In this episode of “Intelligence Matters,” host Michael Morell speaks with journalist and author Elizabeth Williamson, who traced the rise and proliferation of conspiracy theories surrounding thein a new book, Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy in the Battle for Truth. Williamson and Morell discuss how the conspiracy theories began, to whom they tend to appeal and how social media companies have been integral to their spread. Williamson also explains how the U.S. may have begun “exporting” politicized disinformation and techniques now being coopted by authoritarian governments around the world.
Editor’s note: This episode was taped before the tragic events in Uvalde, Texas.
The appeal of conspiracy theories: “People get a sense of group belonging. They get a whole new identity for themselves. They get a sense of elevated social status. They gather in groups, they build each other up. They embroider these theories. They support each other. Many of these individuals have forsaken their families, their jobs, their real world reputations just to be part of these kinds of groups. It’s a form of tribalism…The Internet and social media allows them to find each other, and they have formed an entire constituency, and that particular constituency now has a role in our politics.”
Social media’s role: “There has been such a dramatic uptake in the use of social media by Americans in the last ten years and since Sandy Hook and actually in the years prior to it, that it’s impossible to talk about it without talking about how conspiracy theories are spread online. Without these vehicles, you would not have nearly the preoccupation with conspiracy theories that we do have in this country.”
U.S. “exporting” politicized misinformation: “Where once it took a sophisticated Cold War adversary like Russia to undermine our democracy and disrupt our electoral process, the 2020 riot at the Capitol, the lies spread around the 2020 presidential election, the uproar that’s occurred since, really shows that a swath of Americans are willing to spread that disinformation themselves. And through using a smartphone or social media, they can do it in minutes where, again, that would never have been possible for them. But this idea of spreading disinformation around bedrock democratic processes, like our elections, is just as, as you know far, far better than I, a playbook that used to come from other places, and now it’s being adopted by despots around the world.”
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INTELLIGENCE MATTERS – ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON
*Editor’s note: This episode was taped before the tragic events in Uvalde, Texas.
PRODUCER: OLIVIA GAZIS
MICHAEL MORELL: Elizabeth, welcome to Intelligence Matters. It’s great to talk with you.
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: Michael, thanks for inviting me.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Elizabeth, you’re the author of a new book titled, “Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth.” It’s an amazing read and I think it’s a very important book. So congratulations. I know how tough it is to write and get a book published. Congratulations.
So as you know, I’d love to break that discussion down into two parts here. One, the book itself, and two, the implications, really, of the Sandy Hook story for national security.
But before we dig into the book, Elizabeth, I want to start by tying the two together, the book and national security together right off the bat. So you began your journalism career by reporting from Russia and Eastern Europe. And I’m I’m really struck by the fact that this part of the world, particularly Russia, has long had a conspiratorial mindset: if you’re a Russian, you see sinister forces behind the scenes manipulating pretty much everything.
And I’m wondering when you were there, if you sensed that mindset, number one, and do you think your time there in any way made you more conscious of what you eventually saw in the Sandy Hook story? Did it help you see it more clearly, do you think?
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: It’s a great question. And, yes, in thinking back while I was writing my book, I went back to the mid-nineties when I was in Vladimir Putin’s Saint Petersburg and heard my first kind of conspiracy theories around elections, as a matter of fact. That there were powerful international forces meddling in elections for the Duma and for president at that time. They were the Yeltsin years and then the transition to Putin. And so I did go back and think about that.
And at the time, I thought they were kind of amusing and just so kooky as to be, you know, ‘so bad it’s good’ kind of thing, just so oddball and unbelievable that you can’t believe anyone would take it seriously. And so it really does bowl me over all these years later to think, ‘Wow, these are very similar theories that are gaining traction in our politics here in America today.’
MICHAEL MORELL: Okay, Elizabeth, the book, what led you to write it, and tell us the arc of the story.
