THE WASHINGTON POST OPINIONS
On Aug. 12, 32-year-old Heather Heyer was tragically killed and at least 19 others were wounded when a driver plowed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters during the weekend of the infamous “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, the close-knit college town where I went to school and where I live now.
I saw this happen right in front of me. To me, it was clearly deliberate. I captured that horrible moment on my phone’s camera, shared the video with police and posted it on social media. Not long after that, I was verbally attacked by InfoWars’s Alex Jones and other conspiracy theorists, who wanted to portray me as a “deep state” operative motivated by a desire to undermine President Trump and his administration. As a result, my family and I have been attacked and threatened.
That’s why I’m suing for defamation.
My footage was covered on cable news and ran all over the Internet. During interviews, I spoke clearly about the hatred and violence on display that day. After that, websites such as InfoWars and the Gateway Pundit started pushing conspiracy theories.
From InfoWars: “They had known CIA and State Department officials in Charlottesville, first tweeting, first being on MSNBC, CNN, NBC. The mayor is involved. Everybody is a cut-out.”
Also from InfoWars: “One guy is paid 320 thousand a year on the payroll of Soros. He doesn’t just get money from Soros, he personally is paid 320 a year, and then he is there — CIA, State Department — and he is on the news.”
And from Gateway Pundit: “The random Charlottesville observer who was interviewed by MSNBC and liberal outlets turns out to be a deep state shill with links to George Soros. It looks like the State Department was involved in Charlottesville rioting and is trying to cover it up. But after Deep State got caught they are trying to erase this guy from their records.”
As I state in my suit, these statements are all aimed at me, meant to defame me and, in each case, contain disgusting fabrications.
After the conspiracy theories about me spread online, my family and I were subject to harassment, threats, hate mail and hacking attempts. Someone mailed an envelope containing a suspicious white powder residue and a four-page diatribe describing how I would burn in hell. I’ve been accosted on the street in Charlottesville and the harassment continues to this day.
If you search Google for my name and “deep state,” you get a raft of accusations that I’m an operative with an agenda — with a few even claiming I helped organize genocide. My professional and personal lives have been irreparably harmed by these blatant falsehoods and targeted character assassination. Business colleagues willing to discuss the allegations with me have described their shock on reading the conspiracies — it is anyone’s guess how many others have read similar smears and avoided contact altogether. I’m a musician, and fellow musicians whom I know, and looked up to growing up, have fallen prey to lies about me, joining those tarnishing my name online. I find myself constantly looking over my shoulder and have had to beef up my personal security after consulting with law enforcement professionals.
I’m far from their only victim. From Charlottesville to Sandy Hook to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the playbook is easy to follow: After national tragedies, faceless Internet trolls push baseless, dangerous accusations that are magnified by outlets such as InfoWars in an attempt to turn villains into victims and vice versa.
In this era of social media saturation, ordinary citizens like me increasingly capture breaking news and, out of a feeling of civic duty, share it online. At the end of the day, I’m just a concerned member of a community that saw itself become a white supremacist flashpoint, and I’m certainly not part of any secret government effort to undermine Trump.
I decided to sue InfoWars, the individual behind Gateway Pundit and others because of the stunning effect their absurd dispatches have had on me and my family. But also because of the danger they pose to our country. These outlets have hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of followers and, in the case of InfoWars and Gateway Pundit, have been granted White House press credentials. When they go after ordinary citizens like me, there are real consequences.
I decided to sue because no one should have to suffer this type of deliberate vilification — falsehoods spread about who they are and what they stand for — or be subject to harassment from professional conspiracy-mongers just because they witnessed a tragedy and accurately reported what they saw.
Fact-based journalism is essential to a healthy democracy because it provides citizens with objective information on issues of public concern. InfoWars and Gateway Pundit do the opposite — poisoning our civic discourse by distorting the truth and blurring the line between news and propaganda.
I became a target because I captured images of an attack on peaceful anti-racist protesters exercising their right to freely express themselves. Because these sites couldn’t argue with the video, they opted to obscure the truth by trying to discredit me.
We’re all harmed when these outlets recklessly disregard plain facts, defame the innocent and use the power of social media to amplify a bogus narrative. With the help of Georgetown Law’s Civil Rights Clinic, I brought this suit because Americans cannot stand idly by while these people terrorize individuals and undermine the pillars of our society. One lawsuit won’t stop them, but I do hope that the legal process can expose them for what they are: snake oil salesmen who know full well that the conspiracy theories they peddle are full of lies.