Sandy Hook parents: Online platforms are caving to hoaxers

For those affected by gun violence, managing the pain in the aftermath becomes a full-time job. To then be forced to ...

Posted: Feb. 23, 2018 1:59 PM
Updated: Feb. 23, 2018 1:59 PM

For those affected by gun violence, managing the pain in the aftermath becomes a full-time job. To then be forced to endure conspiracy theorists who are branding your tragedy an elaborately crafted hoax is a form of deliberate revictimization.

To be told that you are a hired actor in a performance designed to bring down the National Rifle Association and set fire to the Second Amendment, while you are in the process of making funeral arrangements for your murdered child, is a warped form of mental and emotional torture at the hands of an army of abusers.

This is the grim reality faced by many families whose loved ones became the victims of high-profile mass shootings.

The truth is that social media has normalized conspiracy theorists. As the parents of a Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victim, 6-year-old Noah Pozner, we have battled with online platforms hosting hoaxer content for over five years. We know that disinformation is not declining, and certainly isn't going away. Unfortunately, our experience has shown that this problem isn't fading with time or through the conscious and deliberate dismissal by mainstream society of the despicable conspiracy content proliferating all over the internet.

Instead, the problem is steadily growing, as evidenced by the deluge of Parkland, Florida, shooting "hoax" content that showed up on social media platforms within mere hours after the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Children who endured the horror of a school shooter, and left grieving the deaths of 17 people who were their classmates and teachers and were brave enough to speak to the media, now face the consequences of scores of conspiracy theorists knowing their names and faces. Witnesses and family members of the deceased are being accused of being paid so-called crisis actors and instruments of supposed government agendas.

Today, these accusations fade into the background for the subjects of the charges. Their wounds are fresh and their activism takes up most of their attention, but eventually, life will settle down again, except for the relentless hostile intrusions of hoaxers.

Popular social media platforms and other online venues are blatantly culpable for enabling the actions of the abusers. They have opened the floodgates to an invasion of false narratives and the defamation of victims, which invariably leads to the escalation of abuse and harassment as a consequence of the hate the content they host incites.

Mass dissemination of these false narratives culminates in the wholesale theft of the victims' peaceful existence and isolates them in their grief at a time when they are at the peak of vulnerability.

The "hoax" narrative reached a fever pitch after Sandy Hook in 2012. As despicable as it was, nobody stopped them, and consequently, it spread like aggressive cancer. In 2012, the hoaxers were limited to the fringe, but today they are practically commonplace.

This is disturbing when you consider that inflammatory personalities like Alex Jones of Infowars, who make a tidy living peddling conspiracy nonsense and anti-government propaganda, have the ear of President Trump and those around him. This week, Donald Trump Jr. "liked" two tweets pushing conspiracy theories about a Parkland high school shooting survivor and his former FBI agent father.

The "hoaxer" ideology must be challenged, discredited and denounced. Often, deniers of mass shootings are also deniers of all violent mass casualty events, such as terrorist attacks like the Boston Marathon bombing. Many are also Holocaust deniers, flat Earth proponents, and moon landing deniers. Levels of psychological instability vary from individual to individual, from the harmless, deluded recluse to the dangerous psychopath with aspirations toward domestic terrorism.

We as a nation are at the hands of powerful forces that serve to widen the divide in this country, yet we are doing next to nothing about it. We are letting it happen, at our society's peril. Our national consciousness is being sold on the open market while graves are being filled at a dizzying pace.

Our politicians are beholden to special interests and big business who buy their loyalty with large campaign donations, at the expense of the interests of the people who elected them.

Social media and internet hosting companies are driven to preserve content that attracts viewers, and therefore drives advertising dollars, at the expense of truth and civility.

The question we must ask ourselves is, at what point will the societal environment be deemed so inhospitable, toxic and vile that we once again insist on dignity, honor and most of all, truth?

Entities like Facebook and Twitter need to be held accountable for the - la carte "alternative facts" they propagate. They are particularly resistant to removing offending content, even after repeated reporting. Wordpress/Automattic have also earned this unflattering distinction, in that they tend to ignore copyright claims and requests to remove images of minor children.

When called out for spreading a recent conspiracy theory, a Facebook spokesperson said it was "working to fix the product." Twitter has said it's working to stop users from harassing Parkland students with anti-spam and anti-abuse tools and verifying survivors' accounts. Automattic's general counsel has said in a blog post that "it's very difficult if not impossible for us, as a neutral, passive host, to determine the truth or falsity of a piece of content hosted on our service," which is why the company requires a court order in many situations.

These companies are publishers -- no less, no more -- and must be held to the same standards as traditional media. It can be argued that they reach far more people than traditional media, and therefore have a responsibility to be good stewards of such enormous power.

We are in a crisis of truth, and crises can be precursors to change, provided we seize the opportunity.

Irish statesman, author, orator, political theorist and philosopher Edmund Burke famously said, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

These words have held true throughout history, as they do today.

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