A lot of fake news is going around, and some of it is fun, like all the stories about Donald Trump considering the CEO of ExxonMobil for secretary of state – perhaps because, even if he knows nothing about all the current hotspots in the world, and what is in dispute, this guy does know that there’s no such thing as global warming and that the climate isn’t changing at all. Of course that’s absurd. The job is about far more than pulling out of the Paris Accords, even if every other nation in the world won’t. This is fake news, except it happens to be true – even though ExxonMobil is currently under investigation in a number of states for misleading investors and the public about climate change over the past four decades, a matter of securities fraud, common law fraud, and violations of racketeering, consumer protection, and truth in advertising, public health, and shareholder protection laws. Maybe that doesn’t matter. Like Trump, the guy thinks the whole climate change thing is a hoax. What he will suggest to Trump when Russia inevitably moves to take back the Baltic States, that are now part of NATO, is anyone’s guess. Will he negotiate a truce in Syria for Trump, or some sort of cool-down between Israel and the Palestinians? What about North Korea? This man knows the oil markets. That’s it. This really ought to be a fake news story, but it isn’t. Oh well – this is Trump’s call – but any news stories that Trump is considering Dennis Rodman for secretary of state really are fake news – for now. The fake can become real at any moment. No one can rely on their sense of the absurd any longer. You’re on your own.
There are also those odd stories that Trump has named Ben Carson, the famous neurosurgeon, to head Housing and Urban Development, the giant agency that handles everything from Section 8 vouchers to mortgage regulations to the actual design of cities through zoning and easements and whatnot. Carson knows nothing about such things, even if he grew up in Detroit at its nastiest. He got out, fast. Trump also called Carson a psychopath during the campaign. Carson also thinks evolution is a hoax. Carson has also argued, for no particular reason, that the Egyptian pyramids were actually grain silos. His spokesman has said Carson would never accept a cabinet position – Carson has never worked in government, he’s never run a large organization, or any organisation at all, and that Carson wouldn’t want to embarrass the Trump administration by trying to fake it. That had to be fake news, but it wasn’t – Carson accepted the position.
What was Trump thinking? Well, the guy is black and the word “urban” is in the job title – close enough. Trump’s cabinet suddenly becomes diverse, and Carson thinks the government shouldn’t mess with such things. He pulled himself up by his own bootstraps. Everyone should. Keep the government out of housing and urban development. That must be the thinking, unless all the news stories about this are fake news, which they’re not.
This gets confusing, but the fake and the real are confusing. Early each Sunday morning, just after midnight, Donald Trump goes on a Twitter-rant about what he just saw on Saturday Night Live. It wasn’t funny. It wasn’t fair. Alec Baldwin, playing Trump, gets everything wrong. This has to stop – this is fake news of the worst sort – except the writers at Saturday Night Live have taken to often doing no more than quoting Trump verbatim. That works just fine, but is that fake news or real news? Trump says it’s fake. The rest of America has decided it isn’t. It’s not really news, but it seems real enough. It’ll do.
Who do you trust? Much has been written about all the fake news stories that may have swayed the election – Hillary Clinton has Parkinson’s Disease, Obama was going to declare martial law and cancel the election – story after story that popped up on the newsfeed on Facebook, shared and reposted endlessly. Rudy Giuliani recommended the stories about Hillary Clinton’s health – he told folks to do a Google search on Clinton Heath, and these fake news stories got a bit more play than actual news stories. Facebook is still trying to figure out how that happened to their newsfeed and what they can do about it. Probably nothing, actually – paid crews in the Balkans and in American suburbs churned these out. Some did that for fun, or for political purposes, without pay. Each story had to seem only somewhat likely. That was good enough. Those who wanted to believe this story or that did – and passed that story on endlessly. Soon no one knew what was going on – or people felt they finally knew exactly what was going on. They didn’t, but they were convinced they did. It was a mess.
And it wasn’t very important. People will believe what they want to believe. They were just given a bit of reinforcement this time, and the election is over, except that nothing is over:
Edgar M. Welch, a 28-year-old father of two from Salisbury, N.C., recently read online that Comet Ping Pong, a pizza restaurant in northwest Washington, was harboring young children as sex slaves as part of a child-abuse ring led by Hillary Clinton.
