Since December 14, 2012, the families of 18 children and six adults murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School have been forced to live amidst a tidal wave of conspiracy theorists and their constant lies, threats, and harassment.
As lawsuits challenging some of the most vocal purveyors of that misinformation are working through the court system, the stories of the hardships faced by some of these families -- endured while they have tried to grieve their unimaginable loss -- have brought new attention to the profound and negative effects that the wildfire spread of misinformation has on the lives of the people most impacted.
Amanda J. Crawford, an assistant professor with the UConn Department of Journalism who studies misinformation and conspiracy theories, offers the story of one family in an in-depth and heartbreaking, but critically important, story for the Boston Globe Magazine:
Lenny knew online chatter about the shadow government or some such conspiracy was all but inevitable. When a neuroscience graduate student killed 12 and injured dozens of moviegoers with a semiautomatic assault rifle in Aurora in July, five months prior, there had been allegations about government mind control.
When Lenny searched his son’s name in early January 2013, he was disgusted at the speculation about the shooting. People called it a false flag. Mistakes in news coverage had become “anomalies” that conspiracy theorists claimed as proof of a coverup. Why did the shooter’s name change? Why did the guns keep changing? Press conferences were analyzed for clues. Vance’s threat to prosecute purveyors of misinformation was taken as an indication they were onto something.
But what concerned Lenny most was their callous scrutiny of the victims and their families. Some people claimed a photo of a victim’s little sister with Obama really showed the dead girl still alive. Others speculated the murdered children never existed at all. They called parents and other relatives “crisis actors” paid to perform a tragedy. And yet, they also criticized them for not performing their grief well enough. There were even claims specifically about Veronique. Lenny needed to warn her.
“There are some really dark, twisted people out there calling this a hoax,” he told her.
Veronique didn’t understand. There was so much news coverage, so many witnesses. “How could that possibly be?”
“If you put yourself out there, people will question your story,” Lenny cautioned.
Veronique thought he must be exaggerating a few comments from a dark corner of the Web. This can’t possibly gain traction, she thought. No, no, no! Truth matters. If I tell my story, people will be able to see that I am a mother who is grieving.
Amanda J. Crawford is a veteran political reporter, literary journalist, and expert in journalism ethics, misinformation, conspiracy theories, and the First Amendment. Click on her icon now to arrange an interview with her today.