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670: Beware the Jabberwock

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

When he wants to explain to people what his life is like these days, Lenny sometimes tells this story. On election night in 2016, he says he went to a bar, got a seat near a TV, ordered a beer, and started making small talk.

Lenny Pozner

And I turned to the guy to my right, and I said, "Did you vote"? And from there, he went into a long explanation about-- just some shadow government ideas, and whether voting makes a difference. And probably 10 minutes into it, he was talking about mass shootings, and then eventually Sandy Hook.

Ira Glass

Sandy Hook, of course, where a gunman killed 20 children, all in first grade, as well as seven adults. This random stranger then started telling Lenny this particular story about Sandy Hook. He thought the whole shooting was fake. It had to be fake, he said, because one of those first graders also showed up as a victim in a second mass shooting, all the way over in Pakistan.

In the corners of the internet where people trade Sandy Hook conspiracy stories, this is a key piece of evidence that Sandy Hook was not real. Of course, it was real. And what happened in Pakistan was, in reality, about two years after Sandy Hook. The Taliban gunned down more than 100 kids there. And there was a public vigil, and at the public vigil, probably as a sign of solidarity with other kids who had died in school shootings, mourners had this photo of a boy from Sandy Hook, smiling and wearing a Spider-Man shirt under a corduroy jacket with a furry collar.

Sandy Hook deniers saw that in the coverage, and they pounced. "Did he die twice?" "Did he die at all?" So the guy at the bar with Lenny is rattling through all this Pakistan stuff. And then, as Lenny explained to one of my co-workers, Miki Meek, the guy mentions the kid's name-- Noah Pozner.

Lenny Pozner

I didn't really need to hear much more than that. I just needed to shut him down, basically.

Miki Meek

So what did you do?

Lenny Pozner

I took out my driver's license, and I said, "Look who you're talking to. You know, show some respect."

Ira Glass

The boy in the photo was Lenny's son, Noah, who was six when he died.

Miki Meek

Does he connect it, or--

Lenny Pozner

Oh, sure. He connected it instantly, yeah. And he just became more agitated. Very angered. Went outside and maybe had a cigarette, came back, yelled at me some more. "Oh my god. How much did they pay you? How can you do this?" He was committed to his belief. I was the villain.

Ira Glass

People like this man at the bar pretty much redefined everything about the way Lenny lives his life. Where he lives, how he lives. He runs into these hoaxers in person, and pretty much every day online. They think the government has paid him millions to play the part of a grieving dad. In their minds, Lenny is the sick one. Noah wasn't ever even his kid. And the person who has popularized these theories more than anybody is Alex Jones, who runs the website Infowars, and who pushed these theories with his radio show, and his YouTube videos.

Alex Jones made his name right after 9/11, promoting the idea that 9/11 was an attack orchestrated by our own government. With Sandy Hook, Jones said many times that he did not believe the shooting was real.

Alex Jones

Sandy Hook is a synthetic, completely fake, with actors, in my view, manufactured. I couldn't believe it at first. I knew they had actors there, clearly. But I thought they killed some real kids. And it just shows how bold they are, that they clearly used actors.

Ira Glass

He's claimed that the government, or some shadowy global forces, are the ones who hired these actors. He and the other hoaxers call them "crisis actors." It's like this whole alternate world that exists right next to the real one. It makes life miserable for parents like Lenny.

But unlike most parents in that situation, Lenny decided to go all action hero on the hoaxers, and on Alex Jones. Action hero, I will do what needs to get done to defend my family, damn the consequences. Lenny is resourceful. He is dogged. He does not give up. In this world that we live in of hoaxers and trolls, he has marked out a path that I think few of us would ever want to take. But it is kind of amazing to hear what it entails.

Today on our show, we have Lenny's story. And then we have a story from writer Jon Ronson, where he also tries to untangle where this alternate hoaxer world ends and the real one begins. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One: Down the Rabbit Hole

Ira Glass

Act One, Down the Rabbit Hole. So our story about the transformation of Lenny Pozner was put together by Miki Meek. I should say there's some curse words in today's program that we have unbeeped for this podcast version of the show. If you prefer a beeped version, it is at our website. Here's Miki.

Miki Meek

The first time Lenny became aware of any conspiracy theories about Sandy Hook was about a month after the shooting. He'd been on a media blackout, trying to get through Noah's funeral and taking care of his two young girls. They were also at the elementary school that morning. And one of them was Noah's twin sister. She hid in a separate classroom. But one day, Lenny finally felt ready to go online, read the news, googled his son's name.

Lenny Pozner

Infowars was coming up on search results. The forums.

Miki Meek

The forums.

Lenny Pozner

Yeah. And it's just completely disgusting.

Miki Meek

In just over 30 days, this whole world had been invented. And one of the central pieces of it involved Lenny's wife. Infowars fans were dissecting this one interview she did on CNN. It was with Anderson Cooper just days after Noah's funeral.

Anderson Cooper

What do you want people to know about Noah?

Veronique De La Rosa

He loved running and playing with his siblings, and he loved bubble baths and fireflies. And he loved eating the inside of Oreo cookies. And he played the video Gangnam Style ad nauseum.

Anderson Cooper

I understand he used to tell his siblings that he managed a taco factory.

Veronique De La Rosa

Yes, that he was going to split his time as an adult between managing a taco factory and being an astronaut.

Miki Meek

The comments online were gross and flimsy. Why didn't she sound sadder? Why would she put on lipstick if she was really grieving? And wasn't she too old to be the mom of a six-year-old kid? They were convinced that something was up.

Anderson Cooper

How are you holding up? I mean--

Veronique De La Rosa

Most of the time, I'm kind of numb. I think every mom out there can relate to the fact of how long it takes to create a baby. Those nine months that you watch every ultrasound, and every heartbeat. And it takes nine months to create a human being, and it takes seconds for an AR-15 to take that away from the surface of this earth.

Miki Meek

This reference to guns was another aha moment for conspiracy theorists. Some of them started digging into Veronique's life, looked up her maiden name, and then said, hey, look at this. There's a Swiss diplomat who has her exact same name. And even fishier, this diplomat once went to an arms control summit at the United Nations.

So maybe they're the same person. Maybe she's one of those elite globalists trying to make guns look bad, so President Obama can repeal the Second Amendment. Suddenly, every real sentiment Veronique shared about Noah was getting reinterpreted as lines from a sinister script.

Veronique De La Rosa

They were here, and they mattered. They all have families. And they mattered.

Miki Meek

And the kicker that cinched it for these conspiracy theorists? Anderson Cooper's nose. There's this moment when the tip of his nose disappears because of a digital glitch in the video-- what CNN says was normal interference that happens with a live satellite feed. It's just a couple seconds, but hoaxers wouldn't let it go.

