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Sandy Hook ushered in new era of conspiracy and lies, author finds

Denying that the Sandy Hook mass shooting had occurred became "a highly symbolic thing," Elizabeth Williamson says, author of the book Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth. "People did this for reasons of ideology. They did it for, in Alex Jones' case, profit. They did it for psychological reasons. There was a tribalistic bonding that happened around this."

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Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. Last month, parents of nine children killed in the Sandy Hook school shooting reached a $73 million settlement in their lawsuit against the makers of the Bushmaster AR-15-style rifle used in the killing. Our guest today, journalist and author Elizabeth Williamson, has spent countless hours with families of the Sandy Hook children in recent years. Her focus is not on gun safety but the damage done by conspiracy theorists who insist the shooting was a hoax and the parents were really actors part of a sinister government plot. In a new book, Williamson shows that the conspiracists, abetted by social media platforms that amplified their bogus claims, tormented the parents online. Some were stalked and forced into hiding. The book also shows how the parents fought back, getting online platforms to take down much of the hoaxers' content and eventually suing one of the most influential of them, Alex Jones of Infowars.

Last year, judges in four defamation cases found Jones liable because he refused to turn over documents required by the court. Damages will be determined by juries in trials this spring. Williamson argues that the Sandy Hook experience merits close examination because the patterns of online disinformation that fueled the deniers are being replicated in the campaign to discredit the results of the 2020 election. And she notes the committee investigating the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol has subpoenaed Jones to provide testimony and records about his role in events around the attack. Elizabeth Williamson is a feature writer for The New York Times and a former member of its editorial board. She began her career as a foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and covered national politics for the Journal and The Washington Post. Her new book is "Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy And The Battle For Truth."

Well, Elizabeth Williamson, welcome to FRESH AIR. Alex Jones is a key figure in this story, but I thought we'd begin just by focusing on something that you've written about recently, and that is that the congressional committee investigating the January 6 rally and assault on the Capitol have subpoenaed Jones for records and testimony. What do we know about Jones' activities around those events?

ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: We know that Alex Jones, on his show in the run-up to the election and in the run-up to the riot at the Capitol on January 6, broadcast a series of bellicose claims. And he was joined in doing that by Stewart Rhodes, who is the founder of the Oath Keepers, which is one of the groups implicated in the riot and who was charged with seditious conspiracy, along with 11 other Oath Keepers members. Alex Jones has known him for years and, in fact, knew Rhodes before he even founded the Oath Keepers in 2009.

DAVIES: Jones, I guess, secured some funding for the rally before the assault. Is that right?

WILLIAMSON: He did. So Julie Fancelli, who is the heiress to the Publix supermarket chain, is a Jones fan. She listens to Infowars, and she believed in the stop the steal claims. So she appealed to Jones - and he to her - and she's contributed at least $650,000 to the effort to organize events around the rioting at the Capitol - so a rally on January 5 and some accommodations and things like that for people who came in for Trump's rally on the morning of the riot on January 6. Two hundred thousand dollars of that, according to the committee, wound up in Alex Jones' Infowars business account.

DAVIES: What do we know of Jones' activities on January 5 and 6?

WILLIAMSON: So he came to Washington. He stayed and was in the Willard Hotel, which is where a command post was set up with Trump allies and aides the night before the January 6 insurrection. And that evening, he spoke at a rally, and he was pretty bellicose in his presentation then. He was blaming globalists for stealing the election. And he was saying, as I told them 20 years ago, I'll tell them again, I don't know how this is going to end, but if they want a fight, they better believe they've got one. So he was at Trump's rally at the Ellipse on the morning of the insurrection. He marched with Ali Alexander, who is a stop the steal organizer, to the Capitol. He says he had no role in the violence. He didn't enter the Capitol, and he was calling on his bullhorn for the crowd not to riot. But at the same time, you know, this is at the end of months' worth of claims that this will be a pivotal fight, that this will be an historic event and that they would fight like mad to keep the globalists, as he put it, from stealing the election.

