Truth and consequences: New York Times journalist Elizabeth Williamson’s new book examines the poisonous seedbed of American conspiracy culture

On December 14, 2012, a gunman armed with a Glock 10 mm, a Sig Sauer 9 mm, and an AR-15 assault rifle walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in the quiet hamlet of Newtown, Connecticut. In under ten minutes, the shooter – a mentally ill twenty-year-old named Adam Lanza – would murder twenty first graders and six school staffers before turning one of the handguns on himself. It remains the worst mass elementary-school shooting in U.S. history.

New York Times feature writer Elizabeth Williamson is not much interested in rehashing the horrors of that December morning, much less excavating the psychology of the killer. What captures her attention in her uncomfortable and frequently infuriating new book is the way in which the massacre was co-opted by conspiracy theorists online who insisted that the incident was a false-flag operation run by a government intent on trampling Americans’ Second Amendment gun rights or, even worse, that it never happened at all and the bereaved parents were actually crisis actors whose children were still alive.

Tracing the roots of Sandy Hook conspiracy theorizing, Williamson illustrates how the internet, and most particularly social media, has facilitated the rise of a paranoid, distrustful segment of American society willing to accept seemingly any assertion regardless of factual basis or truth. She shows how theories that originate online can result in horrific offline behaviour, including stalking and death threats directed at the families of Sandy Hook victims and their supporters. In a carefully argued text, Williamson draws a straight line from Sandy Hook hoaxers to the insurrectionist mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.

There are, of course, important differences between Sandy Hook and the events of January 6, but the underlying motivators remain the same. Facebook and Twitter were eight and six years old in 2012; they were both still working out their growing pains. And although they both had terms of service by which they expected their users to abide, it was much more common for these platforms to allow pretty much anything to stand unchallenged, regardless of whether the content was factual, reliable, or immune from causing harm. In the early days of Web 2.0, free speech absolutism seemed to rule the roost and algorithms calculated to increase user engagement accentuated outrageous or incendiary comments that could be guaranteed to keep people logged in and clicking. (As Williamson points out, the exception was pornographic content, which social media outlets like Facebook – though not Twitter – outlawed altogether because they worried about negative blowback from their advertisers.)

Williamson’s archvillain in Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth is Alex Jones. The infamous conspiracy theorist and founder of the far-right anti-establishment website Infowars got his start on community television in his hometown of Austin, Texas. A devoted 9/11 “truther,” Jones built his notoriety “on his belief that a totalitarian world government, the American federal government, and powerful ‘globalist’ business interests – either separately or in concert – aimed to subjugate freedom-loving people like him.” He was a supporter of Donald Trump, who appeared on Jones’s broadcast in 2015. During that interview, Jones called Trump a “maverick” who “tells it like it is” and began the segment “by affirming Trump’s false claim that ‘radical Muslims’ around New York had publicly celebrated the fall of the World Trade Center after the 9/11 attacks.” Trump responded by praising Jones’s “amazing” reputation.

It’s not difficult to understand what the broadcaster and the former president saw in each other. Both operate out of the same playbook, mounting anti-intellectual, emotional appeals to a nativist audience motivated by fear and anger at a changing society. What is arguably more startling is the makeup of the Sandy Hook hoaxers, who include among their number academics and PhDs. “In academia, Socratic questioning and thoughtful dissent is generally encouraged, hand in hand with proper peer review, and protected by rules enshrining academic freedom,” Williamson writes. “But this crowd’s theories emerged from hunches and paranoia, not research and debate. The only peer review they received was from each other.”

Meanwhile, one of the hoaxers, a philosophy professor named James Fetzer, edited a book entitled Nobody Died at Sandy Hook, while journalism professor James Tracy appeared on Inforwars to promote the theory that victims’ family members were actually crisis actors. When Tracy lost his job for promoting Sandy Hook disinformation, a fifty-six-year-old Florida woman named Lucy Richards became so incensed she left a series of racist, antisemitic, and threatening voicemails on the phone of a Sandy Hook father.

What emerges in Williamson’s retelling is a portrait of a rapidly metastasizing community of disbelievers in the official story surrounding the killings, all of whom seek cover by insisting they are just asking questions or are doing their own research in an attempt to solve a mystery. Spurred on by distrust in establishment media and government institutions, and emboldened by the recognition that there are others online who share their views, these conspiracy theorists and so-called citizen journalists have broken away from the fringes in the years since 2012, finding safe haven in the more extreme elements of the Republican Party and QAnon.

The picture Williamson paints is a frightening one. The forces of disinformation and counter-factual reporting are on the march, their numbers increasing. Any pushback is met with accusations of censorship, while presenting facts to counter blatant falsehoods is simply seen as further evidence of an even deeper conspiracy and an attempt to silence the truth tellers.

If there is a glimmer of hope in the book, it comes from the families of the Sandy Hook victims, whose resilience and determination not to allow their children’s memories to be sullied by hateful accusations and abuse is courageous and ennobling. Lawsuits in Wisconsin, Texas, and Connecticut have resulted in partial vindication for the truth and some small recognition of what the Sandy Hook families have had to endure since that awful day in 2012. If, in trying to humanize the individual members of the families, Williamson traffics in sentimentalism in the book’s early stages, this can be overlooked in the grander scheme of things.

What is less easy to overlook is the epilogue, which attempts a kind of provisional happy ending by catching up with the Sandy Hook parents today. While the impulse here is understandable, the final chapter of the book proper is so unsettling in its implications about the rampant spread of conspiracy thinking in the years following Sandy Hook, as well as its ongoing incorporation in one of the two major U.S. political parties, that it renders any sort of uplift, even the contingent kind, anticlimactic. One parent, Leonard “Lenny” Pozner, is shown in the closing pages of the book referencing Robert David Steele, a former CIA agent “who denied the existence of Covid-19 even as he died from it in August 2021.” Steele’s death, Williamson points out, did nothing to deter the conspiracy mongers, who simply assumed he was murdered for telling the truth. “Lenny told me [Steele] died with Sandy Hook hoax material still on his website.”

Truth and consequences: New York Times journalist Elizabeth Williamson’s new book examines the poisonous seedbed of American conspiracy culture