A Grieving Sandy Hook Father on How to Fight Online Hoaxers

Journalist: Nick Thompson

Source Link: Medium

July 10, 2019

After the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 — which killed 26 people, 20 of them children — it surely seemed that if nothing else, Americans could agree on the abhorrent nature of the tragedy. The country may be divided on gun control and the proper political response to mass shootings, but who could doubt that they were real, and horrible?

Yet not long after Sandy Hook, alternative narratives began to take hold on the internet, attempting to proffer new — and utterly false — theories as to what happened that day. One claims that Sandy Hook was a “false flag” event engineered by the U.S. government, utilizing “crisis actors” — fake victims, in other words — to promote stricter gun control laws. Far-right radio host Alex Jones used his show Infowars to peddle this story, openly inciting violence against those standing in the way of the “truth.”

As a result, family members of the children who died — people who have already suffered unimaginably — have been harassed online and in real life by a contingent of die-hard hoaxers.

Many of the families have chosen to remain silent in the hope that attacks by conspiracy theorists would melt away. But Lenny Pozner, father of six-year-old Sandy Hook victim Noah, has chosen another way. Pozner began to counter-troll the trolls, flagging thousands of conspiracy videos for policy violations which led to them being taken down. He has also brought the issue to national attention through media appearances, op-eds, open letters, and litigation that helped speed the downfall of Jones.

I soon realized that many of the attackers were fringe internet personalities who used the shooting to profit. They didn’t care about the truth.

Pozner now heads up HONR Network, a company that helps the families of those affected by such mass shootings deal with the digital aftermath. Fresh from winning a defamation lawsuit, Pozner spoke with OneZero about coping with loss, his work with HONR Network, and the future of online misinformation.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

OneZero: Tell us about Noah. What was he like, and what’s your favorite memory of him?

Lenny Pozner:  Noah was an inquisitive boy, full of life and wonder. He always wanted to know the hows and whys of things. He was very caring; he loved animals and his family. Of course he had a special bond with his twin sister [Arielle]. He loved superheroes and trucks and playing outside. He was just a delightful, energetic, joyful little boy. You couldn’t help but smile when you were around him.

What do you remember from the day of the shooting?

It was just a regular weekday. We had no premonition or sense of impending doom. The children got ready for school and, as usual, the morning was a bit rushed. Noah ran into the school just in time for the bell marking the beginning of the school day. That is my last memory of him, running with his jacket half on, carrying his backpack.

What happened when you first searched your son’s name online? When did you first realize this was a problem, and how did it feel?

The attacks on Sandy Hook, on the victims and their families, started almost immediately after the news broke of the shooting. But for the first few weeks after Noah was murdered, I was consumed with grief and had to deal with my own emotional trauma as well as that of Noah’s sisters. I was in shock. At some point I went online in January of 2013. I was looking for information about the shooting and saw some posts claiming that Sandy Hook was a fake. This led to Infowars forums. As soon as I saw the posts, I emailed the head of Infowars, Alex Jones.

I tried to reach out to people and talk to them. I thought that if people could ask me questions, learn more about Noah, see his birth certificate and school records and childhood photos, logic would take over. I believed that they would understand that this tragedy occurred, that they would see us as real people suffering. Many people were awakened to the reality of the murders and our suffering. But I soon realized that many of the attackers were fringe internet personalities who used the shooting to profit. They didn’t care about the truth.

You’ve had Sandy Hook hoaxers challenge you in public, and track you down at home. What happened?

Hoaxers have posted my TransUnion comprehensive background check online. They have videotaped my home, shared my address, and filed false reports with several enforcement agencies. They have confronted me in public, and one woman [Lucy Richards] was jailed due to credible death threats. Every aspect of my personal life has been intruded upon and years later, I am still living in hiding.

How can the phenomenon of crisis actors, hoaxes, and false flag theories be quelled? What motivates these people to lie about such a horrific event?

Conspiracy theories have existed in some form since the beginning of recorded history, as have their purveyors. Some people have always been motivated by power or greed. They position themselves as sources of “true” information and sell fear to the gullible. These types of people aren’t acting based on their own versions of morality or because they believe a lie. They are using and selling whatever story people are buying. The real difference is that thanks to the internet, hoaxers no longer have to travel village to village selling snake oil. Now they can create a blog [and] interact with other hoaxers, which adds legitimacy to their positions. [They can] monetize their claims and spread their tales to an endless number of gullible consumers.

People have the right to be wrong; they have the right to be stupid. What they don’t have is the right to harass and attack me.

The reasons that people believe the hoaxers [are] more complex. From a psychological perspective, many people seek a simple answer to something frightening and out of their control. They need a way to deal with how unpredictable and fragile life can be. Tragedies like Sandy Hook are almost incomprehensible. In an effort to make sense of the senseless, people search for a reason and something or someone to blame and vilify.

