After losing his son in the Sandy Hook shooting, Leonard Pozner has become a prominent activist in stopping the spread of disinformation and conspiracies online.
Five years ago, Leonard Pozner lost his son Noah in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Within days, conspiracy theorists—including a Florida Atlantic University professor—were questioning whether the massacre even happened.
As detailed by New York Magazine and other media outlets, these self-styled “truthers” (though a better term is probably “hoaxers”) hold that some powerful force—the Illuminati, globalists, the New World Order, even the Obamas—staged the shooting with the cooperation of media, government and city residents in order to take away guns and liberty. The slain children were either put into witness protection or never existed, according to their claims. This left Pozner and his fellow Newtown parents and city officials fielding inquiries about whether their kids ever lived at all.
Since then, Pozner has founded the HONR Network, a nonprofit dedicated to stopping hoaxers’ attempts to spread disinformation online after tragedies, like what happened immediately after this week’s Las Vegas shooting on both YouTube and Twitter. Thrive Global contacted Pozner over email to learn more about how Honr does what it does, whether online hoaxing is picking up or slowing down and what it would take to stamp out this particularly disdainful corner of Internet culture for good.
Noah Pozner was reluctant to go to school that day. A mischievous little boy, who had celebrated his sixth birthday three weeks earlier, he stayed in bed too long and dragged his feet getting ready. “I said to him: ‘Come on, Noah, we gotta get moving,” his father, Leonard (also known as Lenny) recalls, having thought about the morning of 14 December 2012 so often he can almost talk about it mechanically. But the drive was fun: Noah, his twin sister, Arielle, and older sister, Sophia, listened to Gangnam Style, one of Noah’s favourite songs. Noah always sat in the back seat and Leonard tickled his ankle as he drove along. At school, Noah jumped out, his backpack in one hand, his jacket in the other. He was wearing a Batman shirt and Spider-Man trainers. “I said: ‘I love you, have a great day,’ and that was the last thing I ever said to him,” says Pozner. After all, he adds, “Not even Batman could have stopped an AR-15.”
Noah was the youngest victim of the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting, murdered about half an hour after his father dropped him off. A sweet-faced, big-eyed, brown-haired boy, his tiny body took multiple bullets. His jaw was blown off, as was his left hand, and his beloved Batman shirt was soaked with blood. For his funeral, his mother, Veronique, insisted he have an open casket.
“I want the world to see what they did to my baby,” she said at the time.
Today, Pozner tries to look on the bright side. “I could have lost three kids that day because the other two were in rooms adjacent to Noah’s classroom. They were all in the shooter’s footprint.”
A paranoid conspiracy theory has acquired a new and disturbing power in America, and it has been spread by an alternative media outfit that has been linked to President Trump.
Twenty-six people, mostly young children, died at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. They were the victims of a man named Adam Lanza, who killed himself after the slaughter. It was a shocking tragedy, even in a country used to regular gun violence.
Soon false rumors began to circulate online, that the attacks were staged using actors. Although they had no basis in truth, hundreds of YouTube videos, blogs, and tweets repeated the conspiracy theories. And the rumors were pushed by an alternative media mogul named Alex Jones. His online news site Infowars has millions of listeners and viewers. He’s interviewed President Trump, who has repeated Infowars stories on his own Twitter feed and in speeches.
Lenny Pozner’s son Noah was killed at Sandy Hook. And, as it happens, Lenny Pozner was also a fan of Infowars. That’s how he first found out that people were saying the mass shooting was entirely staged.
As the “hoaxers” went to greater extremes to spread their fake news – even targeting grieving parents – Lenny Pozner led the online fightback. With the help of the Sandy Hook community, he tried to turn the tables on the conspiracy theorists.
Father of Sandy Hook victim calls conspiracy theorist Alex Jones‘ Newtown theory “disgusting,” adds, “he doesn’t care about anyone.
Sandy Hook to Trump: ‘Help us stop conspiracy theorists’
It was one of the worst school shootings in American history, but some people insist that the Sandy Hook massacre never happened.
They post YouTube videos and spread rumours online, and their false theories have been repeated by a media mogul conspiracy theorist who has been linked to Donald Trump.
Now, after years of harassment, the families of the victims are fighting back online.
Leonard Pozner clicks on a YouTube video showing his street and the outside of his home. The camera zooms in on his balcony, and his address and a route to his door flash up on the screen.
There’s no narration on the video – but there doesn’t need to be. The message is clear: “We know where you live.”
Because of videos like this one – there are dozens on YouTube, and more appear ever day – Pozner doesn’t want to disclose the city where he now lives. He’s had death threats and has moved several times in recent years.
Lenny Pozner’s young son died in the Sandy Hook mass killing. Conspiracy theorists believe the killing was staged. Pozner’s efforts to educate them, to prove that his son died, only resulted in relentless trolling and harassment. Yet he keeps trying: “I’m going to have to protect Noah’s honor for the rest of my life,” he says.
To further his cause, Pozner has created an organization, called the HONR Network, whose goal is to “bring awareness to Hoaxer activity” and “prosecute those who wittingly and publicly defame, harass, and emotionally abuse the victims of high profile tragedies.” Since there is no criminal law that protects families like Pozner’s from the darker impulses of the Internet, he and his volunteers — folks he met virtually, when he began debunking — perform a slow and painful task. Whenever a video or a screed appears online attacking the victims of a horrible event, they alert venues like YouTube that their rules have been broken. The victories have been small. Though they’ve removed hundreds of links from the Internet, there are countless more like them.
“I know that the more garbage that is out there, the more it ages over time, the more the myth becomes accepted as a disgusting historical fact that tries to dismiss the existence of my child,” says Pozner. “I mean, damn it, his life had value. He existed. He was real. How dare they.”
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Lenny Pozner, who lost his son in the Sandy Hook shooting and founded HONR, an anti-hoaxer organization, said that he’s not surprised a truther movement was created around the event.
Social media driven fake news and hate speech are growing faster than ever before.
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Platforms such as YouTube and Google host excessive amounts of slanderous content on the subject of the victims and families of mass casualty incidents, inciting unhinged conspiracy enthusiasts to harass and threaten the people whose lives such tragedies have touched. Our mission is to make the outrageous and defamatory content against murder victims and their families appearing on powerful social media platforms no longer profitable.
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