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: Sure. So when I first learned that the families of two Sandy Hook victims were suing Infowars conspiracy broadcaster Alex Jones in Texas – this was in mid-2018 – I was thinking that this would be a very interesting test of whether the First Amendment, as Alex Jones and many of the conspiracy theorists repeatedly claim, protects their right to broadcast falsehoods that cause, in the case of the Sandy Hook families, years of torment and threats against vulnerable people.
But then I started talking with Lenny Pozner, who is the father of Noah, the youngest Sandy Hook victim. And I quickly learned that Sandy Hook is really a foundational story about how false narratives and misinformation have gained traction in our society.
So in the book, I trace Sandy Hook to most major mass shootings, to Pizzagate, to QAnon, to Charlottesville, to the coronavirus myths, the 2020 election conspiracy, and that lie that brought the mob to the Capitol on January 6, 2021. So I just became captured with this idea and, you know, horrified that increasing numbers of individuals for reasons of ideology or tribalism or, like Alex Jones, for profit, are willing to deny accepted truth and established science.
MICHAEL MORELL: A little bit about the impact on the families, right. Because I think some people think, ‘What difference does it make if somebody is out there spouting a conspiracy theory?’ But in this case, it really had a tremendous impact on the Sandy Hook families.
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: Yes, absolutely. So you could kind of trace a continuum for the families.
So beginning within hours and days after the shooting, people were approaching them on their online accounts so that some of them had set up memorial pages on Facebook or their friends had set up Facebook pages to raise funds for funeral expenses for surviving family members.
And these trolls came on to those pages and started to harass the family members. They’re calling them liars, saying that that Sandy Hook never happened then, that it migrated from the virtual into the real world. They began to follow them in Newtown. People appeared filming family members with their cell phone cameras. They were sending letters to their homes.
And that really alarmed the families, as you can imagine, because that meant that these people knew where they lived. They dug through their trash. They turned up at memorial events that they were holding to either raise money or to commemorate their lost loved ones. And they began to confront them on the street.
MICHAEL MORELL: One of the things that struck me when I read the book was that Alex Jones is not the only antagonist here. That’s what I thought going into reading the book. But he wasn’t the only one.
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: No, not at all. He was definitely the biggest amplifier and the most well-heeled of the Sandy Hook conspiracists. But there were many, many others who became his content providers.
So these were people who – there’s one out of South Florida, Wolfgang Halbig – a retired, if you can believe it, school administrator, kind of a failure to launch in his retirement. Wanted to go into a consultancy business on that front. He had spent a year as a state police officer very early in his career. He tried to meld the two and turn himself into a school safety consultant. He actually approached Newtown, offering to, quote, “investigate the crime.”
And when his emails weren’t responded to, he started to attack the facts of the crime and harass and file hundreds of pages of public records requests to Newtown seeking information that he thought would bolster his false claims. He also raised more than $100,000 to fund this quest.
There another woman, Kelly White, who is a woman with a cleaning business in Tulsa, Oklahoma, who had a long history of, you know, researching conspiracy theories going back to the nineties. She started to pursue the families online. There were a lot of academics, you know, people with PhDs who had a conspiratorial mindset, who began to write articles and set up websites and make videos, calling Sandy Hook a hoax.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Elizabeth, I wanted to share with you my reaction to reading the book. I found it to be a page-turner, , which is a good thing, right, when you read a book. I really wanted to know what happened next, but at the same time, I actually had to put the book down to take a breath. Reading it made me angry. And I wonder if you’ve heard that from other readers.
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: That’s so interesting. First, thank you for reading the book, and I always value people’s impressions of it. It’s great to hear what people think and how they react.
And you’re not alone in that, Michael. A lot of people have written to me saying, you know, ‘This is tough going in, particularly in the beginning.’ Well, for different reasons in the beginning, because I do establish the baseline truth of the shooting so we have the facts.
