetting the flood of material posted to their sites every hour without drastically curtailing everyone’s freedom to post. This is a conundrum that Williamson doesn’t fully confront. The course that Pozner took did work, however. If you search on “Sandy Hook conspiracy” or “Sandy Hook truthers,” you’ll find that Alex Jones no longer owns your Google results. Go ahead: Look it up.