Update: Since the publication of this article, Facebook has suspended conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
Sandy Hook parents Lenny Pozner and Veronique De La Rosa have released an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg asking that victims of tragedies be given “protected status” on Facebook. The parents, whose 6-year-old son Noah was killed, along with 19 other children, in the 2012 massacre in Newtown, Connecticut are asking for the protected status in hopes of protecting themselves and future victims of violence from social media trolls. The letter comes after Zuckerberg’s recent interview with podcast “Recode Decode” host Kara Swisher in which the social media mogul suggested that Facebook, which just saw its stock plummet, would continue to be a safe place for conspiracy theorists not actively organizing violent actions. Essentially, Facebook’s policy, according to Zuck, is that anyone can push misinformation so long as those lies don’t incite violence. The problem that the parents of the Sandy Hook dead are all too aware of is that this semantic distinction is ridiculous. When it comes to school shootings, in particular, it’s absurdly naive.
Sandy Hook parents learned this harsh truth the hard way after the “crisis actors” theory emerged in the wake of the Connecticut killings. Lenny Pozner received a letter from a member of a Facebook group dedicated to “debunking” the massacre saying, “LOOK BEHIND YOU IT IS DEATH.” Since then, the harassment has continued and been continually encouraged by bad actors using Facebook as a tool to build an audience by peddling lies.
The letter to Zuckerberg, published by The Guardian, details the sad and extraordinary length families have gone through to escape abuse. “In order to protect ourselves and our surviving children, we have had to relocate numerous times,” the parents write. “These groups use social media, including Facebook, to ‘hunt’ us, posting our home address and videos of our house online. We are currently living in hiding.”
The most famous propagator of Sandy Hook lies is Alex Jones. Alex Jones, who runs the conspiracy site and supplement powder concern InfoWars has claimed that the children killed at Sandy Hook never existed and that the parents and surviving victims are all actors hired by powerful interests who want to repeal the Second Amendment. Facebook has not just allowed for this free speech, it has facilitated it. Jones has 914,389 followers. Jones’s followers have at least eight active Facebook pages dedicated to the Sandy Hook conspiracy, all because Zuckerberg believes, as he told Recode, “It’s hard to impugn intent and to understand the intent.”
But it’s not. Not really. In the same interview, in fact, Zuckerberg talked about his feelings regarding pages dedicated to denying the Holocaust saying, “I find that deeply offensive. But at the end of the day, I don’t believe that our platform should take that down because I think there are things that different people get wrong.”
“Getting things wrong” is a disconcertingly generous read of holocaust denial, an activity pursued more or less exclusively by anti-semites, but Zuckerberg is right that people do get things wrong. That said, when it comes to Sandy Hook, people have continued to get those things wrong in the face of facts and with the knowledge that their statements might endanger the wellbeing if not the lives of mourning parents. To think of what Alex Jones has done to the parents of murdered children as anything but an act of senseless aggression is to purposely misunderstand the man’s business model.
The Sandy Hook parents letter is proof that Zuckerberg misunderstands either accountability or economics. It’s just unclear which.
“Facebook plays a mammoth role in exposing the world’s masses to information,” the parents write. “That level of power comes with the tremendous responsibility of ensuring that your platform is not used to harm others or contribute to the proliferation of hate. Yet it appears that under the guise of free speech, you are prepared to give license to people who make it their purpose to do just that.”
There’s actually precedent to remove these pages. Consider the fact YouTube recently removed InfoWars videos from its platform and banned it from live streaming in order to combat their disinformation campaigns. The move is part of Google’s crackdown on “fake news” and disinformation which affects public discourse, often for the benefit of bad actors trying to destabilize communities.
Zuckerberg and Facebook should really listen to the pleas of the Sandy Hook parents, some of whom have taken terrible steps to dodge harassment from Facebook users. The social media giant should follow the example of Google and kill the places where this kind of harassment is born and encouraged. There’s simply no reasonable or ethical reason to allow these spaces to thrive.