DAVIES: And do we know anything about how Jones or his attorneys have responded to the subpoena from the committee?

WILLIAMSON: So Jones did appear before the committee in January. He invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination more than 100 times. He has sued Nancy Pelosi and all the members of the committee in an effort to block the release of records. The release of records that the committee wants is extensive. They want his phone records. They've gone to AT&T to get all the records related to all of his telephone numbers. They want his financial records. They want some records of the Julie Fancelli contributions. They also want to know, very interestingly, his contacts with Mr. Trump and with members of his family, as well as White House aides or members of Congress in the run-up to the riot.

DAVIES: All right. We'll see where events take us there. Let's talk about Sandy Hook, and I think we should begin by just reminding ourselves of the events of that terrible day, December 14, 2012, and the anguish that these parents experienced. Just briefly remind us of that.

WILLIAMSON: Sure. So on December 14, 2012, a gunman entered Sandy Hook school. He had previously, just before he came, killed his mother, and he shot the school principal, the school psychologist - altogether, six educators and 20 first-graders.

DAVIES: Right. And one of the things that you describe is how the parents gathered, obviously in terror, and they gathered around at a fire station. And, you know, one by one, kids were reunited with many families, and those who did not see their children had to wait a long time because bodies were still in the school, and there were rules about whether they - when they could be positively identified. And it left these parents in this terrible state of - you know, of mystery about their own kids for such a long time.

WILLIAMSON: Yes. As Veronique De La Rosa, who is the mother of Noah Pozner, the youngest Sandy Hook victim, told me for the book that this was like hell. It was just absolute hell. Parents were reuniting with children initially. They were, you know, picking up siblings. You know, they were arriving frantic and then crying with relief. And then gathered toward the back of the firehouse, there was a smaller and smaller group - although, as we know, significant size of a group - that were just waiting for news. And it was hours because there was a lot of confusion about how best to inform them, how to most sensitively break the news to them. It was absolute chaos, and as a result, they waited for a very long time to hear about their family members' fates.

DAVIES: And, of course, in the days afterwards and ever since, they've had to endure this pain that every parent would dread. I want to fast-forward to an experience a few years later that Robbie Parker, one of the parents who lost a child there, had on a street in Seattle. He was there visiting his family. He had an encounter with someone. You want to just tell us about this?

WILLIAMSON: So, Dave, Robbie Parker, although he did not know it at the time, was one of the - was the first family member of a victim to speak publicly. So he gathered what he thought would be one or maybe two reporters in front of his church in Newtown for a statement. Rather than one or two people, he encountered just a sea of cameras and, you know, reporters and microphones, and he offered a statement. But as he stepped to the podium, he was extremely nervous and undone. This was the night after his daughter's murder. And he gave a kind of gasping sort of half-laugh as he proceeded to make his statement. Then he looked at his notes, and it seemed to - you know, realize exactly what he was doing there and, you know, the horrible circumstances that had brought him there. And then he proceeded to reminisce about Emilie and her life and her life in their family and with her two sisters.

This was picked up by Alex Jones and broadcast on InfoWars over and over and over again. And as my book explains, people picked up on this, and this laugh, this sort of split-second moment in a several-minute-long, just anguished presentation, and they said that this small, gasping laugh was evidence that he was lying and that he was an actor in plot.

DAVIES: That claim was repeated again and again...

WILLIAMSON: Yeah.

DAVIES: ...By the hoaxers. And then that leads to this encounter on a street in Seattle, where Robbie Parker and his family had gone on a trip - a couple of years later, I guess. Some guy meets him on the street. What happens?

