A while ago I wrote a piece about the epidemic of fake news and how it may have influenced the election. At the time, I thought that the most harm a false story could do was lead people to vote for the wrong reasons. Maybe engender less trust in the media as a whole. Now, less than three weeks later it is clear that false news reports can put lives on the line.
On December 4th, Edgar Welch – a 28-year-old man from North Carolina – entered Comet Ping Pong to investigate the claims of now-debunked conspiracy theory Pizzagate. He discharged an AR-15 assault rifle before realizing he had gone too far and surrendered to police. In his own words, he “regrets how [he] handled the situation.”
For those readers unfamiliar with Pizzagate (which seems unlikely given that you’re reading online news), it is a theory that was proliferated by fake news don Sean Adl-Tabatabai, on his site YourNewsWire.com. In his original post, credited to an FBI insider (which later turned out to be an anonymous poster on 4Chan), Adl-Tabatabai claimed that Hillary Clinton was involved in a child sex-trafficking ring which was operated out of the basement of D.C. pizzeria Comet Ping Pong. Yep, that’s right, a candidate for president was alleged to have a side-business trafficking children for prostitution out of a pizzeria.
The conspiracy posited that instead of using sex-words, the Clinton campaign used pizza and other food items euphemistically to communicate about the child trafficking. This was all apparently contained in the emails uncovered by the FBI from disgraced congressman Anthony Weiner. Apparently, Bill was involved and so was campaign manager John Podesta.
I feel like I shouldn’t have to say this, but I will anyway: there is absolutely no evidence for any of these claims other than the fact that there were emails about pizza and other food. Which is unsurprising, given that Clinton’s campaign spent three times more on pizza than any other. For its part, Comet Ping Pong doesn’t even have a basement to house the alleged child-trafficking ring.
Despite the obvious impossibility of these claims, Comet Ping Pong owner James Alefantis was almost killed by a man taken in by this hoax. Put another way, a man could have lost his life because some asshole wanted clicks on a fake news story. An asshole who has yet to apologize or come forward as the source of all this nonsense. (I’ve linked his twitter, please feel free to press him on his involvement or just send him pictures of pizzas. Either seems fitting.)
On December 9th, Hillary Clinton held a press conference to address the epidemic of fake news, saying, “It's now clear that so-called 'fake news' can have real world consequences. This isn't about politics or partisanship. Lives are at risk. Lives of ordinary people just trying to go about their days, to do their jobs, contribute to their communities.”
What’s worse is that the fallout is not over, there are already people claiming that Pizzagate was just the tip of the iceberg. There are now claims that it was all a false flag, designed to deflect public attention from the reality of Clinton and Podesta’s real ring. Proponents of this idea point to the fact that Welch had an IMDB page and has no prior record of violent crime. Alex Jones (noted for believing that chemicals in the water made frogs gay, no shit) has used his own fake news platform, Infowars, to claim that Comet Ping Pong was “the big bug zapper to distract all the investigators” and that the truth runs much deeper in the Democratic party.
But despite the insanity, it seems like the Fake News cycle is here to stay. Michael Barkun, a professor emeritus at Syracuse University and the author of A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America, spoke to ABC News and said that once a conspiracy gains traction, there is no amount of proof that can refute it. “When you get to conspiracy theories like this, they're closed systems of ideas," he said. "They're constructed in such a way that there isn't any evidence you can present to someone who believes them that will lead a believer to change his or her mind."
This seems to me to be the real danger – that it is possible to fanaticize people with patently false claims. For those more world-weary readers, you’re probably thinking that this is nothing new, that propaganda and advertising have been used to espouse lies for hundreds of years. You wouldn’t be wrong. But those forces used to come from government, corporations, big organizations – the kinds of places with concentrated money and authority where you know to be wary of an agenda that’s probably being pushed. Now a fake news site can post something they read on 4Chan and it makes international headlines.
Which brings us to the central problem of fake news – what the hell can we do about it? Is it ethical to police what people publish in a free forum? Is it the role of media providers, themselves companies with vested interests, to filter the content that they facilitate? I don’t really have a good answer to either of those questions, but when a guy who runs a Ping Pong themed pizzeria comes face to face with an AR-15 over something someone wrote as clickbait, I can’t believe that the current set-up is working.
We need to talk about Pizzagate, and figure out what kind of world we want to live in.