In an extended interview with New York Times reporter Elizabeth Williamson, author of “Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth,” she discusses covering the latest trial of right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, the significance of his text messages being turned over to the House select committee investigating the January 6 insurrection, and how he helped to shape the Republican Party and to lay the groundwork for the GOP’s widespread embrace of Trump’s big lie that the 2020 election was stolen. Williamson interviewed Jones for her book. After Jones spread the lie that the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax, “it went from there to Pizzagate to QAnon to Charlottesville and the 'Great Replacement' theory … to coronavirus myths, the 'Stop the Steal' lie, and then ultimately the violence at the Capitol on January 6,” Williamson says. “Alex Jones has his fingerprints on pretty much all those theories … that have circulated in the decade since.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue our conversation with Elizabeth Williamson, features writer at The New York Times, author of the new book, Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth. She was in Austin, Texas, covering the trial of the far-right conspiracy theorist and InfoWars host Alex Jones, who was ordered to pay nearly $50 million in damages.
Two years of right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ text messages have now been turned over to the House select committee investigating the January 6th insurrection. The messages were first revealed in court last week. This is the lawyer for the Sandy Hook victim’s parents questioning Alex Jones in court about the text messages that contradicted his previous testimony.
MARK BANKSTON: Did you know that 12 days ago, 12 days ago, your attorneys messed up and sent me an entire digital copy of your entire cellphone with every text message you’ve sent for the past two years, and, when informed, did not take any steps to identify it as privileged or protected in any way? And as of two days ago, it fell free and clear into my possession. And that is how I know you lied to me when you said you didn’t have text messages about Sandy Hook. Did you know that?
ALEX JONES: I — see, I told you the truth. This is your Perry Mason moment. I gave them my phone. And in —
JUDGE MAYA GUERRA GAMBLE: Mr. Jones, you need to answer the question.
ALEX JONES: No, I didn’t —
MARK BANKSTON: Did you know this happened? Did you know?
ALEX JONES: No, I didn’t know this happened. But, I mean, I told you I gave them the phone over, the signal. …
MARK BANKSTON: You know what perjury is, right? I just want to make sure you know, before we go any further. You know what it is?
ALEX JONES: Yes, I do. I mean, I’m not a tech guy. I told you I gave — in my testimony — the phone to the lawyers before or whatever. And so you’ve got my phone, but we didn’t give it to you.
MARK BANKSTON: No, Mr. Jones. One more time. And please remember, if you need to assert your Fifth Amendment, you can. I mean, you know that you can do that. But you testified, under oath, previously, that you, personally, searched your phone for the phrase “Sandy Hook,” and there were no messages. You said that under oath.
ALEX JONES: Yes.
MARK BANKSTON: And you were lying when you said it.
ALEX JONES: No, I did not lie.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Alex Jones being questioned by the lawyer for the Sandy Hook victim’s parents, Mark Bankston. We are continuing our conversation with Elizabeth Williamson with The New York Times, author of the book Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth. Can you talk about exactly what is the time period of these text messages, and the significance of the fact that now the January 6th committee has these messages? Talk about that moment in court.
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: It was — that moment was really extraordinary, Amy. He had nowhere to go. I mean, you could see him, you know, saying, “This is your Perry Mason moment.” He’s trying to ridicule the lawyer. But in actual fact, this really was a moment when Alex Jones was truly nailed.
You know, the broad implication here is that he is an inveterate liar, that he had for years said he had no text messages that referred to the shooting, even though he was under court order to produce them. And then there they were, mistakenly, you know, held, retained, and then mistakenly sent to the lawyers for the families. So that’s the sort of broad view.
But the messages themselves, the phone was scraped after the January 6th insurrection in March of last year — or, May, I believe it was, of last year. So, it would have ostensibly included messages around the time of the insurrection. But, in fact, the earliest message or — well, probably the most recent message would have been from the middle of 2020. So, there really aren’t any text messages from around the time or on the day of the insurrection, which is, you know, no doubt, less useful to the January 6 committee.
Probably, you know, what I’ve been told is that these messages are highly useful to the Sandy Hook families’ cases, but perhaps less so to the January 6 committee, although among 250 recipients or so of these messages — and there are 200 or 300 gigabytes of — no, let’s see, yeah, two or three gigabytes of text messages among a larger document dump of several hundred gigabytes of information. There are about 250 recipients. There are some Trump allies in that group. We’ve talked about, and lawyers have talked about, Roger Stone being among them, perhaps some members of Congress. I think we’re going to learn more in coming weeks of who some of these recipients are and what was said. But for the moment, it doesn’t appear that there are any, for example, messages between or conversations via text between Jones and anybody in Trump’s inner circle. But like I say, I think we will learn more in coming days.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, but how is it possible that his lawyer mistakenly sent this massive trove of texts to the prosecutor [sic]?
