Editor’s Note: Amanda J. Crawford, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Connecticut, is writing a book exploring the dual crises of gun violence and misinformation. The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion at CNN.
In the decade since a troubled young man turned his mother’s AR-15-style rifle on first graders at Sandy Hook Elementary School, nearly every mass shooting and high-profile crime has been followed by misinformation and conspiracy theories that re-victimize those affected by tragedy, subjecting them to online torment and obfuscating public discourse on ways to prevent similar tragedies.
The December 14, 2012 massacre of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut was the deadliest school shooting in US history. It was also a pivot point that marked the start of a new era in misinformation and political polarization.
The harassment that some Sandy Hook families and others endured lasted for years and led to real-world confrontations and threats.
Robbie Parker, a father whose public statement after his daughter’s death was mocked by Alex Jones repeatedly, testified in the conspiracy theorist’s recent Connecticut trial about a run-in with a man on the other side of the country who followed him through city streets, yelling that his daughter’s murder had been a hoax.
Another Sandy Hook father, Lenny Pozner, whose civil case against Jones in Texas is still pending, is among the relatives who has faced death threats. In 2017, a Florida woman was sentenced to five months in federal prison after a series of threatening emails and phone calls to Pozner.
In the Boston Globe in August, I told the story of the Pozner family’s victimization by those spreading misinformation about Sandy Hook, and I’ve written about the effort to hold Alex Jones accountable for his conspiracy theories.
Even the young survivors of the Sandy Hook tragedy were not spared the cruelty of these conspiracy theories. Recently, I met with a college student who survived the shooting and has been harassed for years by people who believe some survivors are the murdered children, living out their lives under assumed identities.
This year’s multiple mass shooting tragedies in Uvalde, Buffalo, Highland Park and Colorado Springs were eerily reminiscent of the spate of high-profile, mass casualty gun attacks in public places that rocked the US in 2012. Five months before Sandy Hook, another troubled young man fired upon dozens of movie-goers in an Aurora, Colorado, theater. Then an Army veteran shot up a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.
In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting, the outcry for federal gun policy reform swelled – and the forces of denial quickly struck back. Before the shooting, the National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups had stoked paranoia about guns, floating the notion of a Democratic conspiracy to disarm Americans or get rid of the Second Amendment entirely.
After that horrific attack, Alex Jones of Infowars and other right wing conspiracy theorists immediately began speculating that the massacre had been staged as part of a broader conspiracy to take away guns from the public. Two things helped make the US fertile ground for those lies to spread: by 2012, most Americans were on social media and their trust in mainstream media had fallen sharply.
Initial breaking news coverage of the shooting was riddled with errors – and those mistakes were cited as “proof” of a coverup by conspiracy theorists. Some videos and blogs that spliced together conflicting news reports and critiqued media appearances by victims’ relatives went viral, gaining enormous reach thanks to social media algorithms designed to reward controversial content without regard to its veracity.
Expressions of grief by family members and others were callously picked apart online – as well as by Jones for his audience of millions. Grieving parents, relatives, survivors, neighbors, religious leaders and others publicly connected to the shooting were falsely accused of being “crisis actors” in a deep-state plot to take away guns.
Though the implications were horrendous, some of the videos were widely shared, including by establishment figures in media and politics – an indication of how politicians would increasingly boost misinformation in the years to come. By the one-month anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, one popular conspiracy video on YouTube had been viewed more than 10 million times.
As doubts about the Sandy Hook shooting were spread, some of the people most impacted by the tragedy were targeted by online trolling and vicious cruelty. Relatives were told their murdered loved ones were still alive or had never existed, or they were accused of being complicit in their deaths. There were even heinous allegations of a politically connected child sex cult – a theme that would later emerge in the Pizzagate and QAnon conspiracy theories.
Within four months of the Sandy Hook shooting, the push for gun policy reform died an ignoble death when a modest bipartisan measure to expand criminal background checks failed in an increasingly polarized US Congress. By then, doubts about the Sandy Hook massacre were widespread. A Fairleigh Dickinson University poll in April 2013 found that 1 in 4 Americans believed the truth about the shooting was being hidden to advance a political agenda. That same month, survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing faced allegations they were part of a hoax, too.
Before Sandy Hook, popular American conspiracy theories focused on shadowy elites or veiled forces within the government. So-called 9/11 “truthers,” for example, blamed the government for the attacks, but they generally left victims’ families alone.
After Sandy Hook, crime victims and other ordinary Americans became targets in politically motivated misinformation campaigns like never before. Similar conspiracy theories have surrounded nearly every mass shooting and many other high-profile crimes since then – including after this year’s mass shootings. The US Department of Homeland Security warned earlier this year that conspiracy theories about the shootings could lead to more violence.
The targeting of ordinary Americans has gone far beyond those associated with crimes and tragedies. Conspiracy theories about the Covid-19 pandemic and the safety of vaccines led to the harassment of nurses and other hospital workers. And election workers across the country have found themselves targeted by mainstream politicians and others pushing false claims of fraud in the 2020 election.
We have also seen a direct connection between conspiracy theories and violence. The mob that stormed the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 was motivated by the bizarre QAnon conspiracy theory and a disinformation campaign shouted from the White House.
Not only are outrageous false beliefs no longer disqualifying for national politicians, they have become a litmus test in some Republican contests. One recently re-elected member of the US Congress, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) – who promoted QAnon as a candidate – verbally attacked a teenage survivor of the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida and has stoked doubts about Sandy Hook and other tragedies.
Conspiracy theories and disinformation campaigns have become a tool regularly wielded in political disputes, including in the debate over guns. President Biden’s nomination to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives – an important Justice Department agency to keep Americans safe that has been without a permanent head since 2015 – was undone last year in part by a campaign of nasty memes and disinformation about the nominee and his family.
Mass shootings, though statistically rare, have become more common in the US since Sandy Hook – but national politicians have not done nearly enough to address them.
After 19 students and two adults were killed at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas in May – a shooting redolent of the tragedy at Sandy Hook – Biden signed the first gun safety law to pass Congress in decades. The bipartisan measure provided funding to states for crisis intervention programs and expanded domestic violence protection, but it did nothing to address the availability of deadly assault weapons and high-capacity magazines or close the many loopholes in federal law that advocates have pushed for since Sandy Hook. Americans have been made more vulnerable not just to gun violence in the decade since Sandy Hook, but to rampant misinformation and denial.