WILLIAMSON: So this was 2016. So this was years after the shooting. A man came up to him and, you know, stopped him and said, don't you - and Robbie supplied yes. Didn't - he said, didn't you have something to do with Sandy Hook? - something to that effect. Robbie said, yes, I lost my daughter. He thought the man was going to express condolences, so he offered his hand to shake, and the man ignored it and said in the cruelest, most profane terms, how do you live with yourself, you liar? And he proceeded to follow him for blocks, kind of spitting these accusations in his ear and, you know, hissing his contempt for him, until finally he mentioned Emilie's name, and Robbie wheeled around and confronted him. They didn't fight, but he just said, how do you live with yourself?

So he made it back to the hotel and, you know, just sort of broke down. But, Dave, for me, this represented two things. One, the fact that 3,000 miles away from Newtown, he would be accosted four years later by someone who believed the lies about Sandy Hook that had been circulating on InfoWars for years gives you an idea of the power of these lies and the way they travel. And second, this was 2016. This was the election year. And there were several incidents that year that really showed how, increasingly, people who believed in these myths and in these destructive conspiracy theories were willing to confront what they saw to be, you know, the targets or the villains in these plots, and they were increasingly willing to defend them with violence.

DAVIES: We need to take a quick break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Elizabeth Williamson. She's a feature writer for The New York Times. Her new book is "Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy And The Battle For Truth." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOLANGE SONG, "WEARY")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and our guest is New York Times writer Elizabeth Williamson. Her new book focuses on the torment that conspiracy theorists inflicted on the parents of children killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting and how the parents fought back. It's called "Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy And The Battle For Truth."

You know, you've described how one of the parents, Robbie Parker, was accosted on a street in Seattle four years after the Sandy Hook shootings by somebody who had believed these conspiracy theories and just kind of verbally assaulted him with the most cruel questions and taunts. Let's talk about how these conspiracy theories emerged. I mean, you write that almost immediately there were people raising questions, and you say a couple of these conspiracy theorists, Jonathan Lee Riches and Wolfgang Halbig, came to Newtown. What did they do? What was their effect?

WILLIAMSON: So they came to Newtown for different reasons, I mean, but both in pursuit of these false claims about Sandy Hook. So Jonathan Lee Riches was probably the first person of this persuasion to show up in Newtown, and he was claiming that the shooter had been mind-controlled or was under the influence of some kind of psychotropic drugs or something like that. So Jonathan Lee Riches has shown up again and again in subsequent years. He's a professional troll. He turns up at major events. He advances false claims. And he basically does it for attention.

Wolfgang Halbig was a different kind of hoaxer. He was someone who appealed to the school early on. He had been a school safety official in Lake County, Fla. He had been an educator for a time. He had spent a year very early in his career as a state cop. He somehow retooled that into a reputation or a sort of an attempt at a reputation as a criminal investigator. And so he offered his paid services to Newtown to investigate this crime. Well, there were thousands of requests and emails coming in to Newtown after the shooting, and his request was ignored. He took that personally, and he began what came to be a yearslong quest for, quote, "Sandy Hook justice" or "Sandy Hook truth." He made more than two dozen visits to Newtown. He issued hundreds of Freedom of Information Act public records requests seeking grisly details and records of the crime. And he raised more than $100,000 to fund this claim.

DAVIES: So while the officials in Newtown and the parents were trying to kind of figure out how to cope with the effects of this on everyone, including the kids, they've got these people demanding information based on these deep suspicions. One of the things that you mention that conspirators cite was when Robbie Parker, one of the parents, made a statement before cameras the day after because he'd been deluged with requests. And he emitted a nervous laugh before he began, and this was cited as evidence that he was a crisis actor. Maybe take one other piece of widely cited, quote-unquote, "evidence" that the conspirators present as evidence that this was all a hoax.

WILLIAMSON: So in the case of Wolfgang Halbig, it was the most ridiculous, specious bit of occurrence that happened on the day of the shooting, and that was that there was just this outpouring, as we all remember, of grief and generosity and offers of help. At some point, somebody delivered port-a-potties to an area outside the firehouse. It was probably, you know, a local merchant. Nobody really knows - I've checked. No one really knows how they got there. But they were put there because the place was teeming with family members, with first responders, with media, and somebody probably thought that would be helpful.