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: So, folks have suggested that this was a mistake not a mistake, sort of sorry not sorry. But I think, you know, we have to be careful not to become conspiracists ourselves on this. There has been a remarkable display of incompetence among Alex Jones’s legal team. This particular lawyer who was in court in the case that just ended on Friday had really only taken this case on in the last several months. Alex Jones has had more than a dozen different lawyers since mid-2018, when the families filed these lawsuits against him. So it is quite possible that in the sort of mix of sending material back and forth from office to office, things that were ordered by the courts, that this wound up in the mix. I really don’t rule that out, just given, you know, the other examples of just confusion or disarray or outright incompetence on his legal team.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, I said prosecutor, but I meant to say the plaintiff’s lawyer, because this is a civil case.
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: Yes. Yeah, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: But Alex Jones said he did not use the words “Sandy Hook” in these texts. Explain that, and what, if you understand, these texts do say.
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: Yeah. So, this is really interesting, because when I was working on my book, I actually texted Alex Jones several times myself, asking questions about Sandy Hook and his role in spreading these theories, etc., etc. I interviewed him and sent follow-up questions via text. And I am sure that they contained the words “Sandy Hook.” And so, he had always said, throughout the four years of litigation that led up to the trial that we just all witnessed, that he didn’t have anything like this, that he just didn’t possess any text messages with the words “Sandy Hook” in them. So, when I heard that, I was — you know, I was sort of repeatedly saying, “Well, of course, this is — you know, he’s dissembling here. This is not, you know, the case, because I know I myself sent him messages saying 'Sandy Hook.'”
So, you know, I think that that was, again, the broad point. You know, just the day before this happened in court, he was dissembling about, you know, being bankrupt. He was saying things about his income that weren’t true. He was talking about how he had apologized to the families. He was implying that he was cooperative in the run-up to the trial, which was absolutely not true. I mean, he had been ruled liable for defamation by default in four separate lawsuits that the family — that the Sandy Hook families had filed against him, because he was stonewalling during the discovery process, refusing to give up things like his text messages, his business records, testimony by him and his staff.
So judges in two states said, “Enough. You know, after more than three years of litigation, you are uncooperative. So you lose. You know, you lose your opportunity to say that free speech protects you in a court of law. You’re done.” These trials are just for damages, just for juries to determine how much he must pay the Sandy Hook families for defaming them all these years.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to a clip of an exchange outside the Austin, Texas, courtroom between Alex Jones and Sebastian Murdock, another reporter, a reporter for The Huffington Post who was covering the trial.
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: Great guy. Yeah.
ALEX JONES: You pretend to be a journalist. And you want to look at people like me, so you can say you’re the good guy.
SEBASTIAN MURDOCK: I think — I think you’re on trial, though, right? For not having —
ALEX JONES: No, the corporate media is on trial, and so is the rigged judiciary here.
SEBASTIAN MURDOCK: But you, literally —
ALEX JONES: No, no.
SEBASTIAN MURDOCK: — today are on trial.
ALEX JONES: No, you are on trial.
SEBASTIAN MURDOCK: Just to clarify.
ALEX JONES: You’re on trial.
SEBASTIAN MURDOCK: I’m not.
ALEX JONES: You’re on trial.
SEBASTIAN MURDOCK: OK.
ALEX JONES: Failed, Soros-propped-up court media.
SEBASTIAN MURDOCK: All right.
ALEX JONES: You’re nothing but a pirate. All right, we’re done.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Alex Jones taking a smoke break outside, attacking the reporter, Sebastian Murdock of The Huffington Post. And he says — Alex Jones says, “You’re on trial,” the corporate media and the rigged trial, the rigged courtroom. Talk about his theories.
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: Like most of what he says, completely untrue. Alex Jones, as our colleague at The Atlantic, Charlie Warzel, has said, he excels in a forum where he is eternally on transmit and never on receive. You know, anything you would ask him, he just tries to obliterate with just a torrent of words and lies. And that’s what he was attempting to do there. And, you know, Seb wouldn’t allow him to do that, just saying, “Look, Alex, you’re the one who’s on trial, not us.” But it’s just so almost adolescent to say, “No, you are,” you know, but he’s been saying that kind of thing for years.