Lenny Pozner

They said that it's a green screen, or a blue screen, or whatever. So that was a fake interview, and Veronique was a participant of a fake, staged CNN interview. That conspiracy theory was all over YouTube, and it was all over YouTube with Noah's image.

Miki Meek

I've talked to parents who've lost kids in other mass shootings, and they've all been blindsided by online harassment from conspiracy theorists. The crisis actor claim is so common now these attacks usually start almost immediately after victims are IDed in the media. And parents who go on TV and talk about gun control, like Veronique, they get it the worst.

Sandy Hook is when this really took off. Families get stuck fending off all this crazy hate by themselves. There just aren't that many resources for them, because law enforcement still hasn't figured out how to deal with most cyber harassment, and the tech companies aren't much help. So most families just try to ignore the conspiracy theorists, and hope they'll eventually go away.

And that's what Lenny did for a while. His life was a wreck. But after about a year and a half, they were still at it, and he couldn't let it go anymore.

Lenny Pozner

I realized that grieving requires a calmness, and a silence. And all of this material was a distraction for me, and it was noise. And I needed to handle that noise, so that I could have the silence and calm that I needed.

Miki Meek

There's this photo I love of Lenny, with his arm wrapped around Noah. He's got a walrus mustache, and he's kneeling on a trampoline with a soft smile. It's spring, and Noah has all this big, brown hair, fat cheeks. He's snuggling his whole body into Lenny's chest. Lenny's got tons of family photos like these, posted them in an online memorial he made for Noah right after he died.

The Sandy Hook deniers downloaded them, and repurposed them into cruel memes. Wrote "fake" across Noah's face, took a picture of his headstone and photoshopped under his name, "is not buried here." Photos of his daughters were circulating, too. He couldn't just leave them out there on the web with the trolls.

Lenny got consumed with thinking about how to take control of the situation, how to extract Noah and his family from all this. The internet didn't scare him. It was actually his comfort zone. He ran his own IT business. He was not the kind of guy who sat around and complained about how something didn't work. He was the guy who fixed stuff.

Lenny Pozner

So you need to find what the problem is, and then find what your solution is, and then start getting closer to that solution, step by step. Otherwise the problem is overwhelming, and then you just want someone else to fix it for you.

Miki Meek

Yeah.

Lenny Pozner

You have to track down where you can make a difference, and get closer to being less broken.

Miki Meek

There was one other thing that made Lenny especially qualified to deal with the conspiracy theorists. He used enjoy those theories himself. The classic fun ones-- Bigfoot, Loch Ness, Area 51, NASA faking the moon landing.

Miki Meek

Like, what's the fun of it?

Lenny Pozner

It's suspending your disbelief. It's like sitting down and watching a science fiction movie, and then looking at the what if. And it's just fun, especially if there's no price to pay in your life, and there's no cost to that way of thinking, then it's just a game.

Miki Meek

Sometimes he even listened to Alex Jones in his car. And in fact, just a month after the shootings, when Lenny first saw those things on Alex Jones's website, he tried to reach out. He found a general Infowars email address, and shot him off this message.

"Alex, I'm very disappointed to see how many people are directing more anger at families that lost their children in Newtown, accusing us of being actors. Haven't we had our share of pain and suffering? I used to enjoy listening to your shows. Now I feel that your type of show created these hateful people, and they need to be reeled in!" Exclamation point.

About an hour later, he heard back from Jones' staff.

Lenny Pozner

And they responded with "We have not supported the crisis actor claim. We insist that it's a true event." On and on.

Miki Meek

This wasn't true. Jones did spread the crisis actor theory. It was on his website at the time, and he started talking about it a lot. That CNN interview with Veronique, he talked about it all the time.

Alex Jones

Folks, we've got video of Anderson Cooper with clear blue screen out there. He's not there in the town square. We've got people clearly coming up and laughing and then doing the fake crying. We've clearly got people where it's actors playing different parts of different people. I've looked at it, and undoubtedly there's a cover-up. There's actors. They're manipulating. They've been caught lying. And they were pre-planning before it, and then rolled out with it.

Miki Meek

What Lenny wanted was a one-on-one conversation with Jones, but it didn't happen.

Lenny Pozner

There were a few emails after that, asking me to prove that I'm really who I am, and leading on to get me on the show.

Miki Meek

Lenny didn't want that. He's very private and very reserved, a behind the scenes kind of guy. He's careful when he Talks things like "no comment," "that's off the record," or "do I have to talk about my personal life?" That came up all the time during our interview.

One of the ground rules he gave is that I had to run his quotes past him and his lawyer, because he's worried about his own safety, if his words were misconstrued. Also, he's fighting some of the conspiracy theories in court. We agreed to his terms. And in the end, he didn't ask me to edit any of his quotes. But he did request that we remove one personal detail, and we did.

Now, a year and a half after he reached out to Alex Jones, he decided to try a new tactic. He'd go directly to Jones his followers and the other Sandy Hook conspiracy theorists.

Veronique De La Rosa

I think his approach was, "I'm going to make them see the light."

Miki Meek

This is Veronique. She and Lenny were separated when the shooting happened, but were still very much in each other's lives. They decided to start releasing documents about Noah. Report cards, school photos.

Veronique De La Rosa

He even disclosed Noah's death certificate, which was a difficult decision that we made, but figured, after a while of providing this hard copy convincing evidence that reason would prevail, and they would say, "oh, OK, yeah, you've made your point. I'm going to come around."

Miki Meek

Lenny also decided he'd answer anyone's questions. He wanted to join this notorious Facebook group called "Sandy Hook Hoax." It's where a lot of the deniers were congregating and sharing theories. The cover photo on their page looked like it came straight out of a horror movie. A corpse-like girl with a "keep quiet" finger in front of her mouth. The administrator of the Facebook group immediately let him in.

Miki Meek

Do you identify yourself as like, "I am a father?"

Lenny Pozner

They knew who I was. They knew who I was instantly, yeah.

Miki Meek

To me, it seems so crazy to even go there. Like, this doesn't exactly sound like a group of people who'd want to listen to you.

Lenny Pozner

People who are conspiracy-minded see these tragedies unfold on the internet or on television. They still feel separate from these events. And I considered that bridging that gap could be an important step.

Miki Meek

I can add a human element to this.

Lenny Pozner

That's right. That's right. And so here I am. I'm the person. So let let's see what happens.

Miki Meek

The questions started pouring in.

Lenny Pozner

"Why weren't these children rushed to hospitals?" "Why wasn't anything done?" "Why aren't you suing the EMTs?" Or "why aren't you doing this?" "Why wasn't a rescue helicopter called from Hartford?" And I started to recognize some of the patterns that were there.

Miki Meek

There were the people you'd expect in a conspiracy group-- anti-gun control people, anti-government people, but also parents.

Lenny Pozner

They were young parents with small children, and they just couldn't wrap their minds around the reality that an adult can look at children in their eyes, and pump bullets into their head. They just can't deal with that.