He repeatedly requested some kind of receipt, some kind of documentation. He was convinced that the appearance of these port-a-potties was evidence that the whole thing had been planned in advance and that every possible contingency had been provided for before the shooting actually occurred. That was one such claim. Years' worth of public records requests went into this. He also was claiming that the victims hadn't been - where were the rescue helicopters who transported victims to the hospital? The fact of the matter was the distances were such that it was much easier to transport victims by ambulance. And actually, sadly, there were only three people transported. Everyone else had immediately been killed.

DAVIES: And there was a - there was an interview on CNN where there was a video glitch, and they assumed this meant that, in fact, Anderson Cooper was not in Newtown. It was a green screen, and the whole interview had been staged. And this has all been thoroughly debunked.

You know, one of the things that I wonder, when you think about something like the Kennedy assassination, it is conceivable that there was a second gunman who escaped at Dealey Plaza. You can imagine that. In the case of Sandy Hook, I just - I mean, surely the conspirators don't think that Newtown, Conn., and Sandy Hook Elementary School are fictitious places. I mean, they were real places. And if this, in fact, was, you know, a staged event, what about the hundreds of other students, parents, staff of the school, vendors of the school, school district officials who knew all of these people? None of them would have come forward and said, wait a minute, these people who are claiming to have lost children are not our parents, they're actors. None of our kids died. I just - I don't understand how anyone could get into these theories without asking themselves such a simple, basic question. (Laughter) I don't necessarily expect you to answer for them, but you've talked to a few of these folks. How do they square this?

WILLIAMSON: You know, that's the thing. This was a town that - you'll recall that in December of 2012, President Obama had just been reelected. Newtown went for Mitt Romney. So the idea that this town had coordinated and cooperated with the newly reelected president to stage a seamless plot as a pretext for confiscating Americans' firearms is just beyond absurd. It certainly pales (laughter) as a whopping falsehood to any of the specious details that these hoaxers - and that's Lenny Pozner's term for them - that they could possibly dig up, showing anomalies in the reporting or initial errors in what was broadcast or strange reactions by parents.

And I think that sort of shows that this is not a factual thing, but a highly symbolic thing. People did this for reasons of ideology. They did it for, in Alex Jones's case, profit. They did it for psychological reasons. There was a tribalistic bonding that happened around this. You know, these people believed, as they did when they believed the 2020 election lie, that they were part of a unified front aimed at fighting back against a government effort to deprive them of their freedoms and to undermine our democracy when, in fact, this kind of activity is undermining of our democracy.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We're going to take another break here. Elizabeth Williamson is a feature writer for The New York Times. Her new book is "Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy And The Battle For Truth." She'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JIMMY GREENE'S "YOUR GREAT NAME")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with New York Times writer Elizabeth Williamson. Her new book focuses on the torment that conspiracy theorists inflicted on the parents of children killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting. Some parents were stalked and forced into hiding. She also writes about how the parents fought back against the hoaxers, and insights the experience offers into the current campaign to discredit the results of the 2020 presidential election. Williamson's book is "Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy And The Battle For Truth."

Let's talk a bit about some of the hoaxers, some of the people that propagated this stuff. I mean, the most powerful and famous, of course, is Alex Jones of InfoWars, a huge player in this. It's interesting that, you know, he had no background in journalism or intelligence work or police work. I mean, he was not a fact-finder. He had a show on an Austin, Texas cable TV, you know, community access channel. Why did he take off? What did he have?

