Five years ago, Leonard Pozner lost his son Noah in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Within days, conspiracy theorists—including a Florida Atlantic University professor—were questioning whether the massacre even happened.
As detailed by New York Magazine and other media outlets, these self-styled “truthers” (though a better term is probably “hoaxers”) hold that some powerful force—the Illuminati, globalists, the New World Order, even the Obamas—staged the shooting with the cooperation of media, government and city residents in order to take away guns and liberty. The slain children were either put into witness protection or never existed, according to their claims. This left Pozner and his fellow Newtown parents and city officials fielding inquiries about whether their kids ever lived at all.
Since then, Pozner has founded the HONR Network, a nonprofit dedicated to stopping hoaxers’ attempts to spread disinformation online after tragedies, like what happened immediately after this week’s Las Vegas shooting on both YouTube and Twitter. Thrive Global contacted Pozner over email to learn more about how Honr does what it does, whether online hoaxing is picking up or slowing down and what it would take to stamp out this particularly disdainful corner of Internet culture for good.
THRIVE GLOBAL: How many people participate in the HONR Network, and how active are they?
LEONARD POZNER: Since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December 2012, several hundred individuals have joined HONR Network. A smaller number are visibly and regularly active in battling the hoaxer activity, but there’s no way of knowing how many of the members are quietly carrying out activities to counter hoaxers without making their efforts known to the entire group. HONR Network initiatives are posted both online on our website as well as in our private forum, so individuals can take actions at their leisure and discretion as their personal time and will dictates.
TG: Who’s involved and what exactly do they do to stop the spread of disinformation?
LP: Individuals from all walks of life are active HONR Network members, from highly educated professionals to young people in entry level jobs, to stay-at-home parents. Hoaxers are combatted in a variety of ways, from flagging offensive and slanderous videos to writing emails to organizations that host and/or aid hoaxers in putting their disinformation and hateful rhetoric out there.
Some members still go after the disinformation with debunking, but the majority of debunking material was put out on the web in the first couple of years after the tragedy and is easily found for those who are sincerely interested in learning the facts; therefore, we no longer invest much time or effort in debunking. Volunteers say they participate to help combat the lies and support the facts, and to honor the memories of those who were brutally taken and to support the families who continue to get attacked by conspiracy theorists. There are groups that target HONR Volunteers and some volunteers pull back for various reasons, one of those being fear of their own family being targeted by a hoaxer.
TG: Do you see any improvements happening with the curbing of hoaxers’ activities by YouTube, Facebook and other platforms? And do you agree with the recent media analysis saying that Facebook has become too big to self-regulate these kinds of activities in an effective way?
LP: There has been marginal improvement in the past three years, but primarily we’ve seen more awareness to hoaxer activity from YouTube, Facebook and other platforms (some more than others). It’s taken a long time and a great deal of effort, but small strides have been made. As mass shootings continue and hoaxer activity ramps up, society’s awareness is increasing and influencing change in response. I definitely agree with the recent media analyses that claim Facebook has gotten too big to self-regulate in an effective way. We’ve witnessed it repeatedly over the years, much to our frustration.
TG: What’s needed to curb hoaxing, or end it altogether?
LP: The online platforms that host hoaxer content have to significantly improve their responses to the reporting of hoaxer content and slanderous disinformation. Currently, most platforms don’t even attempt to solve the problem when complaints are filed against offensive or harassing hoaxer activity. The content is rarely removed and the user’s account is left intact.
There needs to be more accountability for the conscious actions taken by hoaxers. Mass casualty event victims should be a protected group by law, and those who attack them based on their traumatic experiences should have their feet held to the fire.
[Editor’s Note: While tech platforms have taken aim at fake news, Google, Facebook, and Twitter all said they were actively combatting false stories after the Las Vegas shooting, though not before disinformation started to spread.]
TG: How would that change play out?
LP: Currently, the law expects victims to initiate civil litigation against hoaxer offenders who slander them. But this is highly impractical, since a victim would have to bring a suit against thousands of individual hoaxers. Further complicating this “solution,” many hoaxers post their abusive rhetoric anonymously.
The civil litigation approach requires a significant personal financial investment from victims, with no guaranteed return on their investment. It forces additional sacrifices on top of what is already insult to their injury. If it were even possible to uncover and bring suit against every single offender, the costs would be astronomical. This is not an effective solution to the problem.
The law has to step up and take action against hoaxers who post disrespectful and defamatory content about the victims, their families, first responders and private citizens who were propelled into the media spotlight not by choice, but as a result of the high-profile nature of these unthinkable crimes.
TG: What would it take to make those changes a reality?
LP: The only thing that can diminish this type of crass, hurtful content being posted online without a second thought is the complete criminalization of posts which name and display images of victims, their families, first responders and private citizens. There would undoubtedly be far fewer hoaxers posting such hateful and harmful content if they risked actual consequences enforceable by law. This is a much more practical approach that would put the burden on law enforcement to pursue hoaxers for criminal offenses, relieving victims of an impossible and unnecessary burden.