And then later on, people put it down because they’re so angry that someone would dare to question this narrative and not only question it, but to confront the people whose losses were already so great and inflict a kind of secondary trauma on them by doing that, denying those losses.
So, yes, a lot of people have done that. And the families have a really interesting reaction because they’ve heard some of that themselves. First of all, their reaction is curious because they actually didn’t know the extent to which this was happening to all of them, because the initial reaction was not to engage with these people. And that’s a perfectly normal and understandable human response.
With the exception of Lenny Pozner. So, Lenny, again, the father of Noah, the youngest Sandy Hook victim, had a tech background. And, you know, he knew the way this hoax would travel through the algorithms of social media. And he also knew that this wasn’t going to be a one-off event, that this was the beginning of what would become a feature of American life.
And so their reaction was was really curious. I think a lot of Americans, even though I’ve been sort of immersed in this subject for three years, a lot of Americans had no idea what had happened to the families, including the families themselves, because they all – they didn’t exchange information on that and they tried to avoid it. They hoped it would go away, but it never did. In fact, it metastasized to other mass shootings, which was in part what inspired them to fight back.
MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah. The social media companies are part of this narrative as well, correct?
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: Yes, absolutely. Their absolute failure to rein in the spread of this content and, especially early on, their reluctance to take down this harmful material – even though Lenny Pozner made it his life’s work to try and persuade Facebook, Twitter, the hosting companies for websites, Google and and Google’s YouTube to take down this material.
In the beginning, it was like screaming at a brick wall. You just couldn’t even get a response. So the book also traces his increasing progress in getting their attention, mostly by publicly shaming them.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Elizabeth, how did this happen? How is it possible that such an obviously false narrative can start, can spread so far and can be sustained to this very day?
I actually got on Amazon and looked at some of the reviews that had been posted on your book. And the vast majority are positive. But there’s a couple of people, there’s a couple of conspiracy theorists, who have reacted to your book and saying, ‘Where are the pictures of the kids? The fact that there aren’t any pictures in her book proves that that the kids didn’t exist.’
I mean, there’s crazy stuff right to this very day. How is that possible?
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: So there are a couple reasons. One is in the minds of the individuals who are really the superspreaders of this. And Alex Jones, we almost have to set to one side because he did this for profit. In the years that he was spreading this, particularly between 2013 and 2016, his listenership – so some listeners may not know he’s on 100 radio stations across the country and he broadcasts online four hours every afternoon. His listenership more than doubled to 50 million people a month. Then, that same number, $50 million in revenues he was earning during those same years. So for him, the motivation was profit.
And Sandy Hook was undeniably – evidence in these court cases that the Sandy Hook families have filed against him, have revealed that whenever he spoke about this, he got a bigger audience. He got people stirred up, people participated. And so that brings us to the second thing.
So people who bought into this and made it kind of a life’s pursuit in a way, gained a lot of, I say, ‘psychic income,’ but I was talking with Lenny Pozner about this the other day and he said, ‘Elizabeth, it’s really not just psychic income that they get from this. They get an entire new identity.’
So a guy, one of the more pernicious people, the administrator of the Sandy Hook hoax Facebook page, which, it’s gone now, but in its day, it had hundreds of listeners who’d gather every night and for hours exchange Sandy Hook hoax theory.
This is a guy who’s a mover in South Florida. He styled himself into what he called a ‘citizen investigator,’ a ‘citizen journalist.’ He founded an organization called Independent Media Solidarity. He turned himself into an entirely different person who was dedicated to exposing government lies and disinformation that he thought was coming from the government.
And the Parkland shooting in 2018 happened down the street from him. And he was filmed by a documentary crew in his Independent Media Solidarity t-shirt in front of the makeshift memorials to the dead, calling the entire thing a hoax.
So, people get a sense of group belonging. They get a whole new identity for themselves. They get a sense of elevated social status. They gather in groups, they build each other up. They embroider these theories. They support each other. Many of these individuals have forsaken their families, their jobs, their real world reputations just to be part of these kinds of groups.
