For the Father of a Sandy Hook Victim, Conspiracy Theories Are Much More Than Just Internet Fodder
Lenny Pozner’s 6-year-old son Noah Pozner was one of the 20 elementary school-aged children killed in the Sandy Hook Massacre. His life would forever be changed by that loss and the conspiracy theorists harassed him for years.
The father of one of the 20 elementary school children killed in the Sandy Hook massacre speaks about the toll it has taken on his life fighting back against conspiracy theorists out to prove the tragedy didn't occur.
Lenny Pozner has a lot to say about conspiracy theories. Probably more than most people.
Pozner’s 6-year-old son Noah Pozner was one of the 20 elementary school-aged children killed on Dec. 14, 2012 by gunman Adam Lanza, who opened fire using an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle in his classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut before turning the gun on himself. All 20 children were either 6 or 7 years old. Six adults staff members were also killed in the shooting.
At the time, the tragedy was the deadliest mass shooting at a primary or secondary school, and the fourth-deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. Hours before the murder spree, Lanza fatally shot his mother, Nancy, 53, at their Newtown home.
Noah was Pozner’s only son. He had just turned six and had just lost his first tooth. His father said he was having a great time loving his life and his family. That morning, he said, Noah was in the classroom like he was supposed to be.
Pozner started that day like many others, shuffling his three kids— Noah, Noah’s twin sister, Arielle, and his older daughter, Sophia— off to school. "An ordinary Friday in Connecticut in December," he told Inside Edition Digital.
When news of the shooting broke, Pozner, and Noah’s mother, Veronique De La Rosa, raced to the school, terrified as they waited anxiously with other parents praying and longing to grab their children, hug their children and not let go. The family would soon learn that their two daughters survived the shooting— one hid in the bathroom with a teacher; the other was one classroom away from the shooter— but their son did not.
At that moment, Pozner’s life changed forever. Because not only did he have to learn how to live without his son, but he also would become a lightning rod for conspiracy theorists.
To Fight This New Crop of Conspiracy Theories Head-on, First We Have to Rename Them, Sandy Hook Victim's Dad Says
The term “conspiracy theories,” is antiquated. A more accurate term would be calling it "lies," Pozner said. “Today, there is no separation between the online world and offline world and things from the internet carry into our daily lives and can affect us. That is how the internet and false theories have impacted our lives. While Alex Jones knows he is lying many of the people that share it don't know that they are sharing lies.”
Popular conspiracy theories, like the existence of Big Foot and UFOs, or the notion that Area 51 is packed with things the government is hiding from the American people or those that reexamine historical scandals, are harmless, he said, noting how little they compare to what he and other parents who lost children in the Sandy Hook shooting have dealt with.
”They are more hurtful. They target people," he said, "They cause a person to show up to a family pizzeria with a loaded weapon which he fired while inside. Online lies and disinformation cause real-life damage.”
And that the internet can reach more people at a faster rate than any other form of communication makes the theories all the more potent. "When a group of people is viewed as villains, it is easier to believe that some evil force or the government would stage the shooting or something tragic. A number of people will cling to that idea,” he said. “I think it is easier to digest that it didn’t happen."
When a mass casualty incident occurs, oftentimes the media shows up. Witnesses speak to reporters, their accounts of what occurred are taken down and shared with others who were not there at the time. This, according to Pozner, is fodder for conspiracy theorists, who vilify witnesses, make videos about them and write blogs about them. Their lives are dug into and the people they're connected to are examined. And often, the individuals at the core of a tragedy are looked at as well.
“I refer to it as a hoaxer way of thinking because they believe everything is a hoax and only focus on those things that support their theories of hoax and that is what gets spread over and over again. Then victims will get the messages,” he said.
Pozner would know. This is what happened to him.
Following the Sandy Hook Massacre, Parents Are Forced to Mourn Their Children While Defending Their Existence
Within hours of the shooting, the denial started. Pozner and the families of the murdered children became the targets of conspiracy theorists who claimed that it wasn’t a real shooting, that the children were not real, or they were real, but they were actors, that the government may be involved, or that they were faking their grief.
Some alleged that the shooting was a false flag operation staged by the United States government. Others claimed the attack was being used by politicians to push through new gun control legislation or to otherwise persecute gun owners and survivalists.
At that time, Pozner didn’t understand the scope of what was happening. But these conspiracy theories were growing in numbers. Overcome by despair, Pozner was numb and trying to mourn his son’s death privately with his family, as the deniers, self-branded "citizen investigators," vilified and harassed him with hateful emails and messages. It was unfathomable.