There is a significant difference between someone’s private, personal beliefs and their actions. You can’t prevent people from believing even the most outlandish and offensive things. In this country, people have the right to be wrong; they have the right to be stupid. They even have the right to spread their stupidity. What they don’t have the right to do is to violate my right to be free from harassment and attack. They don’t have the right to defame me, they don’t have the right to harass, intimidate, and threaten my family, and they don’t have the right to manipulate and incite others to carry out their campaigns. The only way to stop this type of behavior is through the platforms that hoaxers use to spread misinformation banning behavior that violates my rights as a citizen.

How significant a role did Alex Jones play in your case specifically, and how important was it that he was de-platformed? And did the jailing of Lucy Richards deter other hoaxers from threatening you?

Thanks to his huge fan base and ability to broadcast his views to millions of people, Alex Jones’ high profile certainly played a significant role in the attacks on me and my family. People like Lucy Richards consume his content and because he has all of the physical trappings of a legitimate news organization, people blindly believe and respond.

I continue to be threatened, I continue to live in hiding, so I can’t say that the jailing of Lucy Richards has been a deterrent to hoaxers. But prosecuting her and ultimately having her jailed has helped the media and internet platforms take the situation much more seriously. The division between the “real” world and the online world doesn’t exist. You can’t simply turn off the computer and have the threats and harassment and danger end.

Tell us about why you created HONR Network and what it does. Who works with you on the project?

As hoaxers escalated their attacks on me and Noah, I started to be contacted by people who wanted to alert me to horrific content that they came across. Many offered to flag what they found for removal. This grew into a loosely-knit group of people whom I termed the “HONR Network,” a combination of the word “honor” and a domain name acronym that I had for a past website project.

Over the years, the volunteers have grown in size and we have around 300 people at any given time, searching for content and flagging it for removal. I keep the identities of almost everyone who works with HONR Network private, since hoaxers have been known to target people who have openly supported our work, attacking them on social media, doxxing them, or directly harassing them. Even my lawyers and their families have been threatened and abused.

What kind of strategies help defeat misinformation? What can the average web user do to support the truth?

Critical thinking. People need to take a moment and question the logic of the content that they are consuming, without blindly believing and then spreading. They also need to examine the source of information. Someone who is saying shocking things and then trying to sell you vitamin supplements to prepare you for the end of civilization might not be the most reliable source of truthful information.

People should also avoid getting their information from “echo chambers” where all of the information just affirms existing beliefs. When one source tries to convince people that they must stop listening to other sources or that “mainstream” media is part of the conspiracy, that is a strong indication that that source isn’t trustworthy.

Have social media companies been supportive? What have they done to support HONR Network?

Initially, social media companies and internet platforms ignored me. It was uncharted territory for all concerned, and there was a hope that the situation would go away. In the first five years, we issued tens of thousands of take-down requests. The magnitude of the number of videos and content resulted in incremental changes. But it felt as if every single removal was hard fought.

However, two events, nearly a year apart, changed my relationship with social media. First, Lucy Richards was convicted and sent to prison for death threats against me. This made many of these companies take notice. It wasn’t “just” online bullying — people were using social media to organize and then take their threats off-line.

The real significant changes came after the Guardian printed my open letter to Mark Zuckerberg. Readers were horrified to discover the lengths to which we were forced to go, simply to protect ourselves and to try to end the harassment and threats. Other media and investors took notice, and in turn, Facebook took notice. The letter started a cascade effect that resulted in the de-platforming of Alex Jones and others like him. Facebook and Google have been much more proactive since, engaging with us about policy changes to better protect harassment victims and recently, Facebook added the mocking of victims to be against their terms of service policies.

The goal of the HONR Network is to provide assistance for victims of online hate and harassment. Going forward we want to expand our relationships with social media providers and platforms to better effect policy changes that protect victims and hold perpetrators responsible.

Are you optimistic that the culture of online information could be changed for the better?

The problem facing online platforms isn’t new nor is it unique. Technology has historically outpaced the regulation and education needed to protect users.

The answer is creating regulation, codifying “rules of the road,” and educating users as to their rights and responsibilities online.

At the turn of the last century in Detroit, the mass production of automobiles created a huge problem. There were no licenses, driving was unregulated, and the concept of road safety didn’t exist. People simply drove wherever and however they wanted, resulting in thousands of people in Detroit alone being killed by drivers due to a lack of basic skills and safety parameters. It was only when strict road rules, enforcement, and public education were implemented that fatalities dropped and a standard of acceptable behavior behind the wheel became the norm.

Similarly, today technology has outpaced the most basic need for rules of the road, and online pedestrians, especially those who make easy targets, are paying the price. The answer is creating regulation, codifying “rules of the road,” and educating users as to their rights and responsibilities online.

Law enforcement needs to catch up. Police see cybercrime as a low-level priority, often failing to understand that online harassment can have very serious off-line consequences, including violence and even murder. Harassment is already against the law; people in positions of authority need to be educated as to how to implement existing laws in a changing world.

Update: An earlier version of this story misstated precisely how Pozner fought back against online trolls.

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