On December 4, 2017, 28-year old Edgar Maddison Welch, of Salisbury, N.C. was arrested after he terrorized customers of Comet Ping Pong, a pizza restaurant in Washington, DC.
“When police arrived,” NBC News reported (Mar. 24), “Welch admitted driving to Washington with three loaded weapons, responding to a baseless internet conspiracy claim, known as ‘Pizzagate,’ that the …restaurant was involved in a child pornography ring run by Democrats.”
Why did Welch believe such a crazy story?
He heard it on InfoWars.
Alex Jones, conspiracy theorist extraordinaire, has millions of online viewers who are only too eager to drop out and tune in to the latest snake oil that Jones sells as legitimate, under-the-radar conspiracies that the mainstream press “doesn’t want you to know.”
(In case any of Jones’ listeners are reading this, for the record, there has never been a child pornography ring run by Democrats or Hillary Clinton anywhere.)
“Last year,” The New York Times writes (May 24), “InfoWars posted a video on its website with the headline ‘Idaho Yogurt Maker Caught Importing Migrant Rapists,’ falsely claiming that a Chobani factory in Twin Falls, Idaho, that employs refugees was connected to the 2016 sexual assault of a child. The charges fueled an uproar in the town, and Chobani sued Mr. Jones. As part of a settlement, Mr. Jones admitted on his radio show that he had ‘mischaracterized’ Chobani and retracted the false material.”
Last month, Jones and InfoWars have been sued in Texas over his allegation that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting – which resulted in the deaths of 20 children as well as 6 adult staff members – was a hoax and that the aggrieved parents are “crisis actors.”
“In three separate lawsuits,” The Times continues, “the most recent was filed on Wednesday in Superior Court in Bridgeport, Conn. — the families of eight Sandy Hook victims as well as an F.B.I. agent who responded to the shooting seek damages for defamation. The families allege in one suit … that Mr. Jones and his colleagues ‘persistently perpetuated a monstrous, unspeakable lie: that the Sandy Hook shooting was staged, and that the families who lost loved ones that day are actors who faked their relatives’ deaths.’ ”
Who would believe, much less support, such a contemptible story?
Donald J. Trump.
“On his show last year, Mr. Jones called himself and his listeners ‘the operating system of Trump.’ Later he said, ‘I’m making it safe for everybody else to speak out just like Trump’s doing, on a much bigger scale.’
“Mr. Trump has also echoed InfoWars’ false claims that Hillary Clinton benefited from the votes of millions of illegal immigrants in the election [completely false], and repeated InfoWars’ bogus charge that the news media covers up terrorist attacks.”
Trump, absent any evidence, has touted a variety of conspiracies, among them: that President Obama was not a U.S. citizen, false; “Obama had my wires tapped,” false; “The Democrats colluded with Russia,” Pants on Fire; that Ted Cruz’s father was connected to President Kennedy assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, Pants on Fire ; and most recently, that the FBI planted a “spy” inside the Trump campaign.
That last scheme was debunked yesterday when, after a meeting of top Democrats and Republicans with Justice and FBI officials, it was reported, “There is no evidence to support any allegation that the FBI or any intelligence agency placed a spy in the Trump campaign or otherwise failed to follow appropriate procedures and protocols.”
But here’s the most despicable part of Alex Jones’ attack on Sandy Hook victims.
“Sandy Hook families have been followed, videotaped and harassed by people demanding ‘proof’ that their loved ones died. Monuments to the slain children in Newtown have been stolen and defaced. An Alex Jones devotee went to prison last year after phoning and emailing Leonard Pozner, [the father of one of the victims], with death threats…”
“…without truth, and a principled fidelity to truth and to shared facts,” Republican Senator Jeff Flake said on the floor of the Senate, “our democracy will not last. … the truth needs as many allies as possible.”
And yet, false information has become the weapon of choice by some conservatives. Silence in the face of blatant lies is another.
Regarding the latest legal action brought against Alex Jones and InfoWars reported by The Times, “Wednesday’s suit follows twin defamation lawsuits filed in Texas in April by the parents of two other victims — Mr. Heslin, and Ms. De La Rosa and Mr. Pozner. Mr. Jones did not respond to requests for comment. After the Texas lawsuits were filed last month, he posted a 10-minute videotaped response suggestive of how his positions on the event shifted. ‘I questioned the P.R. and the talking points that surrounded the Sandy Hook massacre,’ he said. ‘But very quickly I began to believe that the massacre happened, despite the fact that the public doubted it.’
“And yet in an earlier video on his website, titled ‘Alex Jones Final Statement on Sandy Hook,’ he says: ‘If children were lost in Sandy Hook, my heart goes out to each and every one of those parents, and the people that say they’re parents that I see on the news. The only problem is, I’ve watched a lot of soap operas, and I’ve seen actors before.’ ”
After the Cambridge Analytica scandal, social media site Facebook has begun to take action and speak more forcefully about what we can all do to “fight False News.” In a full-page ad in several national newspapers yesterday, they write:
“We are taking action by removing fake accounts and working with fact-checkers. You can learn what to trust with our tips to spot false news.
- “Be skeptical of headlines. False news stories often have catchy headlines in all caps with exclamation points. If shocking claims in the headline sound unbelievable, they probably are.
- “Look closely at the link. A phony or look-alike link may be a warning sign of false news. Many false news sites mimic authentic news sources by making small changes to the link. You can go to the site and compare the link to established sources.
- “Investigate the source. Ensure that the story is written by a source that you trust with a reputation for accuracy. If the story comes from an unfamiliar organization, check their ‘About’ section to learn more.
- “Watch for unusual formatting. Many false news sties have misspellings or awkward layouts. Read carefully if you see these signs.
- “Consider the photos. False news stories often contain manipulated images or videos. Sometimes the photo may be authentic but taken out of context. You can search for the photo or image to verify where it came from.
- “Inspect the dates. False news stories may contain timelines that make no sense or event dates that have been altered.
- “Check the evidence. Check the author’s sources to confirm that they are accurate. Lack of evidence or reliance on unnamed experts may indicate a false news story.
- “Look at other reports. If no other news source is reporting the same story, it may indicate that the story is false. If the story is reported by multiple sources you trust, it’s more likely to be true.
- “Is the story a joke? Sometimes false news stories can be hard to distinguish from humor or satire. Check whether the source is known for parody, and whether the story’s details and tone suggest it may be just for fun.
- “Some stories are intentionally false. Think critically about the stories you read, and only share news that you know to be credible.”
After the 1929 stock market crash, journalist Walter Lippmann wrote, “A demoralized people is one in which the individual has become isolated. He trusts nobody and nothing, not even himself. He believes nothing, except the worst of everybody and everything. He sees only confusion in himself and conspiracies in other men.”
Lippmann “…argued that modern mass communication created ‘pseudo environments’ that thwarted the ability of the average citizen to make political judgments based on facts.”
This democracy is only as good as our allegiance to facts and truth. If we, as citizens, do not stand up for the truth, or worse, if we remain silent, we are lost.