As a public service, I’m here to debunk #Pizzagate. Not as an investigative journalist who sorts through allegations of secret pedophilic symbols to map how the story began, but as a mom who can “self-investigate” as well as any civic-minded Tom, Dick, or Harry, and has done the shoe-leather reporting.
You see, Comet Ping Pong — the Washington, D.C., restaurant that’s been slimed, libeled, threatened, and now targeted by a gunman over conspiracies of a nonexistent child-trafficking ring run by Hillary Clinton — is my neighborhood pizzeria. It’s where friends of all political stripes take our kids to enjoy delicious cheese pies, celebrate birthdays, and sometimes play Ping Pong in the back. Sex trafficking, thank God, is nowhere on the menu. As our president-elect likes to say: Believe me.
If only it were so simple to disprove all the fake clickbait that’s taken root and proliferated like noxious mushrooms this year. The pizza conspiracy seems to have sprung from someone who read Clinton’s campaign manager’s hacked e-mails and learned he eats Comet pizza, whose owner hosted a fundraiser for Clinton. Pizza + Clinton supporters = pedophilia. Of course.
When I heard weeks ago about the sick hoax, I feared fake news about fake kids would morph into a real threat to real kids. Driving home Sunday, we were stopped a block away by police; officers fanned out around Comet with guns drawn.
Inside, a North Carolina man had come to “self-investigate,” armed with an assault rifle. He fired a few shots, broke a lock, and spent 45 minutes searching for dungeons and hidden rooms that don’t exist.
Mercifully, it ended without injury, but think what could have happened. Undaunted by the man’s failure to unearth evidence, #Pizzagate theorists swiftly claimed police hiding the sex slaves staged the scene with an actor. The son and chief of staff of Donald Trump’s national security adviser pick tweeted that “until #Pizzagate proven to be false, it will remain a story.”
It’s impossible to prove that lies about Clinton swayed the election. But it’s also impossible to ignore the influence of salacious clickbait that confirms our worst fears without actually being true.
An analysis by BuzzFeed News found that in the last three months of the campaign the 20 top-performing false political stories from hoax and ultra-partisan sites generated 1.3 million more shares on Facebook than the top 20 election stories from leading media, including The New York Times. A follow-up BuzzFeed survey by Ipsos tested actual headlines and found they fooled readers three out of four times. Shown titles like “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump” and “FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide” (both lies), Republicans rated them accurate 84 percent of the time; Democrats agreed 71 percent of the time.
We can blame online purveyors of fake news — spiritual descendants of supermarket tabloids — who merrily profit off advertising thanks to readers clicking and sharing nonesense. We can blame the Supreme Court for moving to free-speech absolutism, even when speech is knowingly false. We can blame social media companies like Facebook and search engines like Google, who don’t have an easy algorithm to spot fake news and haven’t done much to remove it and who don’t feel it’s their job to vet truth, says New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen.
We can fault ourselves for consuming news in echo chambers and believing whatever we want to. And we can blame poor social studies education for people’s inability to distinguish fact from fiction.
“People who get news from Facebook or Google have no basis for determining whether it’s true,” says Harvard Law professor Noah Feldman. The risk is that fake news, cheap to invent, can supplant real news, which is costly. (Reminder: Pay for news so journalists can gather and check facts).
I wouldn’t dismiss an argument from far-right and far-left skeptics: George W. Bush lied about weapons of mass destruction and the press bought in, so why trust government or mainstream media?
It’s hard to put that genie back in the bottle. What’s more, the president-elect has praised conspiracy theorist Alex Jones (who says the Sandy Hook massacre and 9/11 never happened, and claims Hillary Clinton rapes and murders kids). Trump himself has peddled conspiracies — that Barack Obama was born in Africa, that thousands of New Jersey Muslims celebrated 9/11, that Ted Cruz’s father was linked to JFK’s assassination. We can hope getting daily White House briefings will challenge his distrust of news and willingness to buy wild theories without evidence. As president, he has a responsibility to disavow lies like #Pizzagate that endanger people’s lives. and we in the media must start rebuilding trust by showing proof every day of the mile-wide divide between fact and fiction.Indira A.R. Lakshmanan is a Washington columnist. Follow her on Twitter @Indira_L.