It’s a form of tribalism, and once they start to derive that -these are people that when you and I were growing up, they were kind of an isolated person who would buttonhole you on the subway or, you know, maybe corner you at the family reunion. The Internet and social media allows them to find each other, and they have formed an entire constituency, and that particular constituency now has a role in our politics.
MICHAEL MORELL: But what about kind of the average person, right, who might not take the take the time to get on the Internet and join one of these groups and have a conversation, but just the person who tunes into Alex Jones, who buys into the conspiracy theory.
Is it a sense that they can’t trust government? What drives kind of the average person, do you think?
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: Yeah, that’s – as a CIA analyst, I can completely understand what you’re doing here; you’re building a personality profile. Which is exactly what these individuals have. This is a people who have a conspiratorial mindset. So they do tend to distrust – not some, because, of course, we know that the government has lied to us in history – but they distrust all official narratives, all mainstream media reports. They find reasons to doubt every official release of information. So that’s kind of the first thing.
Second, I found in interviewing them for my book a lot of trauma in their backgrounds. And here you see people with this on the right and left. You know, most famously, you have Robert F. Kennedy, who is one of the biggest, most popular anti-vax conspiracists out there, obvious trauma in his background.
And then on the other side of it, people who have gone through – Sandy Hook hoax people who have gone through the breakdowns of their families, abuse in their histories. So there tends to be something like that. There’s a certain failure to launch in their own perception, they didn’t achieve what they wanted to achieve in their lifetime. And so this is providing them with a kind of a new calling in life.
Then there’s also a sense of a kind of narcissism. There’s a certain smugness when you talk with them. They like to be possessors of superior knowledge and to have kind of the inside track.
MICHAEL MORELL: So conspiracy theories have been around forever, right? But they seem to be having a bigger impact. And that certainly, as you’ve talked about, the Internet is a source of that. Social media is a source of that.
Are there other things at play here? The state of our politics? Is there something about the nature of our society and how it’s evolved? How do you think about that?
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON:So I think first we do have to talk about the social media piece of it. There has been such a dramatic uptake in the use of social media by Americans in the last ten years and since Sandy Hook and actually in the years prior to it, that it’s impossible to talk about it without talking about how conspiracy theories are spread online.
Without these vehicles, you would not have nearly the preoccupation with conspiracy theories that we do have in this country. So just as a point of comparison, the worst school shooting in American history happened in 2007. It was the Virginia Tech shooting in Blacksburg, Virginia. 32 people were killed there. Five years later, in 2012, you have Sandy Hook. I went back and asked a woman whose daughter was injured at Virginia Tech, ‘Did you have anyone coming on to your Facebook page and calling you a liar or spreading conspiracy theories or saying that you were part of a government hoax?’
And she actually went back and looked at her Facebook page and said, ‘No, absolutely not.’ But here’s the difference. In that year, 2007, there were 20 million Facebook accounts held by people around the world. Five years later, after Sandy Hook, there were, at the time of Sandy Hook, there were 1 billion. So the takeup has just been unbelievable. And Facebook is the biggest of those platforms.
But Twitter, something relatively small, there were in 2007, 5000 tweets a day. In 2012, at the time of Sandy Hook, there were 5000 tweets every second. So, it really is, that is a really big role that social media plays in all of this.
But second, I really do think we have to go back to – and this is what I do in the book – the link between a conspiracy-minded individual and constituency like Alex Jones and his listeners, and the former President Trump.
You know, Trump and Roger Stone, who is his erstwhile advisor and an Infowars host, identified this constituency of distrustful, alienated Americans as a potential constituency for Trump alone, that by catering to them, he could give himself an advantage in a crowded Republican primary field and put himself over the top. And he did that.