“It made me angry, but I didn’t have much energy to deal with anything else other than my family and just day by day, hour by hour,” said Pozner.
Pozner decided he would be transparent and "calm some of that chaos," as he described, by showing the accusers evidence.
“Whatever information I had access to, I released. Noah’s birth certificate, his death certificate, the medical examiner’s report. Photos of Noah and his very short life,” he said. “I published all those things and it reached a good number of people.”
However, it did not quiet those who believed that Noah did not die and that the Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax. And, the harassing and online stalking continued to escalate.
“They believe they are part of an army of truth, that there is a reason for them to be doing this and they are justified in vilifying and going after the victims,” he said. Everything is evidence to these people, he said. Everything and anything is proof that their alternative universe is reality. "They will find typos and inconsistencies. They will find errors in the date or the time on a document that becomes evidence for those who subscribe to these ideas."
Alex Jones, a Texas-based radio host, and ardent supporter of President Donald Trump was one of the people who fueled these theories, telling his audience of more than 2 million that the massacre was staged and that the bereaved families were paid actors, further exposing the families to harassment, death threats and personal attacks on social media.
James Fetzer, a former professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota Duluth and another conspiracy theorist, also circulated damaging and destructive misinformation. His book, “No One Died at Sandy Hook,” claimed the Sandy Hook shooting never took place. In his book, edited by Michael Palecek, Fetzer claimed the death of Noah was a hoax and that copies of his death certificate were fabricated. Fetzer wrote that the entire tragedy was an event staged by the federal government as part of an Obama administration effort to enact tighter gun restrictions, reported CBS News.
Pozner was also on the receiving end of antisemitism. After Noah was written about in the media as a Jewish child from Sandy Hook, ugly comments made by faceless commenters were rampant. And Pozner felt all but helpless to stop it, having been met with little in the way of response from the platforms at the time providing an opportunity to the posters. “It brings out haters," he said. "The internet empowers them and large platforms didn’t do anything about this hate, bringing it to their attention and the harm they are causing."
Pushing Back Against Conspiracy Theorists, Sandy Hook Victim's Father Sees Target on His Back Grow
Pozner pushed back and pushed back hard, becoming an advocate in an effort to protect those more vulnerable than he— survivors and the families of victims of highly publicized violent incidents— from the online harassment that grows out of conspiracy theorists. He launched the nonprofit organization, HONR Network, in 2014.
HONR Network flags and reports defamatory and harassing content, bringing it to the attention of the platform on which the content is living. It's then up to the likes of YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites and platforms to decide if they are going to remove them. The Network's work is critical in the policing of such false and harmful theories, as such content is not always removed without it being reported.
In the early days of HONR Network's work, online platforms weren’t as receptive to taking down content as Pozner would have hoped, but that has all changed.
“It is very different from what it was seven years ago. This is treated very seriously," he said. “Once these ideas go viral [and] there is no undoing them, other than minimizing the impact and reducing the ability for the viral content to continue to spread, because that is just what it wants to do.”
His nonprofit also works to empower victims.
"Once the internet turns against you, you become powerless. There is no 800-number to call," he said. “You can tweet something, then get on an airplane and by the time you get off the plane, you are hated by the way your tweet was responded to online. This is the world we live in now.”
The initiative made Pozner a bigger target. He continues to be stalked online, harassed, and has dealt with death threats. One woman, he said, was sentenced to prison for death threats she made against him. Another was arrested for distributing private information about him that included his background history, with all sorts of “bizarre” theories. That case is still being litigated, he said.
To keep his family safe, he shields his identity and has had to live in hiding. He tries to be as low-key as he can in his personal and private life yet, they still find him and track him.
"It's hard to live off the radar with the internet and all the background check websites," he said.
Since the tragedy, he has had to move multiple times. He uses P.O. Boxes located nowhere near where he resides. One of those P.O. Boxes is located in Orlando, Florida, but Pozner said that in another month, it will be changed and in a different location.
"I take these precautions to at least feel safe enough from these people who do not wish me anything good," he said.
There have been occasions, he said, where people convinced he was part of a conspiracy showed up with cameras to record him while accosting him. “Is it true that you’re a crisis actor?” they'd ask.
“I have to be very careful,” said Pozner, who said videos of his home have been posted on the internet with skull and crosshairs superimposed on his window.
Pozner has had fake police reports filed against him. There was one management company getting emails filled with accusations and lies. Recently, he said, a 100-page-long background on him was distributed to thousands of people.
Much of the abuse Pozner endures, he says is received through Twitter. Especially painful was a tweet that implied Noah was linked to child sex slavery and that Pizzagate conspiracy theory that Pozner said Twitter will not remove. "Every interview when I call them out, they do a little bit and then after a week, they go back to their old ways. They will not help," Pozner said of Twitter.
