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Q&A | Elizabeth Williamson, author of 'Sandy Hook'

11 years after Sandy Hook tragedy, author reflects on what's changed


On the morning of Dec. 14, 2012, a 20-year-old man walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. He carried two rifles and a handgun. He turned the guns on those inside the school, murdering 20 first-graders and six educators before killing himself. Police later discovered he’d killed his mother before coming to the school.

There have been more than 2,000 school shootings in the U.S. since 1970 and 317 alone in 2023, according to the K-12 School Shooting Database.

What unfolded in Newton was particularly horrific. And the aftermath was tragic as well: conspiracy theorists who not only propagated lies about Sandy Hook through social media, but insidiously harassed the parents of the survivors, threatening them online and at their homes in the months and even years that followed. Studies show that at various points as many as 20% of Americans believe that mass shootings like Sandy Hook are hoaxes perpetrated by either the government or some shadow, clandestine entity.

On this sad anniversary, we speak with New York Times feature writer Elizabeth Williamson. Her 2022 book, “Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth,” provides an engrossing account not of the shooting at Sandy Hook, but about what happened in the hours, the days and the months that followed — as conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones of InfoWars used their platforms to incite and enrage millions of listeners and followers.

Jones, for example, claimed no one died at Sandy Hook and that child actors were used in the “false flag” event designed to boost gun control measures.

Williamson’s book was named by the Washington Post as one of the best non-fiction books of 2022, and it also appeared on the “Best Books of 2022” lists of Publishers Weekly, Slate, the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, among many others. In the meantime, she has continued to report on what happened following the shooting for The Times.

CityView’s Bill Horner III spoke to Williamson this week. The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.


When you reflect on the anniversary of Sandy Hook and all the school shootings that have occurred since, what’s foremost in your mind?

I guess I think about two different things. I think specifically about the families, of course. I find myself checking in with them on how they're feeling with the progress that's been made, as far as the disinformation that has made their lives since the shooting so miserable, and on what's happening with [Alex Jones’] bankruptcy proceedings and in the case of Connecticut appeal. 

But there's a sense of one step forward, two steps back as far as that goes, although there have been some good developments. We know in the bankruptcy case, the judge did rule that these debts will follow Alex Jones. 

He can't use the fact that he's declared bankruptcy to force the families into a settlement, for example, or to force them to just simply accept whatever proceeds that would come from a possible liquidation of the company. These debts to the families will basically hound him through his professional life, which is positive. 

Just this week, Elon Musk, who owns X, formerly known as Twitter, allowed Alex Jones back on the platform after Jones was kicked off just over a year ago. I wanted to ask you about that because Elon Musk himself disavowed the conspiracies about Sandy Hook, although he's embraced other conspiracies. When Jones was deplatformed, Musk tweeted, “I have no mercy for anyone who would use the deaths of children for gain, politics or fame.” Yet that’s partly how Jones created his wealth. And now Elon Musk has walked back on that …

A lot of these families, they're not on Twitter themselves. They don't pay attention to that. So it's not like he would be a daily irritant. 

But Twitter has become a really specific place since Elon Musk bought it. It is kind of like a swamp of disinformation and conspiracy theories and just out-and-out trolling. And he's kind of the king troll. I think he loves to see the rise he can get out of people. He loves to see the outrage. He likes the adoration from the so-called “reply guys” who are constantly stroking him in the replies to his tweets. 

He loves that. I think that's one of the reasons he bought the company. He gets to be a bully on there. He gets to throw his weight around. He gets to go after the people who he perceives as having slighted him. 

It's just a really small kind of impulse, and he's indulging it. He got a lot of attention for [kicking Jones off Twitter] at that time. And now he gets more attention for letting him back on. So he kind of goes where the attention is. I don't think it's any more complicated than that.

Elon Musk could have gotten the most attention by taking a principled stand on this. I know he had lost a child himself. He can't imagine denying the deaths of these children [at Sandy Hook].

Part of me just gets a little tired of trying to parse what Elon Musk is thinking at any given time. He's a corrosive force on our public discourse. 

You’ve been reporting on Alex Jones’ attempt to use bankruptcy protection to avoid paying the families of the Sandy Hook victims. Legal judgments against Jones total more than $1.5 billion. Help us make sense of where all that is.

I think that we're going to learn a lot more in the final few months of this bankruptcy proceeding. I think that we'll get a clearer picture of exactly how much money he has and what the schedule of payments might look like and what a settlement might look like. I do think he's probably keen to get out from under this insofar as he can. But now it's a matter of quibbling over what this is ultimately going to cost. I think the families are keen to put an end to this that they can accept. I don't think anyone labored under the misconception that they'd ever get anywhere near to what the amount of the judgments were against Jones. And I don't think he has anywhere near that kind of money. 

But they [the families who sued Jones] want something that would be meaningful to them and to the charities that they operate, and the causes that they're involved in. So it was never about money for them. It was always about stopping him and kind of getting the names of their loved ones out of his mouth. I don't think he'll speak about it anymore. I think that they've accomplished that. I think more meaningful to them would be something that they can point to and say, “Because of these lawsuits, this is no longer happening to families like us.”

We’re at a point now, 11 years after Sandy Hook, where guns are now the leading cause of death among American children. And one out of every 10 gun deaths are happening to someone 19 years old or younger.