The articles making those allegations were widespread across the web, appearing on sites including Facebook and Twitter. Apparently concerned, Mr. Welch drove about six hours on Sunday from his home to Comet Ping Pong to see the situation for himself, according to court documents. Not long after arriving at the pizzeria, the police said, he fired from an assault-like AR-15 rifle. The police arrested him. They found a rifle and a handgun in the restaurant. No one was hurt.
In an arraignment on Monday, a heavily tattooed Mr. Welch, wearing a white jumpsuit and shackles, was ordered held. According to the criminal complaint, he told the authorities that he was armed to help rescue children but that he surrendered peacefully after finding no evidence that “children were being harbored in the restaurant.” He was charged with four counts, including felony assault with a deadly weapon and carrying a gun without a license outside a home or business.
What had happened was obvious:
The false articles against the pizzeria began appearing on social networks and websites in late October, not long before the presidential election, with the restaurant identified as being the headquarters for a child-trafficking ring.
The articles were soon exposed as false by publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post and the fact-checking website Snopes. But the debunking did not squash the conspiracy theories about Comet Ping Pong – instead, it led to the opposite.
Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have been flooded with more attacks against the pizzeria as believers in the child-trafficking conspiracy became more zealous. Within hours of the publication of one of the debunking articles, a post on Twitter by Representative Steven Smith of the 15th District of Georgia – not a real lawmaker and not a real district – warned that what was fake was the information being peddled by the mainstream media. It was retweeted dozens of times.
People will believe what they want to believe, and there’s “evidence” out there for their beliefs, and evidence for that evidence – and none of it is evidence at all. It just seems so now, and it has been weaponized:
A surge of new fake articles amplified the original pieces, now linking the child-abuse ring – known as Pizzagate – to a global pedophilia ring reaching Britain.
“We should all condemn the efforts of certain people to spread malicious and utterly false accusations about Comet Ping Pong,” James Alefantis, the owner of Comet Ping Pong, said in a statement on Sunday. Mr. Alefantis, who has repeatedly refuted the fake news articles, has closed the pizzeria for a few days. He has prominent Democratic friends and previously communicated with Mrs. Clinton’s campaign chairman, which he has said may have made him a target.
It’s unclear what he can do about that:
“The reason why it’s so hard to stop fake news is that the facts don’t change people’s minds,” said Leslie Harris, a former president of the Center for Democracy & Technology, a nonprofit that promotes free speech and open internet policies. When users are caught abusing the terms of one media platform, they simply go to another, she said.
The viral nature of the misinformation was illustrated again late Sunday, not long after the police arrested Mr. Welch and called Pizzagate a “fictitious online conspiracy theory” in their report. Some individuals on Twitter said Mr. Welch was an actor used by the mainstream media to divert attention from the alleged crimes at Comet Ping Pong.
There’s always an explanation, and this stuff spreads:
The storm of fake news has swept up not only Comet Ping Pong, but its neighboring businesses. Conspiracy theorists have linked symbols that some local businesses on the same street as Comet Ping Pong used in their logos to symbols of pedophilia code.
At Terasol, a French restaurant across the street from Comet Ping Pong, the owner, Sabrina Ousmaal, said she received daily phone threats and her business’s Facebook page had been filled with false accusations, including, “You guys mind explaining the pedophilia symbol removed from your website then?” She added that the symbol was not on her restaurant but on the store of a nearby shop and was a swirl within a triangle.
Ms. Ousmaal said she and her husband had called the police and the FBI but had received little guidance.
What could the FBI say, that people are stupid? Perhaps they are, and they are certainly persistent:
For purveyors of fake news who have continued pushing the Pizzagate theory even after the facts have been debunked, whether Comet Ping Pong is even engaged in a pedophilia ring is beyond the point. Jeffrey Marty, a lawyer from Florida, said in a phone interview that he was the man posing as Representative Steven Smith from Georgia’s fictional 15th District. He said that he was frustrated with the way the mainstream media covered the election and that he believes that most of his 24,000 followers know that his account is a parody.
