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YouTube’s Parkland Conspiracy Crackdown Not Enough, Says Sandy Hook Parent

Activist Lenny Pozner is heartened by student gun control activism, but warns of familiar consequences.
February 27, 2018, 11:17pm
Lenny Pozner and his son, Noah, left. Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, right. Photos via handout. 

On Valentine’s Day, a 19-year-old man walked into Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida with an AR-15 and killed 17 people. It was the ninth deadliest shooting in modern US history and, as with other recent tragedies, many worried it would only amount to a blip on the news cycle radar.

However, more than a week later, this one feels different thanks to the students of Stoneman Douglas.

The teens who suffered through the tragedy are mad as hell and standing up to keep gun control in the mainstream press. President Donald Trump held a meeting with survivors of the tragedy, teens marched for gun control across the country, and some companies have been pulling their support from the NRA.

The conspiracies surrounding the event feel different as well. It appears the lasting power of the Parkland shooting has led to increasingly intense conspiracies. Led by the usual idiot brigade of the conspiracy movement, the “false flag” theories surrounding the Parkland shooting are littered across social media but, unlike many other times before it, there have been consequences. Just today, InfoWars had their account frozen on YouTube after pushing conspiracies regarding the Parkland shooting and going after the teenaged survivors.

Lenny Pozner, who lost his six-year-old son in the Sandy Hook shooting and has been plagued by truthers ever since, knows these conspiracy theories all too well and he’s not at all surprised they popped up after the Parkland shooting. Even years removed from the murder of his son, Pozner is still dealing with Truthers—one conspiracy die-hard was sentenced to five months in prison last summer for threatening Pozner. After his experience dealing with truthers, Pozner founded Honr, an anti-hoaxer organization, where he works to combat online truther movements and the people affected by them.

Pozner is adamant that, at the end of the day, the responsibility for these conspiracies rests on the shoulders of the platforms. He told VICE that some are responsive (Google) while some ignore complaints (Wordpress). VICE called up Pozner to talk about the similarities between the Parkland and Sandy Hook shootings, what lasting damage “false flag” conspiracies leave behind, and how to combat them.

VICE: America has been reeling from a steady stream of gun violence. Does the Parkland shooting in Florida feel different?
Lenny Pozner: It's very similar to Sandy Hook as far as conspiracy theorists and people’s outrage for gun violence. I don't know if this is a tipping point but this last tragedy has hooked a specific age category to get involved in gun control advocacy and I hope this will be lasting but it's hard to tell.

What was it like watching this shooting unfold?
It's a little closer to home because it was a school but with that in mind these tragedies usually unfold in the same way. The press starts paying attention and everyone starts looking for a total number of fatalities for any given mass shooting. Unfortunately, that's usually how a shooting is remembered—by the number of fatalities. I felt for the parents that were waiting to be reunited with their kids because it took place in a school, it felt similar to what I lived through. I also sensed that there must be a large number of fatalities when the number of victims was being withheld.

What about the conspiracies afterwards that targeted some of the survivors?
That's par for the course now, there is no surprise there. It's a normal state of affairs right now. I expected them. I've always suggested that this hoaxer reality show revolves around whoever they see on television. So whether it's a sheriff or someone representing the school or witnesses those become part of the conspiracy narrative. That's the way these things unfold.

There are a couple of kids who are really outspoken and gun control has become their mission and that's great, but those are the people that are visible and they are the ones who get the hoaxer attention.

That's incredibly depressing.
Nowhere near as depressing as the parents who sent their kids to school that morning and then had to make funeral arrangements as they're being called liars.

What kind of steps can be taken to curb this?
I think everyone has a responsibility to reporting online content because that's how platforms are operating right now. They depend on a volunteer base to report and flag content. Members of the general public need to spend a few minutes reporting when they come across it. Harassment, abuse, and bullying of people connected to a mass shooting should not be ignored.

A lot of people have family members or friends who follow these ideas and they need to call them out. We all come across these types of individuals in our everyday lives and choose to ignore them because nobody wants to confront these people. They might be our cousins, our uncles, siblings and so on. We all know who they are. There are volunteers who work with Honr that have severed their relationships with family members who follow these beliefs, even to the extent that children have severed relationships with parents.

It comes down to the regulators, right?
YouTube and Google have been a thousand times more proactive than Facebook and Twitter who are still years behind Google. WordPress (owned by Automattic) is the absolutely worst online hosting platform because they ignore copyright claims and requests to remove images of children.

The platforms are the main issue because they’re not regulating themselves. The inevitable reality is that these platforms will be regulated. Within five or ten at worst they will be regulated. They are utilities like a phone company, like an electric company, we use them for information feeds, we use them to communicate with one another, they are absolutely a utility and they are not regulating themselves so the government will step in.

What would you say to people who say it's a free speech issue to have this hoaxer content online?
That's an unrefined understanding of freedom of speech, that's from the University of YouTube. Hate speech isn't free speech, free speech is to criticize your government and have an open press but to target and harass people is not free speech.

Because this is a new platform and laws haven't caught up to it. If someone were to do this in the real world—so if someone stood outside your apartment with a portable billboard sign over their head and letting all your neighbours see that you're a criminal and making all these accusations about you, that you're a traitor that should be hung or killed. If someone were doing this on the sidewalk, in an open public space, the police would be called and the person would be told to go away.

Movements like this don't just end when Alex Jones or another conspiracy theorist decide to shut up. They last, right?
Once these ideas are introduced they cannot be undone so that's a lot of what we see with hoaxers. We will see one unbalanced person with a distorted model of the world creating an idea and then planting the seed of this thought virus in the collective of this network of equally unbalanced individuals who are sharing these ideas. It takes life and the seeds of misinformation won't just disappear.

I've been trolled by people who are conspiracy minded but they acknowledge that Sandy Hook was real and the children died but they still targeted me because I was outspoken. They've made Department of Children and Family Services reports against me that were wholly disqualified. These people have made reports with the CPS, the FBI and several local police departments against me as a form of targeted harassment because that's what they do since they have zero compassion.

These ideas are permanent when they are introduced, the same way as if there is a photo of someone on the web it will live on forever once it's been posted

What are your thoughts on Alex Jones having his account frozen for two weeks?
I don't think Alex Jones getting strikes is anything new, the media just picked up on it recently. I've given him many strikes in the past.

What advice do you have for these kids dealing with these hoaxes?
Well, the first advice would be to reduce your online footprint and lock down your social media as everything you do and say will be used against you and every image of you will be turned into memes and twisted hoax theories.. It's important to lock down social media, even that of relatives—controlling your social footprint is paramount.

Some people are outspoken though, they're in the press. They're being driven by this event and unfortunately, it's a double-edged sword. They're getting a lot done but at the same time their character is being assassinated online and that won't go away.

Follow Mack Lamoureux on Twitter.