In January 2013, Ronda Rousey was arguably one of the hottest names in mixed martial arts, if not all of the sports. The first American woman to ever win a medal in women’s judo at the Olympics, she made the leap to MMA in 2010 and made short work of her first seven opponents, using her world-class grappling to submit each one of them in under a minute. It wasn’t until she faced her rival Meisha Tate for the second time at UFC 168 that she would even see the second round of a fight. With a run like that, it’s easy to see why the Ultimate Fighting Championship – by far the largest and most popular mixed martial arts organization in the world – not only signed her to a lucrative contract after a scant six professional fights but created an entire women’s division around her. This was not even two years removed from UFC President Dana White publicly stating that women would “never” fight for the company.
Ronda Rousey was a big deal, and with that kind of profile, it caused quite a stir when she took to Twitter to share a (now deleted) video that seized on errors in the early reporting of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting to cast doubt on the official story that a lone gunman had been responsible for the deaths of twenty children and seven adults:
Extremely interesting must watch video youtube.com/watch?v=Wx9GxX… — Ronda Rousey (@RondaRousey) January 15, 2013
Unsurprisingly, the tweet almost instantly generated a heated discussion on a sports message board that I had been a member of at the time. And while I never had any real interest in conspiracy theories, I couldn’t help but join the fray. The thread included a number of people who fully believed in the conspiracy, many more who didn’t, and a handful who at least portrayed themselves as existing somewhere in the middle. “Maybe they’re honest mistakes, or maybe it’s a cover-up,” one such user posted, “but that video raises some legit questions”.
“No, It definitely does not” I shot back. But the truth was that I hadn’t bothered to watch the video in its entirety, so my knowledge of its content was mostly second-hand. And while I believed the premise of the video to be disingenuous, I couldn’t reasonably argue against its specific claims without viewing and investigating them for myself, could I? So that’s what I did, disappearing down the rabbit hole for a short while and re-emerging to engage in a back-and-forth that went on for nearly two weeks. While not a particularly productive conversation in the sense that everyone’s opinions seemed to remain pretty much the same, it did lead me to develop an interest in continuing to challenge Sandy Hook misinformation online, whenever and wherever I encountered it. I had no personal connection to the tragedy, but as someone whose life has also been personally impacted by gun violence, it struck a chord, and I wanted to help however I could. The victims deserved better.
My mission to combat Sandy Hook conspiracy theories online eventually led me to a man by the name of James Fetzer, a former professor at the University of Minnesota who also happened to be a long-time and controversial fixture in the conspiracy world. Fetzer, leaning heavily on his academic credentials, presented himself as an expert in the burgeoning field of Sandy Hook denialism, though he got off to a pretty shaky start.
In a now-deleted entry on the site “PressTV”, written a little less than a week after the shooting, Fetzer presented the carnage as entirely legitimate but suggested it had been the work of a “Mossad death squad”, rather than a lone gunman. That narrative was quickly abandoned and Fetzer changed course, deciding that the shooting was no longer the work of Israeli intelligence, but in fact, had never happened, and that no one had died. He was sure of it this time.
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