The Real Problem with Fake News

Last Sunday on the CBS News program 60 Minutes, Scott Pelley spoke with House Speaker Paul Ryan. One exchange caught my attention.

ryan-pelley-60-minutes

Pelley: Trump tweeted, in the last week or so, that he had actually “…won the popular vote, if you deduct the millions who voted illegally.” Do you believe that?

Ryan tried to dismiss this with a smile and suppressed laugh. “I don’t know. I’m not really focused on these things.”

Pelley: Wait a minute. Wait a minute. You have an opinion on whether millions of Americans voted illegally.

Ryan: I have no way of backing that up. I have no knowledge of such things.

Pelley: You don’t believe that—

Ryan: … it doesn’t matter to me. He won the election.

It should matter, Mr. Speaker.

We currently live in a time where facts don’t matter to far too many people; where a lie – repeated endlessly on social media – is accepted as truth. The danger in this no longer sits on the sidelines.

On November 27, NPR ran a story about a pizza establishment in Washington, D.C. that was the victim of a political fake news story.

Owner James Alefantis received death threats and accusations, on a variety of social media sites, for a story that claimed that Hillary Clinton and campaign manager John Podesta were running a child molestation ring out of the back of his restaurant, Comet Ping Pong.

Flash forward to Sunday, December 4.

Edgar Maddison Welch of Salisbury, N.C. was arrested by police and charged with assault with a dangerous weapon.

As reported on CNN (Dec. 5), “ ‘During a post arrest interview this evening, the suspect revealed that he came to the establishment to self-investigate ‘Pizza Gate’ (a fictitious online conspiracy theory), the police department said in a statement. …

“The owner and employees said they were repeatedly threatened on social media.

“Eyewitness Sharif Silmi,” CNN reports, “was at the restaurant with his wife and three children — ages 7,9 and 12, when the suspect walked in.

“ ‘He walked right past us holding a shotgun, when we realized what was going on we gathered our young ones and started moving toward the exit,’ …

“Silmi, who lives in Maryland, told CNN he and his family are Muslim and that he blamed those who were spreading ‘false rumors [about Comet Ping Pong] online. They put our children’s lives in danger today.’ ”

But here’s another unsettling part of this story.

Michael G. Flynn, son of retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, who has been tapped by President-elect Donald Trump to be his national security advisor, tweeted the following, presumably after Welch’s arrest:

“Until #Pizzagate proven to be false, it’ll remain a story. The left seems to forget #PodestaEmails and the many ‘coincidences’ tied to it.”

Michael G Flynn (@mflynnJR) December 5, 2016

So now, in the questionable wisdom of Mr. Flynn, journalists and others have to prove that a story is false, before it can be claimed as actually false. That’s backwards journalism!

Here’s what’s worse.

Flynn’s father, Gen. Flynn, Sr., sent out this tweet on November 3. While there is no specific mention of Comet Ping Pong, he’s clearly engaging in spreading false information:

U decide – NYPD Blows Whistle on New Hillary Emails: Money Laundering, Sex Crimes w Children, etc…MUST READ!

General Flynn (@GenFlynn) November 3, 2016

Gen. Flynn credits True Pundit as the credible source for the story. True Pundit is the National Inquirer of exaggerated, phony, and outright false information.

If this was some careless tweet sent by a campaign operative that would be one thing, but for a man, who has been tapped to become the next national security advisor, to pass along false information is reckless.

On November 27, NPR followed up on the source of Trump’s claim that “millions … voted illegally” as discussed by Pelley and Ryan:

“Trump’s unfounded claim appears to have originated with the website Infowars and radio host Alex Jones, who reported that 3 million people voted illegally, citing flawed evidence. Jones frequently promotes conspiracy theories, including a false story in 2015 that President Obama was planning to use Special Forces to impose martial law in Texas that got traction with the state’s governor for a time. Jones has also said the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., was ‘fake.’

“Trump has appeared on Jones’ radio show and praised him. ‘Your reputation is amazing. I will not let you down,’ Trump told him during the campaign.”

On November 28, Watergate Journalist Carl Bernstein weighed-in on Trump’s claim on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360:

“…if Richard Nixon had a Twitter account, it wouldn’t be as paranoid as what Trump is putting out there. He is living in a fact-free universe. And it ought to be very concerning to all of us, especially Republicans. That at this point in the transition process, he is spreading this kind of misinformation, disinformation that’s spread on fake news sites, et cetera, and that the president-elect of the United States is trafficking in lies.

“This is a huge problem, and the press ought to be concerned about it,” Bernstein added.

“You think he knows it’s not true,” Cooper asked, “but he’s still tweeting it?”

“If he doesn’t know that it’s not true, it’s even worse,” Bernstein said.

So now we have the next president not only citing fake news but spreading that news to millions of people who need to be able to trust what the president says.

On 60 Minutes, Pelley followed up with Speaker Ryan.

“But how, we asked, does he negotiate with a man whose word, or tweets, cannot always be believed?”

“Look,” Ryan began, “… he’s basically giving voice to a lot of people who have felt that they were voiceless. … who cares what he tweeted… if we fix this country’s big problems?”

Two problems, Mr. Ryan: First, some of the “voiceless” like Welch are criminally acting on fake news; second, the end should never justify the means.

President-elect Trump appears to be using false information to structure policy. And his potential national security advisor contributes by spreading the same nonsense. That’s not just irresponsible, it’s wrong.

However, there’s a more serious question surrounding fake news: How many more “pizzagates” are waiting in the wings?

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