Truthers v liars: When conspiracy meets hoax to make fake news
US Letter: ‘Facts’ at times come at expense of those struggling with most horrific tragedies
Family members of victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting grieve at Newtown, Connecticut, US, on December 14th, 2012. File photograph: Adrees Latif/Reuters
After six-year-old Noah Pozner was murdered along with 19 other school children and six adult staff in the mass shooting at Sandy Hook primary school in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14th, 2012 – four years ago on Wednesday – his mother insisted on an open coffin.
Veronique Pozner wanted people and particularly Connecticut’s governor Dannel Malloy to see her child’s shiny hair, his long eyelashes and the cloth on his lower face where his lower mouth had been before his jaw was shot off.
The boy suffered multiple gunshot wounds in gunman Adam Lanza’s rampage and his mother insisted on later describing his injuries in detail, needing it to be “real” for politicians like Malloy if they were ever to pass gun controls to prevent such a tragedy recurring.
While the boy’s mother has pushed hard for legislative change, his father Lenny Pozner has taken on a different fight.
The Connecticut massacre has spawned a host of internet conspiracy theories from so-called Sandy Hook truthers who claim the Obama administration or anti-gun groups staged the shooting with the help of actors, government officials and the “mainstream media” to force through gun controls.
Some even claim the children never existed or have been hidden by the government.
“I prefer the term hoaxer to truth,” Lenny Pozner told New York magazine in September.
Pozner, who has divorced his wife since the Connecticut massacre and moved to Florida, has run an anti-hoaxer movement, taking on internet trolls who malign his son’s memory.
He scans the internet for illegal use of his family photographs and has them removed on warnings of copyright infringements.
He has set up a website – www.honr.com – demanding action against online abusers in the “truth movement” and protection for those grieving victims of highly publicised mass killings.
“People don’t understand what trolls are,” he said. “If you don’t feed them, they don’t just go away.”
His stance has drawn a stream of hateful online abuse but it took a more serious turn when he received death threats in January from a woman who believed the Sandy Hook attack was a hoax.
Pozner was not identified in the federal indictment but he confirmed to the Tampa Bay Times newspaper that he received the threats.
“You gonna die, death is coming to you real soon,” she said in four messages sent on one day from Palm Beach County. “Look behind you, death is coming to you real soon.”
A prosecutor described Richards as a Sandy Hook “truther”.
Among the most prominent US conspiracy theorists peddling the same hoax is Alex Jones, the founder of the hard-right website InfoWars.com that dresses conspiracy theories up as news.
Jones has claimed the school “was closed years before” the shooting, that CNN news anchor Anderson Cooper reported on the shooting “using a green screen” and that the parents were actors.
Donald Trump helped draw this fringe hoaxer from the far reaches of the internet into the national media mainstream when, a year ago, the then Republican presidential candidate was interviewed on InfoWars.
“Your reputation is amazing. I will not let you down,” Trump told him on his show.
Jones’s YouTube channel has 1.8 million subscribers and his videos have been viewed more than a billion times.
A day before Richards’s arrest in Florida, a North Carolina man was arrested after he entered a Washington DC restaurant, Comet Ping Pong, armed with a military-style assault rifle looking to investigate for himself another fake online story called “Pizzagate”.
At a time when trust in the media is at a record low, the line between fact and opinion has become blurred in fake news propagated on social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter.
Gallup found in September that 32 per cent had a great or fair amount of trust in the media compared with 72 per cent in the mid-1970s, a golden era of investigative journalism amid the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal.
This has allowed Trump, Jones and other post-truthers to profit using their own brand of “facts”, in some cases at the expense of grieving parents struggling to deal with the most horrific of tragedies.