So he appeared on Alex Jones’s show in December of 2015. Alex, kind of, you could hear him sort of coaching Trump through the conspiratorial themes that his listeners were believing in. Many of them now just absolute commonplace in our politics and in our national conversation, but at the time, very alien, except to Alex Jones’s listeners. And he introduced – this was a conspiracy-minded presidential candidate who had a mind meld with this conspiracy-minded part of the American electorate.
MICHAEL MORELL: So this is a strange question, and I think I was trying to ask it at the book event that I came to for your book at Politics and Prose, but I couldn’t get my pencil to move fast enough on the piece of paper.
But I was wondering, to what extent do we have ourselves to blame here? And what I mean by that is, for years we’ve allowed traditional politicians to overstate things – as they campaign, as they govern. You know, I’m thinking of, for example, President Biden saying that the Afghanistan withdrawal was an ‘extraordinary success’ and nobody really calls him out on it. It’s more traditional politics than it is massive conspiracy theory and misinformation. And I’m just wondering to what extent we’ve allowed the one to bleed into the other. What’s your reaction to that?
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: Yeah, I think the hyperbole in our politics, while it’s always been there, like the kind of dog whistling that has now bloomed into outright, stated conspiracy theories, has gained in magnitude, I think that our political discourse across the board has gotten more irresponsible, more hyperbolic, more filled with easily debunked falsehoods.
And at the same time, it’s like the fact-checking sites, and my colleagues who do this for a living, you know, they race to keep up because there’s just so much of it out there. And again, a speech in Erie, Pennsylvania, travels around the world because it travels not only through traditional broadcast networks, but online. And so people pull out individual lines and expound on them.
So, yes, we absolutely do have ourselves to blame not only for ratcheting up the heat in our rhetoric across the board, but also for cherry picking and spreading it online without question and without checking.
MICHAEL MORELL: And as voters for not saying, ‘Enough is enough, stop.’ Right. And actually voting to reflect that.
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: Yes. And voters reward this behavior if they don’t look further, or if they feel like, ‘Well, whatever my side says.’ And your Biden example is really apt: if whatever my side says, if they say this, ‘Why are you over here questioning?’
We get this at The New York Times a lot. You know, I would say probably more of the people who come after us online are from the left who say, ‘How dare you fact check somebody who’s on our team, on the Democratic side,’ assuming that the entire paper is as left-leaning as the editorial board or that we’re not acting in good faith by pulling Joe Biden up short on that mistruth about Afghanistan.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Elizabeth, you touched on this earlier, but I want to come at it more directly. Your view is that Sandy Hook is the first of a series of false narratives and misinformation that have really taken hold – and you went through the list -and that are dangerous to our democracy.
And I’m wondering, does Sandy Hook just happened to be the first or did Sandy Hook somehow contribute to the others and play a significant role in where we’ve ended up here?
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: I think Sandy Hook was a foundational story for a number of reasons. It was a confluence of factors that now have become part of every disinformation campaign that spreads through our politics.
So Sandy Hook happened, as we already discussed at kind of a time of exponential takeup among Americans of social media. So there were plenty of venues for people to talk about this and to discuss this and to spread these theories.
It happened at a moment where our politics were extremely divided and Barack Obama had just been reelected in a kind of contentious campaign. But there was a swath of America and those individuals then really surged -during Donald Trump’s presidency, a swath of Americans who spread a lot of conspiracy theories about President Obama, including that he wasn’t born in the United States – and that was the foundational lie that Donald Trump spread when he entered politics. So you had that.
But then the event itself was seen by both sides in one of our most raw, contentious debates in America, the gun debate. It was seen as a watershed event because the magnitude of the crime, the deaths of so many young children – both sides in the gun debate knew that what would follow would be a very big battle over new gun legislation.
And so for people on the pro-new gun legislation side of that, they knew that there would be a big fight. And the people on the anti- side, the pro-Second Amendment groups, the conspiratorially-minded people among them saw denying the shooting outright as a tool in their toolkit, believe it or not.