Miki Meek

The conversation on this Facebook group quickly got ugly and abusive. Some of the members started using anti-Semitic slurs. Lenny was trying everything to keep up a rapport with them, even told them "I listen to Alex Jones in my car. I used to argue with people about 9/11 being an inside job. I entertain that we didn't go to the moon." But it didn't work. So he started blocking people and fighting back. This got him booted from the group.

What's remarkable is just how up for this whole fight he was. When a bunch of people kept private messaging him, Lenny thought, "you know what? I'll just start my own Facebook group." He called it "Conspiracy Theorists Anonymous." This name was meant as a joke. He has a dry sense of humor.

Anyway, he made some progress with people, the people who weren't full blown deniers, who actually wanted help parsing out the truth of what really happened. But they dropped away once they got answers. And pretty soon, the only ones left were just dark, sadistic trolls coming in to entertain themselves.

One of Lenny's worst trolls was a guy named Wolfgang Halbig. That's his real name, by the way. He's a retired school security expert in Florida, who's probably the number one Newtown hoaxer in the world. This guy traveled to Newtown, appeared as an expert on Alex Jones's show. He's even called for Newtown parents to exhume the bodies of their children to prove that they're dead.

Halbig ordered a background check on Lenny, then sent it out in an email to lots of people. It was almost 100 pages, listing everything from his social security number and phone number to almost every address he'd ever lived at with photos. Names of his relatives were included too.

The online harassment had become so intense that Lenny and Veronique, and their two girls, went into hiding. They moved into separate high security gated communities. But Lenny's address kept getting exposed, and hoaxers started posting videos of where he lived.

Lenny Pozner

One apartment that I had moved into, I had only lived there, I think, for a month, And I got a call from a particular hoaxer who happens to be in prison now for attempted murder. And he called me up and was acting like a smart ass, and then read me my social security number, and then read me my address, where I had just moved into. And I said, well, you know what? I don't like this apartment that much, anyway. And I moved shortly after that.

Miki Meek

To try and throw the hoaxers off, Lenny started putting utility bills in different names and got multiple PO boxes all over the place. All this forced Lenny into a new battle strategy. If they were going to expose him, he'd do the same to them. He wrote newspaper op-eds calling out Halbig and the others by name. And when these hoaxers posted his new addresses online, he did the same to them. He also made it so that if you googled their names, the first thing anyone would see was all the Sandy Hook garbage they'd created.

And Lenny being Lenny, decided to write a biography about Wolfgang Halbig's life called "The Hoax of a Lifetime." He released it as an e-book. Lenny became the one who knocks. He calls this troll rustling it's like trolling the trolls. He gets both energized and sheepish when talking about it. He insists, sometimes the only way to fight hardcore hoaxers is to turn the tables on them. And it worked on some of them, freaked them out.

Still, Lenny was just one guy. And every day, new mountains of content about Noah were showing up online. His crusade was a lonely one. The hoaxers seemed so dangerous, most of the other Newtown parents wanted to stay as far away as possible from them.

Lenny Pozner

In my darker moments, the conspiracy part of me would return and ask myself, am I the only one that lost a child? Why am I the only one fighting back? I mean, what the hell is going on? I mean, people were trampling all of our other people's children's memories, and those children no longer had a voice to defend themselves. And people were just silent about it.

Miki Meek

But while Lenny was escalating his tactics, so was the other side. Around the second anniversary of Sandy Hook, a small group of conspiracy theorists made an almost three hour movie on YouTube, questioning the shooting. They described themselves as independent journalists and researchers, but their backgrounds were totally random. They included a magician, the owner of a moving company, a guy who'd been arrested for stabbing someone five times, and a stay-at-home dad.

Doug Maguire

I just had an idea that I wanted to be an underground filmmaker myself.

Miki Meek

This is Doug Maguire. He says he met this group online, on YouTube, and got brought in at the end to help polish the movie. It felt exciting. At the time, Doug was a struggling filmmaker in Los Angeles. Occasionally did some stunt work. He got into conspiracy theories the way lots of people do-- watching them on YouTube. Like Lenny, he loved the ones about Bigfoot and UFOs. But then he went to look up news about Sandy Hook, and YouTube's recommendation system started suggesting hoax videos.

He didn't believe the theory that the kids were actors. He thought children died, but he felt pretty sure there was some other kind of cover up going on, maybe one with the mafia.

Miki Meek

And where did you get that information? Like, where did you come up with this idea of a mob? Had you read this somewhere?

Doug Maguire

No, it was-- you know, because I make movies. So I think I have an active imagination.

Miki Meek

I'm confused. What was your thinking?

Doug Maguire

A family had done someone wrong. Like, let's say the movie Goodfellas, OK? Henry Hill is hiding out in a little village.

Miki Meek

He also mentioned Kindergarten Cop. When they released their film, they uploaded it to a bunch of different accounts, on places like YouTube, Vimeo, Dailymotion. Pretty soon, it was showing up everywhere. To combat this, Lenny had to change tactics one final time. No more talking to hoaxers one-on-one. Now the thing he'd focus on was content removal, scrubbing their stuff off the internet.

He decided he was going to get every single copy of the movie taken down, which wasn't going to be easy. He couldn't just write into YouTube and say, "hey, this video is full of lies." That wasn't going to be enough. The internet is full of lies. He needed something else. And he realized he had it.

These conspiracy theorists had used photos and videos of him and Noah and Veronique. Those were his property, making this movie a copyright violation. The stolen images were now a useful weapon. Lenny tracked down every place where this video was posted. And you've probably seen this. There's a little button you can click on to report stuff. So that's what he did for hours every day. And success. Sort of. The hoaxers kept reposting and moving the video onto other sites.

Lenny Pozner

You know, the crazies are not running the asylum. It's the platforms who are allowing this to go on. So that solidifies it for me that we have to just remove all of this garbage, and that's all we need to do.

Miki Meek

But this, of course, pissed off a lot of hoaxers.

Alex Jones

We don't know what's going on. We just know it doesn't look right.

Miki Meek

Alex Jones. He was stumped. Lenny had successfully forced the Infowars site to remove pictures of Noah using copyright.

Alex Jones

So frustrating. This is amazing. The claimant is Lenny Pozner. They think because they can hold out some little kids and say, we're shutting peoples' websites down because they're belittling the memory of these children. No, we're not. But even if we were, you couldn't violate our first amendment, because that's what it's there for. And if you take our rights, you take everybody's rights.

Miki Meek

And Jones put one of the guys who worked on the movie on the air. His name is Brian. He's from Alabama.

Alex Jones

What do you think of us being censored? What's been happening to you?

Brian

I can tell you lots about Lenny. This man is something that you've never seen before. He's got a group of trolls.

Alex Jones

I mean, they're trying to shut us down, when we're just investigating it and looking at all sides, it must be horrible for folks out there that vehemently think this is staged. So just specifically, what have you gone through?