Mr. Marty, who has tweeted links to fake news stories and repeatedly said the mainstream media needs to investigate Pizzagate, declined to say whether he actually believed the Comet Ping Pong allegations. “I just think you need to investigate. There are clues everywhere,” he said.
There always are, and this doesn’t help:
The son of retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Donald Trump’s pick for national security adviser, embraced a baseless conspiracy theory about Hillary Clinton on Sunday after a man who claimed to be investigating the hoax fired a rifle inside a pizza parlor in Northwest Washington, D.C., on Sunday…
On Sunday, Flynn’s son, Michael Flynn Jr., tweeted, “Until #Pizzagate proven to be false, it’ll remain a story. The left seems to forget #PodestaEmails and the many ‘coincidences’ tied to it.”
The younger Flynn, who has served as his father’s adviser, linked to the account of Jack Posobiec, whose Twitter account describes him as the special projects director of a group called Citizens4Trump.
Posobiec said Welch’s actions were a “false flag,” and claimed he was an actor carrying out an elaborate conspiracy to discredit sites that spread the fabricated #Pizzagate accusations.
“Planted Comet Pizza Gunman will be used to push for censorship of independent news sources that are not corporate owned,” he tweeted.
And it’s not just the son:
After Welch’s arrest, Twitter users pointed to a Nov. 2 tweet by Flynn, in which he tied Clinton to “sex crimes with minors.”
“U decide – NYPD Blows Whistle on New Hillary Emails: Money Laundering, Sex Crimes w Children, etc… MUST READ!” Flynn tweeted just days before the Nov. 8 election, linking to an article on the website “True Pundit.”
The article, which does not mention Comet Ping Pong, alleges that sources in the New York City Police Department had found new evidence linking “Clinton herself and associates” to a series of crimes, including: “money laundering, child exploitation, sex crimes with minors (children), perjury, pay to play through Clinton Foundation, obstruction of justice” and other unspecified “felony crimes.”
No such evidence ever surfaced, and the FBI said that its review of the emails found nothing to alter its recommendation that Clinton not be prosecuted.
Days later, on Nov. 4, the retired lieutenant general tweeted the hashtag #spiritcooking, referring to a conspiracy theory tying Podesta to satanic rituals.
This is Trump’s national security advisor, and his son, now his chief of staff – Foreign Policy reports that the son “has assisted in personnel vetting, managing his father’s schedule, and fielding transition-related emails for the general, according to a person close to the Trump transition team.” The unnamed source told Foreign Policy that the kid also “accompanies his dad to a ton of meetings.”
There’s also this background from Politico:
As Donald Trump’s national security adviser, retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn will have to advise the president of the veracity of foreign and domestic threats, separating those that require immediate policy action from propaganda or misinformation.
But Flynn himself has used social media to promote a series of outrageous conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton, President Barack Obama and their inner circles in recent months — pushing dubious factoids at least 16 times since Aug. 9, according to a POLITICO review of his Twitter posts. Flynn, who has 106,000 Twitter followers, has used the platform to retweet accusations that Clinton is involved with child sex trafficking and has “secretly waged war” on the Catholic Church, as well as charges that Obama is a “jihadi” who “laundered” money for Muslim terrorists…
Those were far from isolated tweets for Flynn, the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
In the vast majority of instances in the past four months, he was passing along other people’s conspiratorial tweets instead of casting them in his own voice. In one example, he retweeted a post about a Fox News story claiming that the Army had identified Clinton as an “insider threat.” Another time, he reposted a tweet by someone named “Eagle Wings” about an alleged United Nations one-world-government plot called Agenda 21.
It’s time for some red flags:
This kind of rumor-mongering is especially beyond the pale for someone who will have the next president’s ear, said former State Department policy adviser Peter Singer, one of many people who publicly lambasted Flynn after Sunday’s shooting.
“We are not talking about policy toward China or Russia,” Singer, now a national security strategist at the think tank New America, said in an interview Monday. “We are talking about some of the most bizarre conspiracy theories out there. We are down the rabbit hole. How can you take him seriously when he is discussing people in D.C. drinking human blood? It is exasperating.”
Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said late Monday that while nobody was injured in the shooting, the conspiracy theories spread on social media had “come close to having deadly results.”
“It is incumbent on Trump, his nominee for national security adviser, Gen. Flynn, and his entire team to disavow these falsehoods and conspiracy theories,” Schiff said in a statement. “They will soon have a country to run, and God help us if they conduct the nation’s affairs like their transition – without the willingness or ability to separate fact from fiction.”
Down the rabbit hole – no ability to separate fact from fiction – it’s going to be a long four or eight years, with a strange man:
Even one of Flynn’s former military colleagues expressed puzzlement Monday at the dark turn his pronouncements on social media have taken.
“That is not typically the behavior of someone who needs the necessary sobriety to advise the president on the most critical matters facing the nation,” said the former military official, who worked with Flynn every day for more than a year in Afghanistan.
“This is not the Mike Flynn I once knew,” added the former military official, who asked not to be identified because he currently holds a government position. “While he was given to reacting on a gut, rather than fact, this represents a departure from the intellectual rigor he demanded of those around him.”
To that, there was only this:
Flynn did not respond to several requests to be interviewed for this story. The Trump transition office also did not respond to requests for comment.
But Graham Plaster, a retired navy officer and one of Flynn’s acolytes in military intelligence, defended the general’s social media habits, contending that sharing false information doesn’t necessarily mean he believes it.
That hardly helps. We have fake news, everywhere, even from the White House now, and David Graham sees this:
The gullibility involved in the case is disheartening, and the recourse to weapons is scary. But the more frightening problem is that there’s no promising solution to the causes that produced the showdown in Chevy Chase [Maryland] on Sunday. Most suggestions for fighting back boil down to some form of censorship, which is an unacceptable path.
Nor is the traditional press in a position to make much difference. There’s a long list of overlapping theories, some valid and some not, for the weakened position of the traditional press, but whatever the truth, it’s not structurally prepared to fight this sort of thing. The barriers to entry for media outlets, including the bogus ones that spread the Pizzagate story, are extremely low, while traditional outlets can no longer maintain any sort of oligopoly on distributing news, so that the emergence of fake news stories is unstoppable. The press can debunk them, of course, and in fact it has done an admirable job – but this makes little difference. The audiences that are receptive to those debunkers are the ones who would have missed the original fake story anyway, and the ones who believe the fake story are inclined to dismiss mainstream reports out of hand, so the debunkers won’t influence them either.
There’s no winning, and expect more of this:
The technique of raising a completely bogus idea and then demanding that its critics debunk it – by proving a negative – is a favorite technique of conspiracy theorists, and more recently it’s become a favorite technique of the Trump team.
Here’s how the post-truth sausage gets made. The president-elect, for example, will moot the idea that there were millions of illegal votes cast in the election, despite overwhelming evidence that the claim is false and no evidence it is true. His defenders will nonetheless then demand that the people who think vote fraud is false prove it is false. By the end of the week, Reince Priebus – the chairman of the GOP, Trump’s chief of staff-designee, and one of the mainstream, establishment members of his team – can go on national network television and say he doesn’t know for sure whether millions of illegal voters cast ballots, and that “it’s possible.”
So, no one knows anything anymore, right? That may be so, now, and to Graham it seems familiar:
The allegations against Welch are interesting because they follow the archetypal narrative of Islamist terrorism self-radicalization. A young man begins reading on the Internet; over time, he comes to believe mainstream sources that are questionable, misleading, or downright false; eventually, he decides to arm himself and take matters into his own hands on behalf of a political cause.
It’s American jihad:
Already, at least one fake-news site is positing that the whole episode was a false-flag operation designed to facilitate a crackdown on purveyors of fake news. Across the country, some number of people are reading the story and nodding in agreement. Some of them might even decide to pick up a gun and do something about it.
That’s what it has come to. There’s so much “evidence” out there. Pick and choose that which “feels” true – because there are no other criteria now – and do something about it, with a gun. As for the rest of us, skeptical of odd news articles, there’s only one thing to do. Don’t go out for pizza. You could get shot. Have it delivered. Otherwise, hide.