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School shooting parents win fight over radio host’s conspiracy lies

A little publicised judgement by a District Judge called Maya Guerra Gamble in Texas has barely made the news – that the far-right conspiracy theorist and radio host Alex Jones is liable for damages to families killed in the 2012 Newton, Connecticut massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

On December 14 of that year, Adam Lanza shot and killed 26 people with an AR-15 style rifle, including 20 children between the ages of six and seven, several adult staff members working at the school, and his own mother, before committing suicide.

It was yet another appalling mass murder and one that echoed our own Dunblane shootings in March 1996.

However, what happened at Sandy Hook was made even more awful for the families of those who had been killed by a quickly disseminated far-right wing conspiracy theory which claimed that the shootings were staged by actors, and Jones consistently used his radio programme to promote this baseless lie.

He told his listeners in 2014 that “the whole thing was a fake. A giant hoax”.

It just pretty much “didn’t happen,” and Lenny Pozner – a dad of one of the children who died – was forced to move several times after he sought to challenge what Jones repeatedly said on air and on his news website Infowars.

Others on the far-right jumped on the Jones bandwagon and Lenny even won damages of $1.1m in a judgement against two authors who wrote a book called Nobody Died at Sandy Hook.

This Texas judgment is just the latest legal trouble for Jones who has been banned from Facebook, YouTube and Spotify for violating their hate speech policies, and earlier this year the FBI started to investigate whether high-profile far-right figures such as Jones may have played a role in radicalising those people who decided to storm the Capitol building in Washington DC.

I had the privilege of interviewing Dr Mick North for BBC Scotland earlier this year when we discussed the Dunblane shootings – Mick’s five-year old daughter Sophie died in the massacre – and Mick shared with me how he had travelled to the USA to support the families who had lost children at Sandy Hook.

We discussed why the far-right conspiracy that the shootings were a hoax had taken off over there but was largely absent from any public comment in this country, although he did share that Boris Johnson had used his newspaper column at the time to criticise new measures aimed at gun control.

We both thought that this difference had something to do with the fact that conspiracy theories tap into anxieties and obsessions which are unique to the particular culture where they take hold, and I tend to think that there’s some truth in this.

But one thing that Covid has taught us is that conspiracy theories can thrive anywhere when there are knowledge gaps, especially in seemingly new and unprecedented situations, and which in turn creates uncertainty and stress.

Think back to our own experiences during the first few months of the pandemic, when a surprising number of people became convinced the virus was being transmitted by 5G and so some 75 phone masts and 40 telephone engineers were attacked in the UK.

Jones too tapped into a collective fear on the right of US politics that the shocking events at Sandy Hook would allow a popular, Democratic, African-American, president – Barack Obama – to introduce gun control.

But what’s extraordinary about the claims made by Jones is not that he went beyond denying anything untoward had actually happened at Sandy Hook but that those far-right fears created and then continued to generate a lie the courts have now put a stop to.

Cop dramas make the public feel safe

My Sundays are no longer spent marvelling at the twists and turns of the plot of Vigil but our collective appetite for crime drama – sometimes true crime drama documentary – shows no signs of weakening.

I am particularly enjoying the new series of Endeavour and of course young Morse himself – Shaun Evans – even appeared in Vigil … almost, but not quite, playing against type.

So if I’m correct in arguing that conspiracy theories are culture-specific and blossom
in times of collective stress and uncertainty, what is it more generally that’s driving this boom in crime drama?

I wonder if this might have something to do with the fact that these dramas – and true crime drama documentaries – have a “happy ending”.

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The police get the right man; policing is an honourable profession; and police officers – even the maverick ones – always have society’s best interests at heart.

In the main, I actually think that’s true but recent events have sorely dented the public’s faith in policing, and so perhaps we are turning to drama to make us feel safe again, and re-connect with the values that we thought governed this important public service.

Crime drama has therefore become our new form of reassurance.

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