Brian

I can't even put up a video showing that he has put up a copyright strike against me without him copywriting striking that. These people are vile. An Lenny, if you're listening, your day is coming, my friend. It is coming.

Alex Jones

Wow. I mean, this sounds like a war is going on. I think they made a major mistake involving us.

Brian

Oh, I totally agree. They don't know what they bit off. Go after him, Alex. Crush him.

Miki Meek

In this video on YouTube, Jones showed his fans-- he had millions of them-- Lenny's email, the city he lived in, and the address he picked up his mail. Even held up some satellite shots from Google Earth. Lenny got this video taken down too, flagging it for privacy violations. But it didn't matter. The hoaxers had taken on a mob mentality, pursuing and harassing Lenny. This is an Infowars fan named Lucy Richards, who left multiple death threats on Lenny's phone.

Lucy Richards

Did you hide your imaginary son in an attic? Are you still fucking him, you fucking Jew bastard? You're gonna die. You're gonna rot in hell. Death is coming to you real soon, and there's nothing you can do about it. So you're just gonna have to take it, OK? Jew bastard. Look behind you. Death is coming to you real soon.

Miki Meek

She said, "Look behind you. Death is coming to you real soon." Lenny was already living in hiding. He'd moved multiple times by then, because hoaxers kept tracking down his address. But now the chances that a hoaxer might show up at his door and kill him suddenly felt much higher. His kids were living with him half the week, and he worried about them. At the same time, he didn't consider stopping. He didn't think it would make them safer.

Lenny Pozner

That's one of the misconceptions that exist, that people think that I am only targeted because of challenging the content. And that's not the case. I took the action because I was being targeted. So if my address was published all over the internet, my photo was published all over the internet, and my living children's photos are published online, that's existed before I did anything. I didn't cause the targeting. It was already there. I was minimizing the targeting.

Miki Meek

He posted receipts for firearms. I'd asked if he actually bought them, and he wouldn't give me an answer. Amidst all this, Lenny kept up his daily ritual. He'd wake up, make coffee, and then sit in front of his computer for hours, flagging content, trying to systematically erase Noah from the Sandy Hook hoax story. There was a lot of stuff he couldn't invoke copyright law for, like the death threats and harassment. That was much harder to get taken down.

The tech companies were wary of becoming arbiters of truth, making decisions about what its users could and couldn't say. But Lenny, in his usual methodical fashion, kept chipping away. On YouTube, he kept a scorecard. Once he nailed someone with three copyright strikes, YouTube would remove their accounts. He killed thousands of videos this way. The hoaxers called this "getting Poznered." He'd become a hashtag.

Then he and Veronique helped get a professor in Florida, named James Tracy, fired. This guy had harassed them for years, and kept using Noah's image to promote his conspiracy theories. He's also the one who helped popularize the conspiracy term "crisis actor" on his blog right after the shooting.

And that woman who was leaving death threats, Lucy Richards? Lenny reported her to the police, and they arrested her. She was sentenced to five months in jail. The judge rebuked her for going after Lenny, saying, quote, "This is a reality, and there is no fiction. There are no alternative facts." He barred her from Infowars and other conspiracy websites as one of the conditions of her parole.

One surprising thing that happened over the years is that some of the hoaxers who used to harass Lenny flipped to his side. There were dozens of them. Lenny says these were people who came to him only after they changed their own minds, not people he tried to convert. He says that never works. It's a waste of time. Some of them became disenchanted when they saw Sandy Hook hoaxers who were more interested in photo shopping evidence and getting online followers than tracking down the truth.

One of them was Doug, who worked on that hoaxer movie about Sandy Hook. In 2016, he found a phone number for Lenny and left a voicemail.

Doug Maguire

"Hey, Lenny Pozner, this is dickhead Doug Maguire. If you ever need me, if you ever want to get a hold of me and learn about what all these people are up to, here's my number."

Miki Meek

Did you apologize in that message?

Doug Maguire

I don't believe I did.

Miki Meek

Not surprisingly, Lenny didn't return his call. Doug was reaching out to Lenny because the hoaxers had turned on him, too. He says he started feuding with some of them after he made a video exposing a Christian YouTuber who was making money off false, outrageous claims. All of his social media accounts then got hacked.

Lenny was the only person he could think of who knew how to fight back. He wanted advice. So he tried him again, and got through. He told Lenny that it felt like he'd been sort of brainwashed. That he'd been on a roller coaster ride, that he wanted to switch sides. Lenny had started a nonprofit called The HONR Network, where volunteers help families from mass tragedies fight digital harassment. So Doug began helping him scrub content.

Miki Meek

When you were doing it, did you feel like you were doing penance?

Doug Maguire

Yeah. Yeah, and my heart is very heavy for This

Miki Meek

Were you surprised at how quickly Lenny let you in?

Doug Maguire

Yeah, and I still am. The fact that he even is giving me a chance, I'm very humbled. I tell him I love him. I tell him that he's like my mentor. Sometimes, I call him "boss," and he says, "don't call me boss."

[CHUCKLING]

Miki Meek

Have you you apologized to other families at Sandy Hook?

Doug Maguire

No. I think just to try to call up one of these families that-- they don't need to hear from some kind of a YouTuber guy in Los Angeles. I think, one day-- I am very sorry. Very sorry for any problems to any victims.

Miki Meek

Doug is now one of Lenny's most devoted volunteers. Lenny's got more than 100 people helping him out at any given time. But the burnout rate is high because the work is so intense. And hoaxers harass volunteers like Doug all the time for helping Lenny.

When Lenny Google's Noah's name now, he no longer gets page after page of hoaxer content. A lot of it is gone now. Instead, the first hits that come up are news articles about Lenny's fight to make the tech companies more accountable. For years, he's been criticizing them in the press for not doing more to protect families of mass tragedies from online abuse.

Last summer, he and Veronique called out Mark Zuckerberg in an open letter in The Guardian. They wrote, quote "you, arguably the most powerful man on the planet, have deemed that the attacks on us are in material, that providing assistance in removing threats is too cumbersome, and that our lives are less important than providing a safe haven for hate."

Shortly after, Facebook reached out to Lenny. He started working with their content moderators and policymakers, and says their response times are now much faster. He also helped turn up the heat on Alex Jones. Last spring, he and Veronique and another dad from Newtown filed defamation lawsuits against him. Other parents followed with their own suit.

A few months later, Apple started removing Jones's material from iTunes, saying they would not, quote, tolerate hate speech. Facebook, Google, and Spotify then followed suit. YouTube killed his channel completely, but you can still find his videos on the platform. And Twitter was one of the last to take action against Jones and Infowars. The New York Times reported that getting deplatformed cut his online audience nearly in half.