His theory is that he is being persecuted by his political enemies, by the so-called corporate media, people like myself. Every time he saw me, he had a different epithet for me outside the courtroom. He’s just — that’s just his stance, that he feels like that’s a defense.
AMY GOODMAN: What was it like to interview him? You said you did, and you sent him follow-up questions.
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: When did you interview Alex Jones? I mean, you wrote the book, Sandy Hook.
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: Yeah, I interviewed him over a couple of days in 2018. So, I had caught up to him outside a family court hearing — he has ongoing litigation with his ex-wife — and just introduced myself and said I’d like to talk with him. And he agreed, to my surprise. And so, rather than say, you know, “Oh, I’ll come back in a couple weeks and interview you,” I went to his headquarters in this industrial park outside of Austin. And he let me in. And so we talked for a few hours. And then, the next day, he called me to, quote, “clarify” some of the things he had said, and then we talked for a few hours more.
So, he was saying at that time — you know, again, he wants to find people and outlets that he can use as a vehicle for his claim that his free speech is being stifled, that this is all political, that this is a kangaroo court and a show trial. And, you know, part of you just wants to say, “Would you get some new material, Alex? You’ve been saying this for years. It’s patently false. It’s ridiculous. You defamed these families. It’s there on your show.”
The lawyers played clip after clip in which he called the families actors and liars and complicit in a plot. And he continued to do that by saying that they were being manipulated by their lawyers at trial. So, I mean, even apologizing to the families, physically shaking their hands, he was saying, “But your lawyers are manipulating you,” that they were somehow pawns — which he called them that word, “pawns” — in the hands of their lawyers, who represent the deep state. So, he will never change.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about how Alex Jones has really helped shape the Republican Party and laid the groundwork for the GOP’s widespread embrace of Trump’s big lie, of saying that the elections were fake, were rigged?
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: Sure. So, in 2015, Roger Stone, who — in my book, I describe Roger Stone as sort of like, you know, always trying to find a way back into the Republican Party apparatus, because he had been sort of isolated and really exiled from Republican Party politics back in the '90s. So, he's sort of like the jackal circling the campfire looking for an opening. And with Donald Trump, he was always pushing him to run for office, saying, you know, “You’d make a great president, blah, blah.” So, when Trump finally said, “Yes, I am going to run,” in 2015, Stone was looking for ways to be helpful and ways to sidle up to him and be part of his inner circle.
So, he had been working with Alex Jones and going on InfoWars and hosting a show on InfoWars. And he was responsible for convincing Donald Trump to go on the show in late 2015. And Roger Stone, in his sort of, you know, dark genius, saw an opportunity in Alex’s listeners, so these paranoid, conspiracy-minded, nativist people in his audience would make up a vital constituency for Donald Trump. This was a group that most Republican politicians, at least not overtly — they would dog-whistle to them, but they never overtly courted them. We saw that with John McCain, you know, when a woman got up and said, “I don’t trust Obama. He’s an Arab,” etc, etc. and McCain literally took the microphone from her and said, “No.” Well, Donald Trump handed a megaphone to that constituency. And he saw them, in a crowded Republican primary field, as a vital constituency to put him over the top and win him the nomination.
So that is how he developed this courtship with Alex Jones, and Alex Jones with him. And so, consequently, it brought Alex Jones from the absolute fringes of Republican Party politics into the center — the center as it was defined in the Trump era.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about how he established InfoWars, what InfoWars is.
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: So, Alex Jones got his start in the late 1990s. He had a show on Austin Community Access TV and simultaneously on KJFK, a radio station. He was really a local phenomenon. People thought he was funny. They thought he was entertaining. You know, his conspiracy theories back then, while some of them were a bit dark, not all of them were. It was just kind of fun to watch him on TV. He was so volatile. He would laugh. He would cry. He would rave. He would jump up and down — not dissimilar to how he is now.
But he always had ties to kind of the militia extremists out West. He rebuilt the Branch Davidian church near Waco after the FBI siege. He was friends for years with Stewart Rhodes, the former Ron Paul staffer who became the founder of the Oath Keepers, very much involved in the January 6th insurrection. So he had those ties, but he was still seen as kind of an innocuous character in Austin, a city that prides itself on its characters.
But around the time of Sandy Hook, he started to take a darker and darker turn. And, you know, you could argue, you know, it was even earlier than that. He said that 9/11 was a government inside job; likewise, the Oklahoma City bombing. And by the way, Timothy McVeigh also had ties to the Branch Davidians, and it was rage at the destruction of their compound that prompted him to take action in Oklahoma City. So, you know, that was kind of how he got his start. But Sandy Hook was a departure even for him. It was a much more macabre thing, in that he named individual family members, and therefore, by doing that, to his millions of listeners, he singled them out for abuse.
