After incendiary titles and divisive headlines have grabbed our social media newsfeeds for months, fake news has become a topic in the news itself. A number of sites have begun to make a great deal of money “reporting” stories that are completely false, and they continue to spread across social media sites like wildfire. These headlines move beyond traditional political spin; instead, they put wild conspiracy theories and complete falsehoods into the world under the banner of news.
I think we need to call these stories what they really are – propaganda. Behind the people who believe and share these stories are authors and social architects who lie quite purposefully in order to ignite particular forms of action from us. Most frequently, they capture our beliefs in order to gain power for themselves, and often, they do so by turning groups against each other. We need to pay attention, and we need to check facts. These stories can have dangerous results.
We need only look as far as Pizzagate.
As you may know, a man brought a semi-automatic assault rifle into Comet Ping Pong last week, a pizza establishment which is popular with many families in Washington D.C. He said he was there to personally investigate the claims of a story. The conspiracy theory behind this story, wild as it was, had gained a remarkable level of traction and became propaganda through fake news.
Pizzagate does not get its name from the horrific incident last week in the pizza restaurant. Instead, many months before, #Pizzagate became hashtag after community of people on Reddit concluded that Hillary Clinton, staffers from her campaign, and other high profile politicians were involved in a child sex trafficking ring at Comet Ping Pong. They came to these conclusions after combing through the hacked emails of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign manager, and reading a remarkable amount into the details. The conspiracy theory took on a life of its own and was “reported” through fake news sites. These were shared by a large number of people, and perhaps most concerning, tweeted by Michael Flynn, President Elect Trump’s new appointee for Secretary of Defense.
This story is obviously false. After firing his assault rifle in the restaurant, the man only left with police after he was convinced it was not true. Thankfully, no one was hurt physically, but this was quite frightening for people who were present. It is still troubling for families who frequent the restaurant.
After it happened, my friend and colleague Eric Peltz wrote this comment on Facebook. I share it with his permission:
“Friends, the election of Trump (and most importantly, the validation of his rhetoric) has led to a gunman walking into a restaurant my family and my congregants frequent. If the safety of my children won’t urge you to take the time to diversify your news sources so you’re seeing reports of the hundreds of hate and conspiracy-induced crimes that are happening, it’s hard to believe that you care about me or my children in any real way. How will you stand up against violence and keep my family safe?”
We need to pay attention. We need to check facts. We need to speak out.
We must realize that some social architects will continue to use these kinds of stories as propaganda to solidify power and ignite action from us. We have to see it and name it as what it is.
Last week, Reply All, a podcast hosted by Alex Goldman and P.J. Vogt, released a tremendous episode which reports how Pizzagate moved from rumor, to news, to an entire online community, to action. Check it out the link and give it a listen.