I met up with Lenny at his place recently. He lives in a gated high security residence. He was filing copyright and harassment reports to places like Instagram, Pinterest, Reddit, Vimeo, and Twitter. He says Twitter is his biggest headache right now. There's content about Noah he still can't get down, and he gets personally attacked there all the time.

Miki Meek

Do you feel like you've jumped in this rabbit hole that is never going to end?

Lenny Pozner

I don't think I jumped in. I think I just got pulled in.

Miki Meek

You're just constantly subjecting yourself to just so much hateful material.

Lenny Pozner

Just like throwing trash out. Once it's gone, it feels really good. It really does.

Miki Meek

This is what victory looks like, taking the trash out every day. He recently spotted one of the hoaxers who's been after him. Turns out, the person lives nearby. Lenny's about to have to move again. This will be the eighth time.

Ira Glass

Miki Meek is one of the producers of our show. Coming up, how Alex Jones became Alex Jones, or not. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

Act Two: Alex in Wonderland

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, Beware the Jabberwock. We've arrived at Act 2 of our program. Act 2. Alex in Wonderland. So one of the occasional contributors to our program, Jon Ronson, actually got to know Alex Jones personally years ago, long before Alex Jones became the most notorious conspiracy theorist in the country.

They met doing a story where, together, they snuck into a summertime enclave of the rich and powerful called Bohemian Grove. They each did their own stories about it. Jon thought it was pretty harmless, maybe a little silly. Alex Jones thought it was much more sinister.

Now and then over the years, they would touch base. Then in 2016, Jon met somebody in Alex's orbit. And that is where this story begins.

Jon Ronson

The man's name was Josh Owens, and in October 2016 he started sending me cryptic texts about his boss. "A lot of times, I'm conflicted with what I'm saying. Anyway, I won't get into that." His boss was Alex Jones. Josh worked for him as a cameraman and a field producer. We exchanged more texts, and then we arranged to meet in a hotel lobby in Washington, DC.

And here he was, walking in from the street, and waving shyly. I was struck by how nervous he looked. He had traveled here to tell me secrets about Alex. And the reason he chose me was because I have known Alex Jones for so long. When I first met and wrote about him 20 years ago, he broadcast Infowars down an ISDN line from a child's bedroom in his house, which was covered in choo choo train wallpaper.

Back then, the whole operation was him, his producer Mike, and his webmaster executive producer girlfriend Kelly, also known as Violet.

Violet

Well, Alex at 26-years-old is now syndicated to over 40 commercial markets. So he's huge, not to mention that he's on short wave and the internet. He's been number one on AOL numerous times. Alex is a sensation, because he's young, he's vibrant, and so many people are getting involved with this movement through what Alex does.

Jon Ronson

This is tape I recorded back in 1999. Violet would eventually become Alex's wife, and then years later, his ex-wife in an extremely acrimonious divorce and custody battle, during which Alex would at one point stare at her from the dock and tell the court, "she doesn't have any good qualities."

Alex Jones

You're beautiful, my love. Isn't my girlfriend, Violet Nichols, beautiful and smart? Look at her. Look at her. She is just incredibly smart. That's the webmaster of infowars.com.

Jon Ronson

I followed Alex around for weeks that year. He was different back then, an eccentric fledgling conspiracy broadcaster. I can't remember him attacking anyone but the powerful in those days. He wasn't going after victims of school shootings as crisis actors. He didn't assert, as he did in 2017, that the yogurt maker Chobani was, quote, importing migrant rapists who were spreading tuberculosis. He later apologized to Chobani in the face of a lawsuit.

He has money now, a workforce of something like 40 employees, and a fan in President Trump, who has repeated a bunch of theories championed by Alex that Barack Obama is a Muslim who wears a ring with an Arabic inscription. That Ted Cruz's father was linked to the JFK assassination, that Obama and Hillary co-founded ISIS. Alex is playing a role in propagating the misinformation and confusion that's permeating America.

Alex Jones

With Hillary, she is an abject, psychopathic demon from hell that as soon as she gets into power, is gonna try to destroy the planet. Folks, let me just tell you something-- there are dozens of videos and photos of Obama having flies land on him indoors at all times of year, and he'll be next to 100 people, and no one has flies on 'em.

Hillary, reportedly-- I mean, I was told by people around her that they think she's demon-possessed, OK? You can't wash that evil off, man. I'm told there's a rotten smell around Hillary. I'm not kidding. People say Obama and Hillary both smell like sulfur. They smell like hell.

Jon Ronson

Anyway, back to my meeting with Josh.

Josh Owen

I was a big listener of the show.

Jon Ronson

He said working for Alex had been his dream job. He'd actually won an online reporter contest four years earlier to work for Infowars. He was a young and angry Alex Jones fan back then, committed to exposing the shadowy elites. But now he was disillusioned, because Alex had changed. And the final straw was the Muslims.

Alex had lately been broadcasting untrue stories about American Muslims running secret terrorist training camps in the Catskill Mountains of New York, and cheering the 9/11 attacks. Here he is talking to then-candidate Donald Trump.

Alex Jones

You are vindicated on the radical Muslims celebrating not just in New Jersey, but New York, Palestine, all over. What do you have to say? They're still attacking you.

Donald Trump

Well, I took a lot of heat, and I was very strong on it. I just want to finish by saying your reputation is amazing. I will not let you down.

Jon Ronson

And so Josh had found himself intimately involved in the business of demonizing Muslims. This wasn't why he'd signed up. These weren't powerful elites. They were regular people. Recently, Josh boarded a plane and sat next to a Muslim family. The little girl was laughing, her face pressed to the window. Josh looked at her, and he hated himself. And soon after, he began texting me.

He wanted to make amends. He said he knew he should quit working for Alex, but it was hard. Alex paid him well. And although he had seen Alex scream at people in the office, and punch cabinets, and rip down blinds, he'd only ever been nice to Josh.

As we continued to talk, I realized that Josh hadn't come to tell me any specific secret about Alex. He just wanted to vent his frustrations to somebody else who had known him a long time. But then he said, oh, here's a story. The thing Josh told me then would, if true, totally rewrite the story of how Alex Jones became Alex Jones.

First, you should know that Alex has a kind of origin story about what got him obsessed with rooting out conspiracies. He's told it a few times to the Rolling Stone journalist Alexander Zaitchik, and during monologues on his show.

Alex Jones

When I was, like, 16-years-old, and I'd be at parties, in would come a sheriff's department car, and they'd come in and sell bags of drugs to people.

Jon Ronson

This took place in the Dallas suburb of Rockwall, where Alex grew up.

Alex Jones

And I went to school, and they were having an auditorium meeting about drug testing, or something. They had cops up there that I knew were drug dealers. And I stood up, and I said, "I was at a pool party. He was selling cocaine and ecstasy last week." They took me in an office, rammed my head in the wall, told me, "we're gonna kill you if you don't shut up." They said, "You're gonna move out of this town right now." That's why we moved out here to Austin, because of it.