WILLIAMSON: He is undeniably riveting to watch. And in those years it was pure theater. He did believe in some conspiratorial plots - 9/11 staged by the government. More darkly, Oklahoma City was a plot again staged by the government. He was on a radio station, WJFK, and simultaneously, as you say, on community access TV in Austin. He was sort of like late-night stoner fodder for a while. You know, Austin is a city, you know, that prides itself on its motto Keep Austin Weird, and he was part of that. But his plots and his theories grew darker and darker over time until he arrived at Sandy Hook, which, by the way - because of its tie to gun control and because of the murders themselves as being a kind of watershed moment in America's effort to pass gun control legislation, it was a real hot-button issue and drew a lot of engagement and created enormous amount of internet traffic for him, which resulted in sales of merchandise from his website.

DAVIES: Yeah. Let's just talk for a moment about the merchandise sales. What kind of stuff did he advertise? How much money did he make from it? Do we know?

WILLIAMSON: His marketing model was actually genius. He got into the supplements business in a serious way right around the time of Sandy Hook. So what he sold were products that were absolutely designed to appeal to the paranoia and the worries of his audience - government mind control, government poisoning your food and water, government confiscating your handguns. So he sold things like body armor and fluoride-free toothpaste because the government puts fluoride in the water in order to destroy your brain. He sold things like dried foods so that when you're doomsday prepping, you've got things to put in your shelter. He sold untraceable gun components so that people could build their own weapons at home and didn't have to register them. These were all products that were tailor-made to his audience and that he drove sales of with his messages.

DAVIES: So do we know how much money he made, what kind of lifestyle this provided him?

WILLIAMSON: A pretty good one - sort of a rock-star lifestyle. You know, he early on, while he was in court in 2014, he and his now ex-wife, Kelly Jones, were netting about $5 million a year. More recently, in court documents released as part of the Sandy Hook lawsuits, they suggest that he has revenues of more than $50 million a year over the past several years.

DAVIES: There's a point later in the book where you actually - you interview his ex-wife, Kelly, and she has quite a spread from the divorce settlement. And then Alex Jones actually takes you into the InfoWars headquarters, and you have an on-the-record conversation, provided he gets to tape recorded. Also, tell us a bit about that - what you saw, what he was like.

WILLIAMSON: Sure. That was a really interesting series of days. So I had gone to Austin for the very first hearing in the Sandy Hook defamation cases against Jones, which was in the Lenny Pozner and Veronique De La Rosa case. I had reached out to Kelly Jones and wanted to visit her. And she told me that she and Alex had a hearing in family court the next day. So I attended that, and that was just an unbelievably chaotic scene, as I describe in the book with, you know, charges going back and forth, and Jones vowing to his lawyers that he was going to spread something about his ex-wife on his show and, you know, so on and so on.

So I caught up to him in the hallway outside the courtroom. He was kind of rattled because that had been a pretty contentious encounter inside. And I introduced myself, said I was writing a story about his business, and could I talk with him? And he said, sure, sure - because at the moment that he was saying that, Kelly came out and, you know, wanted to know what he was saying about her and was filming him on her iPhone. And so he had to kind of scoot. So he handed me, you know, his number and said, why don't you call me? But I think he didn't plan on I was going to call him within minutes. So I hopped into a kind of Uber, gave the driver the address to his headquarters, which I had been told was secret, and the driver right away said, oh, Alex Jones' headquarters. Yeah. We all know about that, but we all know it's supposed to be secret.

So from outside there, I texted him and said that, you know, I'd like to talk to him, and here I am. And to my surprise, he invited me in. He said, this is going to be the hill I die on. I'm going to talk to a New York Times journalist and tell her my version of the story and just see if it flies.

DAVIES: And what was his version of the story?

WILLIAMSON: So his version of the story was, I stopped talking about Sandy Hook a long time ago, and it's just the mainstream media that gins it up. Every time somebody - so it was our fault. You know, every time somebody speaks about his past claims about Sandy Hook, it perpetuates the torment of the families. In other words, you're not supposed to say anymore, just because my lawyers told me not to say it anymore, that he had actually originated parts of this hoax and certainly spread it.