AMY GOODMAN: And you go deeply into the families of — for example, the story of Lenny Pozner, the Sandy Hook father, who recognized the conspiracies as the portent of a new wave of threatening online misinformation. Take it from there. Tell us his story, as you do in the book, Sandy Hook.
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: Absolutely. So, Lenny Pozner is, without doubt, the hero of this story. He has a technological background. He knew how social media works. He knew how the algorithms spread this content far and wide and how social media gives a megaphone to fringe characters with a theory that gains traction among other people, how conspiracy theorists are brought together into communities that they then are absolutely loath to give up, so they build entire social worlds for themselves around, you know, imbibing on these conspiracy theories, around Sandy Hook and other things. And he convinced me that Sandy Hook was a foundational story for how disinformation and false narratives have gained traction in our society.
And, you know, really, someone like Alex Jones, like many of these conspiracy theorists — I mean, Sandy Hook is kind of the ur-conspiracy, because, you know, it went from there to Pizzagate to QAnon to Charlottesville and the “Great Replacement” theory, as articulated there, coronavirus myths, the “Stop the Steal” lie, and then ultimately the violence at the Capitol on January 6th. Alex Jones has his fingerprints on pretty much all of those theories, you know, the most pernicious theories that have circulated in the decade since Sandy Hook. And so, my book really does trace that, you know, that sort of spiral down the rabbit hole that has happened since 2012, when the Sandy Hook shooting occurred and these conspiracy theories sprung up.
AMY GOODMAN: And you really look inside the courtroom. Talk about the legal battle that Lenny Pozner took on, as well as the other families, waged against Alex Jones and other hoaxers, and the legal victory that they had in 2021.
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: Sure. So, Lenny began by — and he actually understood not only how conspiracy theories spread, but actually the mindset of a lot of conspiracy theorists, because he used to, just as an intellectual exercise, think about conspiracy theorists. He would listen to Alex Jones in the early days. So he really knew who he was before a lot of us did.
And so, what he tried to do initially was confront these conspiracy theorists. At the time, they were gathering — this was about a year after the shooting — they were gathering on a Facebook page that was huge. It was a closed Facebook group called Sandy Hook Hoax. And he actually joined them one night to try and convince them that this was true, that his son Noah had died at Sandy Hook. He had records of Noah’s birth and death that he shared with them. He shared school reports, you know, just trying to prove — and treat them with respect, answer their questions. But it didn’t work. You know, they kicked him out of the group. Their group cohesion was more important to them than any intrusion of truth that he represented.
But there were people who peeled off. There were a lot of young moms at the time who really desperately wanted to believe that this shooting didn’t happen. They were easily convinced by facts. And they became the earliest volunteers in the HONR Network, which is Lenny’s nonprofit that he founded to beat back these conspiracy theories.
So, he swiftly learned that he needed a new tactic. He was going to the social media companies, trying to shame them into, you know, taking this content down. He was successful, to a degree, there. He was using copyright notices, which, you know, really it is against the law for these conspiracy theorists to take family photos and videos from online websites and use them to, you know, manufacture their conspiracy videos, etc. So he got a lot of that material taken down.
But then, finally, he decided to resort to the courts. And so, in 2018, he and Neil Heslin — and Neil’s trial, that was the trial last week. Lenny’s trial is coming up in mid-September. They were the first ones to file suit against Alex Jones. And Lenny has pursued other conspiracy theorists in court, including James Fetzer, a former University of Minnesota professor, who edited a book called Nobody Died at Sandy Hook, which was downloaded more than 10 million times off the internet. And Lenny now owns the rights to that book as a result of a lawsuit that he filed in Wisconsin in 2019.
AMY GOODMAN: So, can you — you mentioned the algorithm. If you can talk more about the role of Facebook, of YouTube, of Twitter and other social media platforms that amplified the voice of Alex Jones, and so much more, what Pozner really took on, and their responsibility in this? Though it is questionable whether, ultimately, it’s going to be corporations that decide what should be heard and what isn’t heard.
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: Yeah. So, Lenny, obviously, recognized that. As I explained earlier, he knew how the mechanics of that work. He also learned early on that these companies were willing to do absolutely nothing to stop the spread of these theories. And, you know, a year, two years after the shooting —
AMY GOODMAN: Not only nothing, they actually — the algorithm amplified them —
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: Promoted it, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: — elevated them —
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: — above what other people were saying.
