Fighting back against internet lies

She was falsely accused of being patient zero in the pandemic. He was falsely accused of faking his son’s death during a mass shooting. Now, they are taking on the darkest corners of the internet and the federal law that makes it easier for such lies to spread online. Scott Pelley reports on their struggle for truth on the next edition of 60 Minutes, Sunday, January 3 at 7:30 p.m. ET and 7 p.m. PT on CBS.   

Maatje Benassi’s nightmare began in March with a phone call telling her to look online. That’s when she discovered that she had been labeled Patient Zero because she had been in Wuhan, China, in October 2019. The lies came from a video posted by a conspiracy theorist on YouTube that had already drawn hundreds of thousands of views. It was not true, of course, but Benassi began getting death threats. “We’re going to put a bullet in her skull. Let’s load up the trucks. Let’s go get them. Let’s hang them,” she recounted. Her address had also been posted online. 

Benassi had been in Wuhan where she represented the U.S. military in an armed forces version of the Olympics. She was a cyclist and an Army reservist who served in Iraq. An article about her in her local newspaper caught the attention of a deep state conspiracist named George Webb and he spun out a series of falsehoods connecting her to a plot to spread coronavirus. 

Benassi and her husband Matt went to the Pentagon, FBI and local police for protection but found there was little they could do. Then they found Lenny Pozner, who had already discovered how hard it was to take on the Internet. 

The Benassis realized it would be nearly impossible to sue the hundreds of Internet trolls, many anonymous, posting the incredible lie. They couldn’t sue internet platforms like YouTube and Facebook for hosting it, because a federal law known as Section 230 shields them from such lawsuits. So, they turned to Pozner and his HONR Network.   

Pozner’s own odyssey began on December 14, 2012, when his son Noah was among those murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School. When he went online not long after, Pozner discovered all sorts of lies being traded on the internet. There were those who claimed the massacre never happened and the parents of the murdered children were “crisis actors” who helped stage the tragedy. 

Pozner began fighting back, demanding that internet platforms take down the content. It was difficult – he got little cooperation from the platforms and the hoaxers themselves started coming after him. He got death threats and had to move his family more than a half-dozen times. One woman went to federal prison for threatening him. Pozner would only appear on 60 Minutes in a disguise because he still fears for his safety. 

Pozner founded the HONR Network to help those who faced similar situations. He helped Andy Parker take down videos of his daughter Alison’s murder, captured on camera as she reported on local television. Parker has become a strong advocate of repealing Section 230 because he says the internet platforms have not done enough to protect victims. 

Pozner has also been helping the Benassis get videos about them taken down from YouTube and Facebook. 

The Benassis, like Parker, have become advocates for changing the law and they now have some powerful supporters in Washington. President Trump wants to abolish Section 230 and President-elect Biden is also on record as wanting to revoke it. 

When it was written in 1996, Section 230 was little-noticed, but it helped create the modern internet, and spawned some of its big platforms, which thrive on publishing third-party content. Section 230 protects Facebook and YouTube’s owner, Google, but it also protects other platforms like Yelp and Wikipedia. 

Making internet platforms liable for their users’ posts would change them. Law professor Jeff Kosseff says, “Section 230 really recognizes how exceptional the internet is and says, ‘We want to encourage this marketplace of ideas.’ Twenty-five years later, that marketplace has a lot of really great stuff, but it also has a lot of really terrible products in that marketplace. And that’s really what’s driving this debate right now.”

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