That is really tough. I think in talking with the family members from Sandy Hook and just observing, that's probably a source of enormous disappointment for everyone who got involved in an effort to try and decrease the number of deaths due to firearms in this country.

At the time of Sandy Hook, gunshot wounds were not the leading cause of death among young people. Now it is. So that's obviously a great step backward at the same time, because we always have to look for something positive, right? There have been a lot of successes at the state level on some of these firearms initiatives, but we are a nation that is just drowning in guns. 

And it would take a bigger mind than mine to figure out what the answer to that is, because there is not a political will in this country to make any significant change on the policy front. I mean, those efforts have failed time and time again. So people who are trying to make that kind of change have focused more at the state level than at the local level. And they have had more successes in that arena because the bottom line is that most Americans do favor common sense legislation. But there is no will in Congress to do anything because all the incentives run in the other direction. The money that they receive on the Republican side, the Republican base, is staunchly opposed to any form of new gun legislation or policy. 

So where you can get to addressing what most Americans think about this is at the state and local levels — and I think there is progress on those fronts. 

Your book addressed the use of social media to spread disinformation and misinformation. We’ve talked about X — Twitter — so I’m curious about your observations about the Meta lawsuit. (Meta is the parent company of Facebook and Instagram.)

As I said when the book first came out, there's more attention paid now to the corrosive effects of social media. You see that in some of the efforts to limit TikTok. We've seen these things come out about Meta. These algorithms are relentless. They want to keep you on social media for as long as possible, and so they will feed you whatever they determine you’re interested in. 

So they will keep getting caught time and time again until they are willing to sacrifice engagement. And we've seen in the case of Meta, we know there were actually directives about that, where they said, “I don't care what kind of tinkers you make, just as long as it doesn't impact engagement.”

Until you do that, you're not going to make significant or meaningful change. So that’s something also that I think Congress has to grapple with. And again, given the dysfunction up there right now, I don't really see that happening anytime soon. 

But I do think these lawsuits are a way of the public saying, “Yes, these companies are on our radar. Yes, we are noticing the impact of excessive social media use and the type of content that kids especially are encountering online, and we're determined to do something about it.” 

You look at everything from teen mental health issues to eating disorders to stalking issues to suicide … I mean, a lot of these phenomena have been worsened, at the very least, by social media. And I think more and more parents are seeing that this is something that is negative for kids, and we've got to find some ways to rein in the impact that this is having on kids’ everyday lives. 

We’re coming up on two years since the publication of your book. The book got a lot of traction and made a lot of impact. Are you still speaking about it and seeing its impact?

I do speak about it from time to time. I'm actually going to head into New York next month and talk with some folks from the district attorney's office in Manhattan about the relationship between disinformation and gun violence, and how the gun violence or gun policy debate is fueled positively and negatively by social media.

[The book] is a reference for people, and people talk about it when they speak about things like Twitter and the negative impacts of social media and conspiracy theories — when you’re talking about the continuum of Sandy Hook and coronavirus myths and just the rabbit hole we’ve been down as a nation. The election denialism and Jan. 6 — it’s seen as part of the body of disinformation that sort of fed that apotheosis on Jan. 6.

And I'm grateful to see those conversations happen, because I feel like Lenny Pozner [whose son died at Sandy Hook] was the first to sort of point out that Sandy Hook was a foundational story in how we got to the place where we are, where we're living now — immersed in disinformation the way we are today. 

So it was great to put that on people's radar screen and have them start talking about that and how and why that happened. And I don't attribute this to the book as much as to the [Sandy Hook] families, but we know Alex Jones is now never spoken about without almost the next sentence being the fact that he was the person who denied that the Sandy Hook shooting happened, and that he ignited years of torment for the families of the victims. I think it's really important that he never lives that down. 

I think that was a crossing of the Rubicon for him. And it just shows that he's not just some clown out of Austin, Texas, but that he had a very real and devastating impact on people's lives. He really wounded people's lives, and that there are a lot of others like him; this is not a victimless crime. These kinds of disinformation campaigns have enormous impacts on individual people. 

And here, you know, right now in Washington, where I'm sitting, there's this trial for damages against Rudy Giuliani brought by this mother and daughter election workers and what his lies did to their lives. 

That to me, of all the things that came out of the 2020 elections, that particular incident struck me to my core. Because here were two women who, in their family, it was a tradition to work at the polling place, because these are African American women living in Georgia, for whom the franchise was so important and meant so much. 

It was a sort of life and death thing to have the vote and to ensure the integrity of the vote — and then to have someone malign them … to have someone malign them as participating in an effort to disenfranchise voters and in an effort to perpetrate a fraud. To make that kind of false accusation, even without the harassment, the death threats, the torment, the stalking that these two women endured — even without that is something that cut them to the core of who they are as individuals. And that is sickening. 

And so we'll just see what Rudy Giuliani must pay them for what he's done to not only disrupt their lives, but their concept of themselves. 

Sandy Hook, Alex Jones, X, Twitter, misinformation, disinformation, Rudy Giuliani, anniversary, Meta, Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth, Elizabeth Williamson, gun, gun laws, New York Times, social media, hoax, conspiracy theories