DAVIES: You mentioned that the place was - the air conditioning had it freezing cold, and he seemed - he loved that. I wondered if that was to intimidate anybody.

WILLIAMSON: (Laughter) It was also partly because he sweats a lot, you know? And he hates how he looks on camera. He's a very vain person, so he hates how he looks on camera if he's sort of rosy and sweaty. And so he keeps the air conditioning at 60 degrees. And, you know, as I walk through the studio, I could see people bundled up. And, you know, this is in August in Texas. So yeah, he just kept it that way. But he acted like, you know, this was an effort to intimidate me because I wasn't dressed for 60-degree weather. And I was just determined that I wasn't going to shiver or show that, you know, that I was cold or anything that would give him the idea that I was somehow afraid of him because he was obviously trying to menace me in some way.

DAVIES: There's a moment you describe where he kind of rails at you and says, you know, you're not really The New York Times. You're here to create a narrative so you can get a false verdict and set the precedent to overturn the First Amendment, kind of the bombast that you'd hear on his show. And you make the point that when he was doing this, he wasn't right next to you. He was kind of moving away from you to corners of the room. What do you make of that?

WILLIAMSON: He was putting on a show for Rob Dew, who is one of his lieutenants who was in the room by acting like he was menacing me and by going off into a lot of the tirades that, you know, anyone who watches his show would recognize as familiar. But he was seeking the corners of the room. He didn't want to, you know, get right in my face, which would have been the way to really intimidate me. And I gathered from that that this might be because Alex Jones is not talking to an individual. I think it's a lot harder. You know, though, it's happened more and more, it's a lot harder for people who believe in these hoaxes to go face-to-face with one of the people who have been harmed by them and assert them.

I think, to him, this is an online audience. It's a kind of monolith. It's a lot easier to do this with impunity when no one's sitting right in front of you, when it's all part of your act and part of your business and part of your show. He doesn't often have to encounter the human impact of the things that he says and the torment that he inflicts on people by these attacks.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We're going to take another break here. Elizabeth Williamson is a feature writer for The New York Times. Her new book is "Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy And The Battle For Truth." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WESTERLIES' "PLEASE KEEP THAT TRAIN FROM MY DOOR")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with New York Times writer Elizabeth Williamson. Her new book deals with conspiracy theories that were developed after the Sandy Hook killings in 2012 and the efforts that parents of the murdered children made to attack the conspirators. It's called "Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy And The Battle For Truth."

Lenny Pozner, who was one of the Sandy Hook parents who was most active in trying to combat the conspiracy theories that were being propagated, began by trying to reason with these folks, going on their Facebook group, seeing if he could simply explain things. That didn't work, so he found some more effective methods. What did he do that actually made a difference in getting some of this content removed?

WILLIAMSON: So the thing that he discovered that became kind of a main tool in his toolkit was the copyright laws. So if someone in propagating one of these myths about Sandy Hook had taken an image of Noah, which, you know at the time...

DAVIES: That's his son. Yeah.

WILLIAMSON: Yes. I'm sorry. That was Lenny's son, who was the youngest child killed at Sandy Hook. Lenny maintained a memorial Google+ page to Noah that included a lot of images of Noah and his sisters and videos of him. And these conspiracy theorists would go onto that page and lift the images and use them in videos and in making false claims and, you know, blog posts and Facebook pages and such. So he owned that material. So, you know, that is something that, within the rules, that violates these social media platforms' terms of service. So he could get that material taken down. So he and his Honor Network volunteers amassed lists by the thousands of videos, posts and various claims that were made about Sandy Hook using those images, and the companies would take those down.

DAVIES: Right. And as he did it, more of the companies learned who he was. He got some attention, so they would react quickly. And, you know, a video would go up, two days later, it was gone. This enraged Alex Jones and others. How did they react? What did that mean for Lenny and his life?