Jon Ronson

Police corruption in Rockwall had opened Alex's eyes to the existence of powerful cabals, and exposing them would become his calling. And it all began at that school assembly. So that's Alex's origin story.

But according to Josh, it wasn't true. The true story, he said, was much more revealing. And it was also a big secret. Josh said, OK, I've heard this story a couple of times from childhood friends and family members.

Very few people in the office know it, but when Jones was a teenager, he was a bully. No one liked him, because he was a bully. There was a group of kids that felt unsafe around him, and so they came up with a plan to trick him. They invited him out to a party in a barn. It was a trap, Josh said. They beat him within an inch of his life. That's why his family moved to Austin.

His whole family uprooted him and moved into a completely different city because of this crazy thing that happened to him. Josh said having those guys conspire against Alex by luring him to that party was the real reason he got obsessed with conspiracies. He had been the victim of one.

Josh and I parted soon after that. I walked around, replaying our conversation and wondering if I should look into it further. There were now two Alex Jones origin stories. In Alex's version, he was a brave figure forced out of town for standing up to corrupt authority. But in Josh's, he was an outcast run out of town by fellow high school kids.

Had Alex still been the fringey Alex of the '90s, I would have left his childhood alone. But he had become an influential figure, spreading chaos. And according to Josh, being ambushed at that party was the moment that shaped him-- that made him who he was. And so I dug around some more.

It became really clear, really quickly that Alex's school assembly story did not stand up to scrutiny. My producer, Lina Misitzis, reached 10 people who were at the school at the time. And while it's true that the local sheriff had been convicted of stealing marijuana from the police evidence room with a plan to sell it, no one remembered anything like that assembly happening. Not the students, not the principal, not the teachers, not one of Alex's old football coaches, Randall Talley, who preferred to go by Coach Randy.

Lina Misitzis

Do you remember an assembly where Alex called out the cops in the assembly for being drug traffickers?

Randall Talley

Well, I didn't know about that.

Lina Misitzis

Is that your first time hearing about it?

Randall Talley

Yes.

Jon Ronson

Here's a former classmate, Ryan Tipton.

Ryan Tipton

No, not at all. That was probably DARE-- the DARE program. And I do not remember that at all.

Jon Ronson

Here's an old school friend, Jacob Olsen.

[LAUGHTER]

Jacob Olsen

Who told you that? No. No.

Jon Ronson

And Lina found the police officer who actually worked in the school when Alex was there, who presumably would have been one of the drug dealing cops who beat up Alex. His name is Terry Garrett.

[LAUGHTER]

Terry Garrett

OK, that sounds like something he probably would say, but I don't think anything like that ever happened. I mean, I would be willing to bet my whole pension that that never happened. I mean, I don't think there were any times where, actually, we were even questioning a student, that an administrator wasn't in the room.

Jon Ronson

What everyone does remember about Alex is, well, how memorable he was. We were emailed the same stories over and over from former classmates. Quote, "he used to run through the hall saying he was the devil. This is no joke. And he spoke a lot about being Satan or the Antichrist. And he would walk the halls with his arms flared out, with this intense, wide-eyed, evil look in his eyes. And he proclaimed to be the Antichrist."

Here's Coach Randy.

Randall Talley

I'm fixing to tell you something that's gonna blow your mind. He-- oh, golly. People thought he was possessed. Have you heard this?

Lina Misitzis

I've heard this from so many students, but this is the first time I've heard it from an adult.

Randall Talley

Well, he could make his tongue turn black. And he would roll his eyes back in his head, and he would just sort of shake his head. It was-- I don't even know how to describe it, it was so eerie.

Lina Misitzis

So you would see him do it?

Randall Talley

Yeah, I saw him do it in class.

Lina Misitzis

And what did you think you were looking at?

Randall Talley

I really didn't know if he had broke a pen, or something, you know, to get his tongue, and his mouth black, or not.

Ellen

He terrorized that high school. Just run full steam, and shove his head into the lockers, and scream, "Hail Satan."

Jon Ronson

This is Ellen. I'll call her "Ellen." She didn't want us to use her real name because, as she texted, "I am not afraid of Alex directly, but I am very concerned about retaliation from his followers." Ellen went to middle school and high school with Alex. She didn't remember any party in a barn where Alex got revenge attacked, but she did have lots other memories of him, like these.

Ellen

Sitting in art class with him, across the table-- he's over there wringing his hands, describing to me in great detail how he's going to rape me. And I never thought he would actually do that. Just shock factor.

Jon Ronson

If Alex hadn't become famous, would you still have remembered Alex?

Ellen

Oh, yes. Definitely. You don't forget people like that.

Jon Ronson

Then Ellen told me her worst Alex memory.

Ellen

The most violent incident was-- in second period geography? Where he bludgeoned one of his closest friends to the point where he was unconscious, and bleeding, and laying on the floor.

Jon Ronson

Was that Jared?

Ellen

Mm-hm.

Jon Ronson

So when did you first meet Alex Jones?

Jared

1990. My senior year.

Jon Ronson

Jared's real name is Jared. He still lives close to Rockwall, in a mobile home in the countryside. Even though his mother, who is watching us from the kitchen, had counseled him to be anonymous, Jared was steadfast. He wanted to be named.

Jared

Right off the bat, he was odd. Real odd, real strange. We wanted him around because it was funny at first, you know? The way he acted. But it got worse and worse, and finally, man, we just didn't want to hang out with him at all.

Jon Ronson

Jared was bewildered that a journalist had contacted him. Nobody had asked him about the day Alex beat him unconscious since high school. It was an argument over a girl.

Jared

I said, what's going on? But he came in behind me, and pretty much just rammed into the wall, and caused me to fall off balance. It dazed me. I was blurred vision. I could see him, but he picked me up, and I just went over headfirst, and knocked me out immediately. And started-- my body went into convulsions. I started flipping all over the ground. And he just kept stomping on my head, and kicking me in the head, and kicking me in the ear. Blood came out of my ears, and my nose, and everything.

He was trying to kill me. Point blank. What other excuse is there? I got seven fractures to the skull and and a concussion, lost 20% of the hearing in my right ear. I live with a headache pretty much all the time. I get pretty bad headaches.

Jon Ronson

Jared said the parents took over after that. Alex's father, a dentist, offered to pay Jared's medical bills, including a $10,000 neurologist's bill. But there was a condition.

Jared

Y'all just don't jump on Alex. Just leave him alone. I'll pay all the bills. So I just left him alone.

Jon Ronson

Jared said Alex's father also gave Jared's parents a book about why it's wrong for people to sue people. Lots of people remember Alex beating Jared up. Here's Coach Randy, who broke up the fight.

Randall Talley

Oh, golly. Alex had him upside-down. Do you know what a pile driver is?

Lina Misitzis

No. What is it?