MICHAEL MORELL: Let’s switch, Elizabeth, to the national security part of the discussion. And let me start by asking you about a piece that you wrote in late April for something called The Times Insider, which I take it is a blog, right?
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: It’s actually – it runs in the paper on the the inside of the section on page two. Usually it kind of, it tells like who the Times is and who the journalists are. And it gives a little bit of behind the scenes insights into how our journalism comes together.
MICHAEL MORELL: Gotcha. So you write this piece and it’s titled, ‘Crisis Actors.’ Where have I heard that before? Tell us about that piece. And why did you write it?
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: Sure. So, right after my book came out, we were in the very early days – it came out in March. We were in the very early days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And as you remember – you know, who could forget – there was the bombing of the maternity hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine.
And afterward, widely seen as an atrocity, some of the women, pregnant, who were evacuated from that hospital later died. It was tragic and awful. And I think it just riveted the conscience and the eyes of the world on what was happening in Ukraine.
And Russia, just as swiftly, came forward and spread a disinformation campaign. They lied that it had happened. They said that the hospital wasn’t operating, that it was a base for Ukrainian fighters, that the airstrike, their own airstrike was a staged provocation by Ukraine. In other words, they did it themselves.
And then the thing that really struck me was Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, called these women who were evacuated, ‘crisis actors.’ And that term was coined to describe the Sandy Hook parents and families and first responders – that these were actors who were acting in a staged shooting that was a government pretext for gun control.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Elizabeth, I’ve seen you write that you believe that the United States is now exporting the politicisation of misinformation to other countries. Russia, by the way, didn’t need any help in that regard, right?
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: Nope.
MICHAEL MORELL: When we used to – when we used to export the tools to build democracy. Talk about that a little bit. Really powerful.
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: Yeah. So, like we were just talking about Russia taking this these terms so familiar to us when applied to mass shootings in the United States to describe its atrocities, to deny its atrocities in Ukraine by calling the participants, the murdered civilians, ‘crisis actors’ in some kind of Ukrainian staged plot – I mean, this is just one indication of how we’ve sort of created a playbook for people who we used to think of as the creators of disinformation.
Where once it took a sophisticated Cold War adversary like Russia to undermine our democracy and disrupt our electoral process, the 2020 riot at the Capitol, the lies spread around the 2020 presidential election, the uproar that’s occurred since, really shows that a swath of Americans are willing to spread that disinformation themselves.
And through using a smartphone or social media, they can do it in minutes where, again, that would never have been possible for them. But this idea of spreading disinformation around bedrock democratic processes, like our elections, is just as, as you know far, far better than I, a playbook that used to come from other places, and now it’s being adopted by despots around the world.
Anybody who loses an election can now say and has said, like Donald Trump said, ‘This was rigged, this didn’t work, this was wrong, this was stolen.’ That is an appalling turn of events.
MICHAEL MORELL: And it’s deeply ironic, right, that the nation that stands for democracy more than any other in the world, has exported this tool of despots. of authoritarians.
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: Yeah. And it really does raise a question, Michael, as we look toward – with great trepidation, actually, toward the midterm elections at the end of this year and toward the 2024 presidential campaign – we have seen that there is a significant and actually very powerful swath of the American electorate and the American political leadership that is willing to disrupt our own elections themselves. That, to me, is new.
And will we worry about Russia and foreign adversaries disrupting our elections? Sure. But we’ve also shown them that we’re more than willing to jump in and mess with them ourselves.
MICHAEL MORELL: I guess the other the other national security piece here is it’s not only authoritarians and despots, right, people who run countries, but the field for spreading such false narratives and disinformation is now open to almost anyone, for whatever reason – social, religious, even criminal. And I don’t think from a national security perspective that we’re prepared for that.
