EEven in a country now completely accustomed to the horrors of mass shootings, the Sandy Hook massacre remains etched in the minds of everyone old enough to remember it. Ten years ago, 20-year-old Adam Lanza fired 154 rounds from an AR-15 type rifle in less than five minutes. Twenty extremely young children and six adults were killed.
It was the worst elementary school shooting in American history.
Elizabeth Williamson’s new book is about this “American tragedy,” but more importantly, it’s about the “battle for truth” that followed. In excruciating detail, Williamson describes the unimaginable double tragedy that every parent in Sandy Hook had to endure: the murder of their child, followed by years and years of an online monster army accusing them of inventing this horror. unimaginable.
Infowars’ Alex Jones is the best-known villain in this gruesome tale. His Facebook pages and YouTube channels convinced millions of fools that the massacre was either some kind of government plot to encourage pressure for gun control, or, even more obscenely, that it was perpetrated by actors and no one was killed at all.
While a single deranged shooter was responsible for the original tragedy, Williamson makes it clear that she believes Facebook and Google (the owner of YouTube) deserve most of the blame for the horror the victims’ loved ones endured.
As Congressman Ro Khanna reported in his new book, Dignity in a Digital Age, an internal Facebook document estimates that “64% of all memberships in extremist groups are due to our recommendations.”
These recommendations are the result of the infernal algorithms that are at the heart of the business models of Facebook and YouTube and are probably more responsible for the collapse of civil society in the United States and around the world than any other invention.
“We thought the internet would give us this accelerated science and information society,” says Lenny Pozner, whose son Noah was one of Sandy Hook’s victims. But “really, we have returned to flat earth”.
It horrified Pozner “to see the image of his son, smiling in his bomber jacket, transmitted by an online mob attacking Noah as a fake, a lookalike, a boy who never lived.” Relentless algorithms have pushed these “human lies to the top” on an internet that has become an “almighty booster of outrage and denial”.
Noah’s mother, Véronique De la Rosa, was another victim of Jones’ persistent and outrageous lies.
“It’s like you’ve entered the ninth circle of hell,” she tells Williamson. “Never even in your wildest and scariest fantasies would you have imagined that you would find yourself having to struggle not only with your grief, which you know is sometimes paralyzing, but even to prove that your son existed. .”
Lenny Pozner regularly saw his deceased son described as an “alleged victim”, but it was years before Facebook, YouTube and Twitter took substantial steps to quell the senseless conspiracies their own algorithms had done so much to reinforce.
Facebook kept a Sandy Hook Hoax group and dozens of others running virtually non-stop for two years. Hundreds of videos on Google-owned YouTube wallowed in the hoax, attracting thousands of people who made threats against the families.
“Facebook and Twitter are monsters,” says Pozner. “Beasts out of control run like family shops.”
Facebook “is focused on growth, to the exclusion of almost everything else,” Williamson writes. The algorithms are designed to keep us all on the platform for as long as possible, and they work “with relentless, sometimes murderous neutrality, rewarding horrible behavior and false or inflammatory content that captures and retains users.”
In 2018, an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg of Pozner and De La Rosa, published in the Guardian, accused the Facebook chief of “allowing your platform to continue to be used as an instrument for spreading hate”.
Two days later, Facebook finally suspended Jones’ personal page but “took no action against the Infowars account, which had 1.7 million followers.” YouTube removed four videos from Infowars’ channel and banned Jones from live streaming for 90 days.
Harry Farid directs the School of Information at the University of California at Berkeley. He describes the perfect storm that threatens democracy and civility everywhere: “You have bad people, trolls and people trying to make money profiting from horrible things…you have social media websites that don’t only are welcoming and permissive, but promote it. it, and then you have us, the unsuspecting audience.
Williamson makes the important and generally forgotten point that nothing in the First Amendment gives anyone the right to use a social media platform. All he says about it is that “Congress shall make no law…restricting freedom of speech or of the press.”
As Farid points out, platforms have the absolute right to ban any form of content “without violating the constitution” – which is why Donald Trump had no legal recourse when he was banned from Facebook and Twitter after the Capitol Riot.
But most of the time, says Farid, the platforms just look away: “Because they make so much money.”
Last fall, California Democrat Adam Schiff told the Guardian that the best-selling testimony of Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen would finally be enough to get Congress to regulate the worst excesses of big platforms.
So far, their lobbyists have prevented such action. On Saturday, the Guardian asked Schiff if he still believed Congress could act in this session.
“There is still a chance,” he wrote in an email, adding that “the degree of Russian propaganda on social media attempting to justify their bloody invasion of Ukraine” may finally provide “the impetus” needed for change.