For Leonard Pozner, who is devoted to combatting hoaxers, the sentencing is a ‘powerful outcome’ that he hopes will raise awareness of serious harm they cause
A Florida woman who believed that the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school was a hoax was sentenced to five months in prison this week for threatening the father of six-year-old Noah Pozner, one of the 20 young victims who died in the shooting.
US district judge James Cohn called Lucy Richards’ actions towards Leonard Pozner “disturbing” and condemned those who spread false claims about the deaths of 20 children and six adults in the attack in Newtown, Connecticut, five years ago.
“This is reality and there is no fiction. There are no alternative facts,” Cohn told Richards, 57, at her sentencing.
“You have the absolute right to think and believe as you so desire,” the judge said. “You do not have the right to transmit threats to another.”
For Pozner, who has become an activist devoted to combatting the conspiracy theorists that target family members of victims, the sentencing is a “powerful outcome” that he hopes will raise awareness of the serious harm that hoaxers cause.
“It draws a line,” he said, “and it shows people that this is not a game that’s online, and there are actual consequences for someone who steps over the line.”
Pozner has spent years using every tool at his disposal to scrub the online record of his son’s memory clean of videos suggesting that Noah and his surviving siblings and his parents are actors perpetrating a massive conspiracy against the American public. Pozner has made some progress in defending his family against these lies, but he said that countering hoaxers is still an uphill battle. Big tech companies such as Google, Twitter, and Facebook are doing far too little to deter the conspiracies, harassment, and hatred that flourish on their sites, Pozner said.
While these companies have been talking publicly about confronting fake news, “They really don’t do that much. They can be doing a lot more – especially Facebook. It really turns the other way.”
He said tech companies that allow the spread of conspiracies and hatred, including Islamic State propaganda, “have blood on their hands”.
Individuals are also failing in their responsibility to confront the conspiracy theorists in their own families, Pozner said.
“Everyone knows someone who follows these beliefs. Everyone has a cousin or an uncle or a relative when they have family gatherings will spend time talking about this.”
Most people “would just laugh it off: ‘He’s kind of a kook, he has weird beliefs, so glad we don’t have to see him till Thanksgiving or Easter’.” But these family kooks “may be hurting people, harassing people, and spreading damaging messages. They have a responsibility to challenge them, not just to ignore it.”