WILLIAMSON: So that made Lenny a target. There - if there was one thing that these individuals couldn't stand, they didn't care that the families would make statements talking about how they had moved so many times because their address was being put online or the torment that it had put their surviving children through or any of that, they didn't care about any of that. They did care if their material was being taken down. That, to them, was a violation of their First Amendment rights. And that was Alex Jones. So he flew into a fury when this happened. And that was all really it took to gin up a lot of fury out there among his listeners against Lenny.

DAVIES: So what did that mean for Lenny and his life?

WILLIAMSON: So it meant that he has lived in hiding ever since he began to engage the hoaxers, the spreaders of Sandy Hook conspiracy theories. They have repeatedly posted his personal information, his Social Security number, his phone numbers and those of Veronique, his ex-wife, his family and extended family online. He has moved at this point about a dozen times, mostly because these people keep posting his address online. At one point, there was a conspiracy theorist who had spread some of these lies about Sandy Hook who was living around the corner from him.

Another time he had given an interview where he always was cast in shadow. He doesn't allow people to see his face. He doesn't allow himself to be photographed in the media. And they had picked up - these conspiracy theorists had picked up a detail in the railing of the balcony of his apartment building outside the window and tracked the building and posted it online. Another time, a man who is - has since been convicted of assault called him the day he moved in or a couple days later and read his new address to him over the phone. So he's never been able to really settle until, you know, very, very recently because he's in constant fear that someone is going to take action based on what they believe that - and they read online.

DAVIES: What does Alex Jones say about how his beliefs about Sandy Hook have evolved and why?

WILLIAMSON: So when I interviewed Alex Jones, he said that he believed that children have died, and he'll even say that he's apologized, although I don't see much evidence of that.

DAVIES: So he doesn't say, yes, I propagated a hoax, and I don't believe it anymore. I mean, what he says is, look; I was just commenting on questions that people have, right?

WILLIAMSON: So Alex Jones has said two things from the start - one, that he was only echoing the questions and the claims of others. But if you look at the transcript and the existing broadcast of his show on the day of Sandy Hook, he was already heading down that road. So that's false. The other thing he'll say is that he was just raising questions, that he has a right to question his government because they put this whole narrative out there in service of gun control legislation and that he was just raising questions about their motives and about individual details of the crimes. But when you put that out to millions of people, that basically is saying that the whole thing is made up, which he has said point blank over the years, and it unleashes them on the family members.

DAVIES: In 2018, the lawsuits came. Several families filed defamation suits against him in, I think, three states. How did they go?

WILLIAMSON: So these dragged on for years. That was what first got me interested in this story, when the first two lawsuits against Jones were filed in Texas. Jones said from the beginning that this would be, you know, his stand for the First Amendment, that he would prove in court that the First Amendment protected him. But what he ended up doing instead was circumventing the process. He actually didn't seek his day in court, and he didn't get it because he kept refusing to comply with court orders to produce his financial records, to produce business communications. He didn't show up for some depositions; some others he did. But he just was contemptuous of the process from the beginning. He got in his own way. He was his own worst enemy. And by the end of last year, he was found liable by default in all four of the Sandy Hook families' lawsuits against him. So beginning this spring, juries will meet just to decide what the damages should be, what he must pay the Sandy Hook families in damages.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Elizabeth Williamson. Her new book is "Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy And The Battle For Truth." We'll continue our conversation after this break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIE KNODEL'S "HARLEM IN BRUNN")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Elizabeth Williamson. She's a feature writer for The New York Times. Her new book is "Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy And The Battle For Truth."

At the end of the book, Lenny Pozner, who put so much effort into combating these theories, said he'd won. By what measure does - did he win?