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: No. And you’re seeing a melding of the fringe with the establishment. I mean, you and I are speaking in the aftermath of a brutal shooting in Buffalo of ten African-Americans committed by a hateful, disturbed young man who used an ancient conspiracy trope, replacement theory. The theory that people, black and brown people, immigrants, are part of a grand plot to replace white, Christian Americans in society.
This is something that you’d only have heard in the fever swamps of Reddit or 4Chan before, or on Alex Jones’s show. But now this trope is being hinted at, whistled at, derived from in the Republican leadership. And why are they doing it? Because among a certain swath of Americans, it’s effective. But effective shouldn’t be the only measure of whether you spread these messages. These are dangerous.
MICHAEL MORELL: So here’s the ultimate question. And it’s the hardest. How do we, as a nation, deal with this? What can we do about this? Personally, I would not advocate for the government to decide what the truth is.
Or is this story, you know, seems to be ultimately ending with Alex Jones losing multiple lawsuits? What do you think about, what do we do about this question?
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: So there are major, broad things we can do, kind of on a nationwide basis and at a policy level, and then there are individual things we can do. So maybe we could start with the individual.
We could all exercise a little greater hygiene online when we come across material that is incendiary, it’s exciting, it makes us angry, it makes us upset. We could all do well by taking a beat and finding out the source of that material before we hit ‘retweet’ or ‘share’ online. That’s basic.
I noticed this -and this is very encouraging – my kids, who are obviously active online, much more skeptical and and much more judicious in what they post and in what they share. So I think, just a function of their greater sophistication and the fact that they grew up online is actually really helpful.
At a policy level, there are a lot of efforts being made. There are some points of bipartisan agreement on reining in the broad immunity given to the social media platforms by Section 230, which is the provision that treats them like a pipeline rather than as creators of this harmful material and exempts them from things like libel suits or defamation claims. So they’re talking about tweaking that.
And there’s one really elegant proposal that involves the way that these platforms work. So they spread this material because it keeps you engaged online. That’s the business model. It’s not to connect you with your college buddies or to help you find your next spouse or whatever, it really is to keep you online for as long as possible so that these platforms can scarf up your personal information and use that to sell you products and to sell advertising.
So anything that keeps you on longer – and enragement is engagement. So the more incendiary the content, the more you stay on. So if the social media companies are using this harmful content as part of their algorithm, meaning they’re feeding it out to people to help keep them online longer, they will be held liable for the harm that that content inflicts.
So that, to me, is a really interesting proposal because it doesn’t involve a government agency or one party or the other or Congress being arbiters of truth. Because I think that way mayhem lies. So that’s one possibility.
On the social science level, there’s a lot of research being done into dissuading people from adopting these theories before they latch onto them. Because once they imbibe this content, it’s really hard – for all the reasons we already discussed – it’s really hard to get them to let it go. They’re getting too much out of being part of a conspiracy community.
But at Cambridge, they’re doing some research, and it is around election content, in which people play a game. They’re encouraged to design a conspiracy theory, come up with an ‘other’ group, an outgroup to demonize, figure out ways to make it go viral, make it really incendiary and anger-producing. And the theory is – it’s called inoculation theory.
The theory is, that once people know how the sausage is made in the creation of the conspiracy theory and the spreading of it, that that sense of superior knowledge that they want to get, that that will work in favor of having them be wise and sort of suspicious when they encounter this material online, so that they’re more likely to report it and they’re less likely to spread it. And there’s a lot of success in that area.
I mean, these studies are still rather small, but they’re really gaining a lot of traction in the EU, and the US State Department is providing funding for these studies so that we can prevent people from becoming hardcore conspiracy theorists before they really start, before they dive down the rabbit hole.
MICHAEL MORELL: The author is Elizabeth Williamson, and the book is, ‘Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy in the Battle for Truth.’ Elizabeth, thank you so much for joining us.
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON Michael, it was a real pleasure. Thank you for having me.