When Inside Edition Digital reached out to Twitter regarding Pozner's allegations, a Twitter spokesperson said the following: "We have a zero-tolerance policy regarding child sexual exploitation. We have updated our child sexual exploitation policy following this conspiracy to prevent potential real-world harm to both minors and private individuals named in the conspiracy. Coordinated, manipulated activity — regardless of the content or intent — is against our rules. In this area, we've taken enforcement action continuously on Pizzagate content per our rules on platform manipulation and will continue to do so. Pizzagate has largely been repudiated quickly and continuously on Twitter as an open, public service. If content violates our policies and is brought to our attention, we take action pursuant to the Twitter Rules. Defamatory or illegal content can be reported to us by law enforcement under local law at any time."
Pozner takes all precautions and takes nothing for granted.
“I have to make sure my life is safer. Having grade school children and not expose them to any additional danger coming from people who are confused about what the truth is. People who don’t care what truth is,” said Pozner. “They are motivated by publicity, or money, or attention and so they will make videos. They will write books. They will have online blogs. And, social media that reach tens of millions of people.”
What Life After the Sandy Hook Shooting Looks Like
On Nov. 20, Noah would have turned 14. And Dec. 12 will mark eight years since the Sandy Hook massacre.
Almost eight years have gone by since Noah died, yet tributes from friends, family, and even strangers, continue to be left on Noah’s legacy page. Today, nearly 3,000 have been shared. Some share photos, prayers, a loving message, while others just leave their name.
A post on September 18, 2019, reads: "Hi Noah, Hope your time in heaven is still great. Too bad you aren't with us in Grade 8.”
Pozner is not the same person he was before Sandy Hook. His life is divided in two parts: Everything that happened before the tragedy and everything that happened after the tragedy.
“I am the father of a murdered child and someone who is linked to internet hate and internet hoax theories,” he said.
After he lost his son, he said he had to find his path, and eventually found it through his work. It's through is work that he's often asked, "Why?" Why are people obsessed with debunking the rock-solid truth? Why do internet sleuths spend their time trying to prove his deceased son didn't lose his life senselessly? Why do they do what they do?
And his response is always the same. “I don’t spend any time on the why. It is pointless because I don't have all the answers. No one has all the answers," he said. "I only know what occurred as a result and how I can respond to that.”
Pozner's also been asked if he thinks the world is a darker place than he did before Noah died. "I don’t think it is a darker place, but I think it is a place where we have no control over what happens," he said.
Hitting the Conspiracy Theorists Where It Hurts: Their Wallet
In June 2019, Pozner won a defamation case against Fetzer and Palecek, who unsuccessfully argued that it was an attack on their First Amendment rights. A Wisconsin jury determined in October 2019 that Fetzer must pay Pozner $450,000 for making defamatory statements, the Washington Post reported. Fetzer at that time called the damage amount “absurd,” and said he would appeal. In the meantime, Palecek reached a settlement with Pozner in September 2019, the details of which were not disclosed, CBS reported.
“I have a judgment and I have a permanent injunction against James Fetzer. He was in contempt of court more than once so that gave us a lot more details,” said Pozner, who said the current judgment is over $1.1 million now for that case.
In 2018, Pozner took Jones, to court, as did other Sandy Hook parents. According to Frontline, Jones said under oath that he suffered from a “form of psychosis,” that made him think everything was staged. He said he would admit, “I’ve had a chance to believe that children died and it’s a tragedy…” However, Jones is appealing the case and Pozner says this shows that Jones was not sincere.
“I don’t believe what he is saying," Pozner said. "There is a sadistic part to dragging this out, knowing people in the tragedy are suffering. He knows this and it's just him continuing to just throw nonsense out. He got fined in one of the courts in Texas for wasting the court's time."
"How is that not like putting salt on a wound," he continued. "That is his [Jones's] big F-U! That is how much Alex Jones really cares about what he said and what he thinks now and what he needs to say now and how he feels about it now. I think his actions really speak to who the man is.”
Jones did not respond to Inside Edition Digital's request for comment.
The victories along the way serve as a reminder to Pozner that progress is possible, a crucial point to keep in one's mind when the fights seem never-ending.
“It is an endless fight and is not a winnable fight but there are success markers along the way and I think that is an important one because of the way the legal system works in this country,” he said, “Perhaps that will become the foundation for something larger to be built on the future.
"We all have a responsibility to contribute to a better internet," he said. "We are all part of the solution, so we all should voice our opinions about the content.
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