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: A hundred percent, yes, they did, because the way the algorithms work, if you are interested in this kind of content, they will feed you endless amounts of it. So, the whole goal is to keep you online so they can get your personal information and use it to send you more advertisements and sell you more stuff.
So, it’s not about linking the world, although that is the impact. A lot of these conspiracy theorists found each other. They formed groups like Sandy Hook Hoax on Facebook. You know, they embroidered these themes. They continued to, you know, send them out into the world. The internet was absolutely teeming with this material in those early years after Sandy Hook, thousands of YouTube videos, horrible comments in the comments section of these YouTube channels, entire films going out, websites. It was really an unbelievable jungle of Sandy Hook conspiracy theories.
And Lenny and his volunteers tried to tackle that, you know. But in the beginning, he could not get them even to respond to his emails. He’d get these bloodless, you know, autoresponses when he’d write to Facebook or YouTube or Twitter. It was just absolutely an uphill slog. But he didn’t give up. He kept shaming them online. He would do op-eds in newspapers, calling them out for, you know, how little they were doing, how they were actively encouraging the spread of this material, alerting them to the impact that it was having on the victims’ families. And the thing they — you know, we know this, Amy. The thing that they respond to is public shaming. They don’t respond to other attempts to reason with them. So, once he was calling them out in public and using his power as a grieving father to shame them that way, then they started to respond to him.
And now he has a real relationship with the big platforms, where they listen to him. And when he compiles lists of content that’s still out there, they take that material down. So now he helps, you know, people far beyond the Sandy Hook families, people who are the victims of online abuse. He helps use his own, you know, platform with these social media companies to get that material taken down.
AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to get to the relationship between Alex Jones and President Trump. But take us on the throughline from — you have Sandy Hook, you have Pizzagate, you have QAnon, you have the skepticism around COVID.
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: And then you have the January 6th insurrection. Take us on that journey.
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: Sure. So, a lot of people don’t really realize that it was a Pizzagate video on InfoWars that brought the gunman to Comet Ping Pong, the Washington restaurant where Alex Jones and many, many others were spreading lies that Democratic Party elites were operating a child trafficking ring from the basement of this pizzeria — which, by the way, doesn’t even have a basement. But the gunman came there in 2016 because he had seen an InfoWars video about Pizzagate. That was one thing.
Alex Jones went after Chobani yogurt and the head of Chobani yogurt, Hamdi Ulukaya, who has a policy of giving refugees jobs. He was a refugee himself. And he perverted that into that Chobani was, quote, “importing migrant rapists” into the United States from Middle Eastern countries. He was part of that.
In Charlottesville, he was there, slamming the guy who took the video of the killing of Heather Heyer after the “Unite the Right” violence, and said that this was a CIA operative and that this whole event was staged, the violence there was staged by pro-government people, by Democrats, who were set on discrediting President Trump.
Coronavirus myths — Alex Jones was a noted anti-vaxxer and came up with a whole panoply of theories about coronavirus, insisting it was fake. And some of that came up in court, actually. His own staff was warning him that some of his coronavirus lies were, quote, “Sandy Hook all over again.” And he still disregarded and posted that material anyway.
And then, finally, you know, he was organizing rallies even before January 6th. You know, he helped bring a group of people down to the Georgia Capitol to protest the vote and to try and push Georgia to overturn the 2020 presidential election vote. He was absolutely part of organizing financing for events around the January 6th insurrection, events that happened the night before.
So, that’s what I mean when I say that his fingerprints are on the majority, if not every one of the most pernicious conspiracy theories that have led to confrontation and to violence in this country in the decade since Sandy Hook.
AMY GOODMAN: And how did President Trump talk about Alex Jones?
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON: On his show, when he appeared on InfoWars in December of 2015, he praised his reputation. He said, “Your reputation is amazing.” And he said, “I’m going to make you very proud. Give me some time.” So, you know, this was an overt appeal to Alex Jones’s paranoid, nativist audience. You know, not every person who watches InfoWars is of that ilk, but certainly plenty. And so, this was — you know, he was willing to give voice to those individuals.
And we saw that time and time again. If they supported President Trump, he was loath to criticize them, whether you’re talking about the white supremacists who were marching in Charlottesville, or whether you’re talking about the Proud Boys, you know, that he refused to tell to stand down, instead saying “stand by.” So, you know, all these people who kind of came together on January 6th, I mean, to me — and I make this point in my book — January 6th was the apotheosis of the spread of these lies that have so captivated this segment of Americans in the past decade.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Elizabeth Williamson, I want to thank you so much for being with us, New York Times feature writer, author of the book Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth. To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.