In an age of 'alternative facts,' a massacre of schoolchildren is called a hoax


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If there is anything worse than losing a child, it is losing a child and having people taunt you over the loss.


That is what happened to the family of Noah Pozner, a 6-year-old with tousled brown hair and lollipop-red lips, the youngest of the 26 children and staff members gunned down in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.


In the years since the massacre that shook the country and opened new anxiety over gun violence, the family has received hate-filled calls and violent emails from people who say they know the shooting was a hoax. Photos of their son — some with pornographic and anti-Semitic content — have been distributed on websites.


These outlandish theories, which hold that the Newtown school shooting was a staged mass murder engineered by gun control advocates, have lived until now in the dark corners of the Internet.


But they have gained fresh momentum in the last several months, residents here say, at a time when conspiracy theorists across the country have attained the status of celebrities, and the nation as a whole is engaged in a contentious debate over the nature of truth.


President Trump and his national security advisor, Michael T. Flynn, have been open enthusiasts of Alex Jones’ Infowars, a Web-based radio and video network that has relentlessly pushed the theory that Sandy Hook was staged by Democrats to advance a gun control agenda. 


An unabashed Trump supporter during the campaign, Jones says he received a personal call of thanks from the president-elect days after the election.


Although Trump has not spoken publicly about Sandy Hook, many residents here say he is nurturing the culture of exaggeration and paranoia on which conspiracy theorists thrive.


Mark Fenster, a law professor at the University of Florida and author of a book about conspiracy theories in American politics, said the Sandy Hook hoax theory was a response to a Democratic-controlled White House of a kind that often shows up in political extremist circles.


An unemployed waitress was arrested in December in Florida on charges of making death threats against Pozner, with repeated phone calls to his home in which she muttered ethnic and racial slurs and profanities. Another man is in Rikers Island prison in New York fighting transfer to Connecticut for a deluge of harassing phone calls to the home and office of the medical examiner who signed the coroner reports for Sandy Hook victims.


Another man was convicted of stealing memorial signs erected in playgrounds to commemorate the dead children. He later called the children’s parents and said they shouldn’t mind because their children never existed.


Most of the families associated with Sandy Hook have removed or protected their social media accounts and unlisted their telephone numbers; some have changed homes.


Newtown residents are distrustful of outsiders. On the fourth anniversary of the massacre in December, there was a low-key prayer vigil in a Catholic Church. An unmarked police car was stationed outside the elementary school to keep an eye out for hoaxers who show up frequently, photographing children and confronting families.


The “Sandy Hook truthers,’’ as they called themselves, tormented not only the grieving families, but teachers, police, photographers, first responders, neighbors, government officials and witnesses — they all were said to be part of the ever-expanding conspiracy to fake the massacre.


The conspiracy theorists have shown unflagging energy. The most persistent, Wolfgang Halbig, a 70-year-old Florida man who describes himself as a retired school safety expert, said he had made 22 trips to Connecticut, wiped out his pension and spent more than $100,000, which he raised online.


His theory is that between 500 to 700 people were involved in the “conspiracy” — including the schoolchildren, parents, teachers and police, all the way up to President Obama.

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