How does a 28-year-old man from Salisbury, North Carolina find the motivation to drive to Washington, D.C. with a variety of firearms (an AR-15, shotgun and pistol), walk in the front door of a pizza joint named Comet Ping Pong, point a gun at an employee and discharge his firearm?
Apparently, this all has to do with a phenomenon called fake news.
The subject told DC police after he was taken into custody that he had come to the restaurant to "self-investigate" what had recently become known within social media as "pizzagate," a false election-related conspiracy theory that spread on the internet during the presidential campaign. The conspiracy, from an investigative perspective, was completely preposterous.
The allegations in this so-called "pizzagate" were that the then-presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and her campaign chief were operating a child sex ring from the back room of this particular DC pizza restaurant. These stories became so prevalent on social media, and rapidly acquired so much "legitimacy" within the fake news world that the restaurant owners began receiving a variety of death threats in the weeks leading up to this incident.
For Fun or with Malicious Intent?
There is clearly a well defined sinister background, on an international level, regarding the use of fake news. As a matter of fact, a European newspaper recently described the proliferation of fake news as a form of psychological warfare. This year, even the European Parliament, through their Committee on Foreign Affairs, brought the problem of fake news to light when it passed a formal resolution warning that the Russian government had set up "pseudo-news agencies" to weaken confidence in Western governments.
A Concern at Home
So worrisome is the concern of fake news here in the U.S. that last year our own State Department launched a special unit named the Counter-Disinformation Team, specifically formed to counter Russian-born fake news targeting our homeland. Unfortunately, this team was prematurely disbanded in September of 2015, prior to the emergence of the now well known massive influx of fake news that ravaged the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. However, this is nothing new. The Reagan administration operated what they called the Active Measures Working Group because they recognized the negative influence that fake news had on the American people.
Let's bring this a little closer to home. Recent studies show that many Americans now get their news in short headlines from social media sites. Anyone with a Facebook account can see the multitude of news stories that are generated on an hourly basis. But how do we know if the news we're reading is fake? While I'm an avid user of Facebook, and read a great deal of the information from a variety of sources, I personally only recognize as legitimate (i.e. coming from a valid source) that news which has been released by a mainstream media outlet.
There's an extensive vetting process followed by all major news outlets for the vetting of legitimate news. Whether on a local or national level, the media have a vested interest in maintaining their reputation by ensuring that only legitimate news makes its way to their viewers. Even in the internet realm, Google and Facebook have banned fake news sites from using online advertising.
So why do fake news sites continue to proliferate? Like they say, some men just want to watch the world burn.
We all have to understand that what we see on a written page can greatly influence our perspective of the world. For some, as we saw unfold in a little pizzeria in our nation's capitol, the result of fake news can take on a potentially lethal twist. We have enough external forces, from advertising to daily news, trying to capture our opinions and views. Why allow ourselves to be caught up in fiction? Fake news can lead only to fake beliefs.