WILLIAMSON: So there was a thing that Lenny told me early on that really stuck with me. He told me about how after Noah died that he was searching for anything that smelled like him - you know, clothes that maybe hadn't been washed, anything that smelled like his son - because he remembered how he would at night go into his room when he was sleeping and he would inhale that scent that if you had children, anyone knows, of a sleeping baby. That really resonated with me because what he was saying was, all trace of Noah was gone by, you know, a few months afterward; he couldn't find that scent. And what he was basically saying was, Noah's essence online, you know, the record of his life and death, was in danger of being obliterated in similar fashion by these lies, where if you googled Sandy Hook, you would find not an accounting of the crime or a tribute to the victims; you would find these lies. And he realized that if this continued, if he didn't try to stop it, that Noah would fade, like his scent, to nothing and that his legacy would not survive.

And he has succeeded. If you - check it out. If you Google him today and you Google the Sandy Hook shooting, you will find a factual representation. You will not find lies and conspiracy theories and Alex Jones broadcasts. And to him, that is a victory. The other thing is that Alex Jones - his name is never mentioned anymore without that being attached to him, that this was the person who spread lies about Sandy Hook that resulted in years of torment of these families. And that, also, to Lenny, is a victory.

DAVIES: You know, it's interesting that when Lenny was beginning to get some traction in having posts taken down was around when Alex Jones got a boost from Donald Trump. Donald - I guess in 2015. Trump went on his show and said, you know, you have a great reputation. Do we know how they connected and what that meant for Alex Jones?

WILLIAMSON: Yes. And this is the part that is really an ongoing battle for truth, as I say in the book. So Roger Stone, who is an erstwhile Trump adviser and has known him for years and, you know, tried repeatedly to persuade him to run for high office, saw in Alex Jones's audience of disaffected, distrustful people a valuable constituency that could put Trump over the top in a very crowded Republican field. And so he engineered the December 2015 appearance that Trump made on Infowars in which he praised Alex Jones' amazing reputation and, you know, quite tellingly now, told him he thought he would get along very well with Vladimir Putin. Jones has, for years, been a Putin defender and fan. So that was his entree to this slice of the Republican electorate that became mobilized and engaged and helped put him into office.

DAVIES: Well, you know, you write in the book that there are a lot of parallels between the Sandy Hook hoaxes and the far more widely believed claim that the 2020 election was stolen. It obviously makes a difference in - that the former president and many, many prominent Republican elected officials are promoting this story. And I'm wondering, when you look at what the Sandy Hook parents did to take on the lie about their children with effect, are there lessons that can be applied to confronting this poisonous idea that, you know, tens of millions of votes were - can be stolen?

WILLIAMSON: I think part of it, Dave, is just the awareness of the throughline that exists from Sandy Hook to Pizzagate to Charlottesville to coronavirus to the election lie and the January 6 insurrection. I mean, if you look at Ukraine - and there's so much more awareness of this now than there was back in 2012 or when Lenny embarked on this battle in 2013 and 2014. If you look at Ukraine, here, Putin cloaks a naked bid for empire in this mind-numbing lie about denazification. And at least initially, people like Tucker Carlson and Alex Jones run with that.

You know, the lesson here is that in the Cold War, it took a sophisticated foreign adversary like Russia to sow nationwide discord. Now all you need is an Alex Jones or even a guy with a smartphone who has access to social media. That is a really ominous development. And it also points to the next election, because we don't really need Russia to sow disruption in our politics anymore. We are doing a pretty good job of it ourselves.

DAVIES: Well, Elizabeth Williamson, thank you so much for speaking with us.

WILLIAMSON: Thank you so much for having me, Dave.

DAVIES: Elizabeth Williamson is a feature writer for The New York Times. Her new book is "Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy And The Battle For Truth." On tomorrow's show, we speak with Russian American journalist and New Yorker staff writer Masha Gessen, who was just in Ukraine and Moscow reporting on the Russian invasion. Gessen has written books about Putin and about totalitarianism in Russia. For about 20 years, Gessen worked as a journalist in Moscow. I hope you can join us.

Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer and technical director is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF JIMMY GREENE'S "WHERE IS THE LOVE?" Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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