Randall Talley

You literally have the person with his feet up in the air, and his head down between your legs. And you just drop to the ground, and the first thing that hits is your butt and his head at the same time.

Lina Misitzis

Holy shit.

Randall Talley

Yeah. Holy shit.

Jon Ronson

Jared eventually returned to school. And then, one night, he was at a party. It wasn't in a barn. It was at a house, but this was the origin story that Josh the cameraman had told me. The beating in the countryside. Jared said the instigators were his friends, Mark and Brian.

Jon Ronson

The two guys who brought him to the party, did they know that they were taking him somewhere where he might get attacked?

Jared

The other two guys that brought him? Yeah, they loved fighting. It's all they did. They fought all the time. They figured that me or somebody would whup him. They wanted to see it, so they brought him out there.

And he come in, he's been drinking, and just hooping and hollering, and carrying on. Finally, one of my buddies slapped him in the back of his hat. And I was trying not to even look at him, you know? He thought it was me, and there we go.

He just pointed me out. He just picked me and said, "Come on. I'm gonna beat your ass like I did before." You know? He started all that flipping around, and flopping around the living room, and throwing his coat, throwing his hat. Saying he's the devil, he's Satan, and he's gonna kill me. I had to. It just was ridiculous that he was able-- that he did what he did to me. I had to prove to myself, and all my friends, hey, man, this was a fluke deal, man. You know?

When I jumped on him, I hit him until I broke both my knuckles, my hands, until I couldn't hit him no more. I just reached over and grabbed this rake, this wooden handle-- steel rake, but wooden handle-- and I just thought I'd hit him in the back of the head with it.

And it knocked him down, and when he come back up running, that's when he ran into my buddy, and that was a mistake. My buddy grabbed him by the ears and planted his knee in his face. And he just took off running. And I think two or three weeks later, they moved.

Jon Ronson

So they moved because of this fight?

Jared

Mm-hm.

Jon Ronson

Because the Rolling Stone article said that he had uncovered some corruption in the Rockwall police force, and that's why they moved.

Jared

Yeah. No, it was definitely nothing like that. They couldn't go nowhere anymore. Nowhere to go, nobody to hang out with. Nobody just couldn't stomach him. So he knew there was nothing left there in Rockwall for him.

Jon Ronson

So Josh the cameraman's story had turned out to be sort of right. But he was wrong about a couple of things. It wasn't a barn. It was a house. But more importantly, the way Josh told it, the fight was the thing that had made Alex a conspiracy theorist. But Jared said, no, that's not true. He said Alex always had his theories, even before then.

Jared

Yeah, he had something to say about the principal, and the teachers, and the school cop, and everybody's doing all this. If we were at the pool hall, it was the guy that owned the pool hall. And he'd done called the DEA, and they were setting a deal up. It was weird, man. Everybody was like, what?

Alex Jones

Hey, guys. I'm sorry I'm, like, five minutes late. I was stuck getting back to the office. I got a lot of crazy stuff going on. It's good to be here with you guys.

Jon Ronson

It's a Thursday in February. Alex is talking to me from his studio in Austin. I'm at home in New York. I think the crazy stuff Alex is referring to, by the way, is that a judge has just ordered him to give a sworn deposition in the court case brought against him by some Sandy Hook parents. Alex had one condition for doing this interview. He wanted to make a brief statement. Though my story isn't about Sandy Hook, this is what he wants to say.

Alex Jones

So here's my Sandy Hook statement. Looking back, before I was ever sued, years ago, I reviewed the information, and I do believe the horror of Sandy Hook happened.

Jon Ronson

By the way, that's only sort of true. Even after Alex first admitted that children died at Sandy Hook, he hedged, saying "they probably died," and "I tend to believe they died."

Alex Jones

I have apologized to the families many times in the last few years if my reporting has caused them any pain.

Jon Ronson

These apologies are contentious, because he's apologized, but then continued to cast doubt on the shootings.

Alex Jones

I never said that anyone should harass the victims' families. And I asked the media to please stop saying that I have said that.

Jon Ronson

As best as we can tell, Alex never directly instructed his fans to harass the families. But on his broadcasts, he repeatedly talked about Lenny Pozner's ex-wife and son. And he gave Pozner's mailing address, and showed Google Earth shots of the building, and said he would probably have to go there himself.

Alex Jones

I ask anyone else who is going to harass the families to stop. What happened at Sandy Hook and similar events is a tragedy that needs to be recognized. It's time for us to come together as Americans, and as humans, and defend the lives of children and other defenseless individuals. Period.

Jon Ronson

Alex declined to answer follow-up questions about Sandy Hook. I got to the business at hand.

Jon Ronson

OK, so there's a guy in Rockwall called Jared, but I think you knew him maybe as Bubba.

Alex Jones

Oh. Oh, I remember Bubba, who was a senior, and I was, like, a freshman, coming and getting me out of class. And he was, like, a hall monitor, so he could do it. And then he attacked me in the hall, so I defended myself. And I'm sad that he got put in a coma, but that's just what happened.

I've never talked about this stuff, and I'm not particularly proud of it, but I always defended myself. I never started fights.

Jon Ronson

This is different to Jared's version, by the way. In Jared's account, Alex started the fight. Also, Jared said he wasn't in a coma, but he was hospitalized for multiple skull fractures.

Jon Ronson

Jared said that he thought that you were trying to kill him.

Alex Jones

Well, when a 250 pound-- he would be a self-described redneck, and you weigh 160 pounds, starts attacking you, you defend yourself. So the way it works in America is, when someone physically attacks you, and you defend yourself, you're not the bad guy.

Jon Ronson

By the way, Alex does confirm parts of Jared's story. He remembers his father paying the medical bills, though he doesn't recall a book about why it's wrong for people to sue people.

Alex Jones

I felt real bad. My dad went and visited him at the hospital. I mean, we weren't happy about it. And I mean, that's the story you've got? What about the time-- I mean, you didn't hear about the time, like, 20 people attacked me?

Jon Ronson

Well, the other story I heard was you were at a party, and some of Jared's friends attacked you. So was that the story that you mean?

Alex Jones

No, that never happened. So what supposedly happened at that?

Jon Ronson

The story I heard is this. It all started with Jared, with the geography, and then you were at a party, and some of Jared's--

Jon Ronson

I told Alex everything Jared had said about the ambush.

Jon Ronson

And that's why you left town, was because of that party. That's the story that I heard.

Alex Jones

Total, complete horse crap. Total Shakespearean fiction. So what happened is, I wasn't that big of a guy, and everybody would start fights with me. I mean, this is just total fiction, totally made up. You didn't hear the part where the captain of the football team attacked me in the lunchroom, and I literally took on the entire senior football team?

Jon Ronson

No, I did not hear that.

