By Meredith Veilleux
When Jillian Soto introduced herself during a class on UConn’s Waterbury campus, a classmate asked if she was related to Victoria Soto, one of the teachers murdered in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
Victoria was her sister. The classmate started verbally harassing her saying the shooting never happened, that her sister never existed, and that the whole event was a hoax, she said.
“I just left and went straight to my car,” Soto recalled as she testified in the Alex Jones trial in October. “A friend of mine who was in the class was able to grab my stuff, and I dropped that class the next day.”
Ten years after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and UConn is not immune to the conspiracy theories surrounding the tragedy.
The Sandy Hook shooting on December 14, 2012, in Newtown, Connecticut was put under a microscope by Alex Jones of Infowars and other conspiracy theorists when they began to question if the shooting had ever actually happened. Jones hosts a radio show with an audience of millions.
Recently, Jones was sued for defamation by families of some of the shooting victims and a FBI agent in Texas and Connecticut. Soto was part of the Connecticut case.
In the trial the plaintiffs’ attorney Christopher Mattei said to Jones, “Among the things that you said about Sandy Hook was that it was fake, yes?” Jones said yes to this.
Mattei continued to ask Jones to acknowledge the things he had said: that Sandy Hook was “synthetic, manufactured, with actors” and a “total hoax.” Jones said yes, that he acknowledged saying all of these things as well.
Conspiracy theories about the Sandy Hook shooting have led to harassment against survivors and families of victims.
Connecticut and Texas juries have ordered Jones to pay the plaintiffs a total of almost $1.5 billion dollars between the two trials.
Amanda J. Crawford is a veteran political reporter and an assistant professor of journalism at UConn. She has covered the Alex Jones trials and wrote about one family’s fight against hoaxers for the Boston Globe.
“What we know is that UConn is not immune to the kind of conspiracy theories that have spread about this shooting, and as the Alex Jones trial has shown and I’ve also heard from other students and faculty, there are people in the UConn community who doubt that the shooting happened because that misinformation has spread so much,” Crawford said.
After the tragedy, UConn forged ties with survivors by establishing a scholarship called the Sandy Hook Memorial Scholarship in order to help those who were directly affected by the tragedy. Jennifer Huber of the UConn Foundation said there have been a total of 77 awards given to 28 student recipients for this scholarship. Almost $1.3 million has been donated to this scholarship fund since it was established in 2012.
“What we can see is that the Sandy Hook shooting was a tragedy that affected Connecticut as a state,” Crawford said. “People who not only lived in Newtown but throughout the state felt the impact of this horrific shooting so I think that UConn certainly saw that and established this scholarship that has helped some people connected to that shooting come to UConn.”
Survivors have had to endure endless harassment in person and on social media due to the conspiracy theories surrounding the shooting.
Crawford said that she recently met with a student who is among those survivors from Sandy Hook who have been harassed by conspiracy theorists who believe that they are hiding their identity and that they are actually the children who were murdered, living out their lives under assumed identities.
“You can really see how long these kinds of conspiracy theories impact people,” Crawford said. “It has been 10 years and there are still families and individuals who are harassed because of the conspiracy theories about Sandy Hook.”
The Alex Jones trial revealed some of the harassment that survivors and families from Sandy Hook have faced over the past decade.
Ryan Graney, the Soto’s media director, has helped the family deal with hateful comments on social media.
“The amount of hate that they get is insane,” Graney said in a phone interview.
She said the Alex Jones trial had increased the amount of harassment and hate that the family is getting. The YouTube channel that live streamed one of the trials had to turn the comments off because of people commenting hateful things, she noted.
Carlee Soto, Jillian and Victoria’s sister, also testified in the trial along with their brother Matthew Soto.
Graney said a video of Carlee’s testimony drew a lot of attention and nasty comments.
“People were calling her a hoaxer underneath it and saying that she wasn’t really crying,” Graney said. “So given the most recent media coverage, the harassment has stepped up a bit.”
Matthew Soto testified that he also faced deniers in a university classroom as a student at Southern Connecticut State University.
He said he recalled being in a history class his sophomore year of college discussing current events when the professor asked: “How many of you think Sandy Hook actually happened?”
Not everybody raised their hands, which Matthew Soto said immediately caused him to have a panic attack.
“I knew I was sitting in a room with people that thought that I wasn’t real, that my sister wasn’t real, and I got up and I left and I dropped out of that class, and it was a very hard thing for me to go back to school even that week,” he testified.
Top photo: Sandy Hook Memorial in Newtown, Connecticut (Photo by Brian Woolston/Associated Press, November 2022)