Lenny Pozner says he spends hours every day trying to erase online conspiracy theories that the death of his 6-year-old son Noah at the Sandy Hook Elementary School was a hoax.
He has taken Alex Jones of Infowars, by far the most visible Sandy Hook denier, to court. He has put pressure on major tech companies to take action against the conspiracy theorists who flourish on their platforms.
But the bulk of his work is more methodical. Sandy Hook conspiracies are strewn around the internet on various platforms, each with its own opaque rules and reporting mechanisms. So Mr. Pozner has studiously flagged countless videos and posts for a wide variety of offenses — invasions of privacy, threats and harassment, and copyright infringement — prompting Facebook, Amazon, and Google to remove false material about his son.
The parents of a child who was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting wrote to Mark Zuckerberg on Wednesday, pleading with the Facebook founder and CEO to better address the spread of disinformation and the harassment they and other victims face on the social media platform.
Lenny Pozner and Veronique De La Rosa wrote an open letter in The Guardian in which they chastised Zuckerberg for his failure to remove groups and content that promote conspiracy theories. Sandy Hook families, in particular, have been targeted by fringe groups such as Infowars, which falsely claim the shooting never took place or was a “false flag” operation.
“Our families are in danger as a direct result of the hundreds of thousands of people who see and believe the lies and hate speech, which you have decided should be protected,” Pozner and De La Rosa wrote.
Their son, Noah, was killed when a gunman opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary in December 2012. He was 6 years old.
Let’s give people a free-to-use tool to publish whatever they want, whenever they want, to an audience worldwide in real-time. What could possibly go wrong? In this extended conversation, Richard Gutjahr talks to Lenny Pozner, founder of honr.com, how he became a target of conspiracy theorists and what he learned in his five-year fight against Google, YouTube, and the so-called hoaxers.
Over the past 10 years, a growing online community of conspiracy theorists and hoaxers known as “truthers” has come to question the official narratives behind every mass shooting that is heavily covered by the media. A common thread in these theories is the government’s role in staging the tragedy with the help of mainstream news, in order to manipulate the general population. In this continuously recycled narrative, the death and destruction of the tragic event is faked, and victims and their families are “crisis actors,” who are performing a role in order to elicit sympathy that can then be used to advocate for new gun laws or anti-terror surveillance that restricts Americans’ freedom. The commitment to these narratives has escalated to the point where victims are frequently harassed, mocked, and even threatened in retaliation for their supposed deception. We meet some of the proponents of false flag theories, including Side Thorn, a conspiracy theorist in Texas who has been confronting survivors of the Sutherland Springs mass shooting, as well as Tony Mead, administrator of the largest Facebook community dedicated to False Flag narratives, and Wolfgang Halbig, a former school administrator who made a name for himself with the claim that no one died at the Sandy Hook shooting. We also talk to people targeted by hoax theories, like Lenny Pozner whose son Noah was killed in the Sandy Hook shooting, David Hogg, who was accused of being a “crisis actor” for his calls for gun control after the mass shooting at his high school in Parkland, Florida, and Frank Pomeroy, whose daughter was killed in the Sutherland Springs shooting.
An unsettling pattern has emerged in the aftermath of national tragedies, like the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Survivors and victims’ families are grieving the loss of their loved ones but these days, they are also the targets of a wave of vitriol aimed directly at them.
They are often harassed online and in person by conspiracy theorists who think the whole thing was a hoax.
Take the March arrest of two people outside of the Sutherland Springs, Texas, church where 26 people were murdered in 2017. The pair confronted the church pastor, whose daughter was killed, saying the murders never happened and his daughter never lived. They called him a “crisis actor.”
This type of incident isn’t isolated to Sutherland Springs or to the two people arrested, either.
So, first, KJZZ turned to Joseph Uscinski, a political science associate professor at the University of Miami who studies conspiracy theories, to find out what his data says about these people and why they believe what they do.
No one knows the pain this type of harassment can wield on a grieving family more than Lenny Pozner. His son Noah was the youngest child murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012. Since that day he has had to deal with, deflect, outmaneuver and confront what he calls “hoaxers.” These are people set on revealing that he is part of a vast conspiracy from the government.
To combat this, Pozner started the HONR Network to raise awareness of this type of harassment for other families of victims.
In this special report, we explore conspiracy movements that target friends and families of victims in mass tragedies — from the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary to the one at Pulse nightclub in 2016. “Truthers” shows the real-life consequences of online hoaxes that gain millions of followers and disrupt the lives of people like Leonard Pozner, the father of a child shot and killed at Sandy Hook.
Reporter Liz Wahl also speaks with the leaders of these “truther” movements, diving into the psyche of conspiracy theorists. Through hard-hitting interviews, unprecedented access and a unique lens, “Truthers” shows us the harassment that plays out in the shadows of America’s biggest tragedies.
Mike Cronk was sitting half-naked on a street corner, hands covered in blood when the TV news reporter approached. The 48-year-old, who had used his shirt to try to plug a bullet wound in his friend’s chest, recounted in a live interview how a young man he did not know had just died in his arms.
Conspiracy theorists harassed him on Facebook, sending messages like “How much did they pay you?” and “How does it feel to be part of a hoax?” The claims multiplied and soon YouTube’s algorithm began actively promoting the conspiracy theory.
Two months later, Cronk’s online reputation appears damaged beyond repair. Type “Mike Cronk” into Google and YouTube, and the sites automatically suggest searches for “actor” and “fake”, leading to popular videos claiming he and his wounded friend were performers and that the Mandalay Bay tragedy that killed 58 people never happened.
Before Sutherland Springs, before Las Vegas, before Orlando, there was Newtown, where a gunman shot 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. Noah Pozner, whose family is Jewish, was the youngest person shot that day — one of 20 children.
Lenny Pozner thought that moving far away from the site of his son’s murder could help his family begin the healing process. Soon after Noah’s death, Pozner, his now ex-wife, Veronique Pozner, and their elementary school-aged daughters, Arielle and Sophia, left Newtown, Connecticut, to make a fresh start.
“It was the beginning of a new chapter, in the sunshine of Florida, hoping to find some warmth,” Pozner told the Forward. “It was a new life.”
But after a few nightmare years in their new home in Boca Raton, Florida, the Pozners say they have moved again. They are hoping to escape what Pozner says is rampant harassment by a few individuals — including a local police detective — with little support from Boca Raton law enforcement.