Alex Jones

That was an epic fight. That was like Hercules. It was like Popeye. Like, pow, pow, pow. It was just, like-- it was the greatest trip of my life. I mean--

Jon Ronson

Later, we talked to Alex's old friend Jacob, and one of the football players, and Coach Randy, and no one remembers it this way. At best, Jacob said, Alex fought off two or three football players. Which is actually still quite impressive.

Alex Jones

And then, like, the whole football team, the whole senior team charges me, like a phalanx. And I just-- pow, pow. I mean, it was the best. So I thought you were actually getting to that story.

Jon Ronson

No.

Alex Jones

I mean, poor Bubba starting a fight with me, that was a minor conquest. I tell you what, if Bubba wants to have a charity, get in the ring with me today, I'll do it. He's a big old tough guy. Let's get in the ring right now.

Jon Ronson

Well, he said he has to be very careful with his skull.

Alex Jones

Well, he physically attacked me. Like, Ronson, if I came up and punched you in the face, would you have a right to defend yourself?

Jon Ronson

I would have a right to defend myself. I think it's unlikely that I would defend myself, because--

Alex Jones

Here's the thing, Jon, did I ever punch you in the face?

Jon Ronson

You've never punched me, Alex.

Alex Jones

Was I ever threatening physically to you?

Jon Ronson

No. Never.

Alex Jones

Well, let's be honest. Have I not been a big old sweetie Teddy bear?

Jon Ronson

It's true. On a personal level.

Jon Ronson

Alex is adamant that the party did not happen. But we confirmed that it did. We talked to two people besides Jared who say that they were there. One is named Marty Bottoms. He says he personally attacked Alex. The other is Mark Milton. When he phoned my producer Lina, she was asleep. He was on his tractor, but Lina recorded it as best as she could.

Mark Milton

I'm probably gonna lose you when I drop down this rock, girl, but yeah, this is Mark Edward Milton.

Jon Ronson

Mark said he remembered Alex beating Jared unconscious in geography. And then he said this.

Mark Milton

We all ended up going to a party, and then some of Bubba's friends jumped him that night.

Lina Misitzis

This was at a party after Alex beat up Jared?

Mark Milton

Yeah. Yeah, this was at Mark's house, out there in McLendon-Chisholm.

Lina Misitzis

So he moved to Austin after that party?

Mark Milton

Yeah, they sold the condo over in Lakeside Village. And he couldn't take it from him being jumped by a couple of boys that was Bubba's friends, and he moved out of there.

Jon Ronson

This is the story Josh had told me in the hotel lobby, and that Jared told me. It's the story Alex swears is untrue. Alex's family wouldn't talk to us, so I can't say exactly why they finally moved out of Rockwall. In our interview, Alex retold the story of the school assembly, but he also named other reasons for their move. Like how his Austin-born mother was homesick, and fed up with all the fighting. In the end, what seems clear is that this fight happened, and the assembly where Alex outed the drug dealing cops probably never did.

If I had to guess, I would say that Alex has replaced a true story, where he's humiliated at a party, with a different story where he's a hero, standing up to corrupt cops and getting beaten up for his bravery. In a way, it's same story as the one where the whole football team came at him in a phalanx. It's the character he plays on Infowars, the beleaguered hero attacked from all sides, bloodied but undaunted, and emerging the victor. It's like stories little kids tell about themselves.

Alex disputes most of the other things that people told me about him. He says he did not pretend to be the Antichrist in high school, says he didn't roll his eyes back in his head or dye his tongue black. He says he never told a classmate how he would like to rape her. He calls all of that insane garbage. He says he doesn't punch cabinets, or rip down blinds in the office.

During our reporting, something very strange kept happening. It happened during Lina's call with Mark, the tractor man. Mark's daughter, Chelsea, was listening on mute as he was telling Lina how he knew for certain that the police assembly story was a lie. Just then, Chelsea unmuted herself and said to her father--

Chelsea

Nobody knows what he found out about the cops, so you can't speak and say all the reason why he left Rockwall. Because he might have found out stuff that you didn't even know about.

Jon Ronson

It kept happening. All these people who knew for sure that Alex had been a liar back in Rockwall. A lot of them believed that what he says on Infowars might be true. They have a reference for him, like Coach Randy.

Randall Talley

I agree with so many things what he says. A lot of people just think it. Alex goes ahead and says it.

Jon Ronson

But not Jared. Actually, Jared had somehow gone through life not realizing that Alex was a radio host. And when I brought it up, it was awkward.

Jon Ronson

And you know who's a fan of his now? Donald Trump.

Jared

Is he?

Jon Ronson

Yeah. Donald Trump's been on his show. He talks about what a great reputation Alex has.

Jon Ronson

I could tell that Jared didn't want to hear that President Trump was an Alex fan. He gave me a look to say, "are you fake news?"

Jared

With the media and stuff, I don't know. I mean, I don't know what to-- I don't know. I wouldn't-- I don't know to believe that or not.

Jon Ronson

He likes him. They like each other.

Jared

Do they?

Jon Ronson

Yeah. It's like all of that craziness that happened at Rockwall High School, Alex and making stuff up, and now Donald Trump's a fan. The fact is, he's carried on saying all of these crazy things, but it's no longer about the school or the pool hall. Now it's about the globalists and the Muslims. People believe him now, including the president.

[SIGHS]

Jared

I mean-- I mean, who's to say. I mean-- I mean, some of the stuff he says could be true. It could be. I mean, Obama, he could be a Muslim. He could back them up, the radical Muslims. And he could have been giving them money behind-- I mean, who knows? We don't know. I mean, we hear what they want us to hear. We see what they want us to see. I mean, anything could be anything.

Jon Ronson

Jared, more than anyone, might have understood that Alex doesn't always tell the truth. But no, this is Alex's legacy, the chaos he sows in the world, the feeling that nothing can be known for sure.

Ira Glass

Jon Ronson. He and his, producer Lina Misitzis, originally created a version of this story for audible.com, where they also did Jon's latest long form original for Audible, The Last Days of August, a deep dive into the never before told story of what caused the untimely death of 23-year-old porn star August Ames. It's available exclusively on audible.com. Audible is the world's largest producer and provider of downloadable audio books and other spoken word entertainment.

Credits

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Dana Chivvis. The people who put our show together today includes Ben Calhoun, Sean Cole, Aviva DeKornfeld, Damien Graef, Michelle Harris, Miki Meek, Stowe Nelson, Catherine Raimondo, Ben Phelan, Nadia Reiman, Robyn Semien, Lilly Sullivan, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, Julie Whitaker, and Diane Wu.

Our managing editor is David Kestenbaum. Special thanks today to Sandy and Lonnie Phillips, Whitney Phillips, Dr. Kenneth Henderson, Joel Ronson, Elizabeth Scholer, David Bloom, Jonathan Kerlan, Sophia Hillsman, and Eric Newsom.

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Alex Jones

You can't wash that evil off, man.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.