On December 4, 2016, 28-year-old Edgar Maddison Welch drove a couple hundred miles to a Washington DC pizza restaurant with an assault rifle and demanded to see the hidden underground tunnels where the children were being kept for a child sex ring with ties to Hillary Clinton and ritual Satanism. He fired three shots during the course of his attempt to “self-investigate,” but thankfully nobody was injured. The well-intentioned man had become enraged after familiarizing himself with a conspiracy theory perpetuated in numerous YouTube videos which all seemed to tell a similar story about the pizza restaurant, Comet Ping Pong.
The videos claimed that words like “pizza” and “cheese” were undeniable code words for a pedophile’s preferred kind of child. When the owners of the pizza joint wanted to hold a Clinton Campaign fundraiser, and asked Clinton Campaign Chair John Podesta to prepare some of the food as a special feature for the event, Podesta’s response – revealed in leaked e-mails – was irrefutably incriminating evidence that he liked young boys: “I’ll do a pasta.”
Pizzagate was an example of “fake news” having unintended consequences. Fake news was a relatively new phenomenon that increasingly emerged during the 2016 Presidential Campaign. After the incident at Comet Ping Pong, Michael Flynn Jr., son of Trump’s disgraced National Security Advisor, tweeted his continued belief in the legitimacy of the conspiracy theory:
Fake news originated from numerous sources during the 2016 Campaign. Some, like the “pizzagate” story, began on alt-right chat rooms and took on a life of their own as different people added to them with YouTube videos laying out their own theories or new clear connections that they were finding to unrelated facts and information. Some fake news stories came from sketchy entrepreneurs in America and abroad who saw that outrageous news about Hillary and Trump was an easy guarantee of web clicks that they could use to sell advertising and make a buck. Some fake news was created and distributed for partisan purposes. And some appears to have been generated and spread with the blessing of the Kremlin in hopes of keeping Hillary Clinton from gaining the Presidency. Many of these stories got traction through social media – particularly Facebook and Twitter, as the incendiary but false headlines generated titillation and outrage and were shared widely.
For whatever one may think of Donald Trump, he is an absolute master at powerful branding – at bluntly redefining things and making those definitions stick through constant repetition. And he has now done that by redefining the term “fake news” and co-opting it for his own use.
Many have long since forgotten what “fake news” meant a whopping four months ago. Now the term is used to constantly call into question the legitimacy of any news story – from reputable journalists – in which undesirable information about the President is brought to the surface. The new definition successfully shifts attention away from blatant fabrications that had successfully helped Trump win the election, and redirects attention to cultivate an overblown degree of skepticism toward the mainstream news media.
Questioning the information we are getting right now is legitimate. The mainstream press see the wellbeing of the nation in general and the sanctity of the First Amendment in particular – their bread and butter – to be under threat, and many are accordingly a bit concerned. They are operating in a crazy-making new landscape in which different supposedly credible representatives of the Trump Administration give them conflicting information, the President is openly hostile toward the press and changes his firmly stated positions on issues sometimes in the course of a week, and rumors and hysteria are flying throughout the government and the nation in general. In such an atmosphere – combined with the already existing 24-hour news cycle where it is important to be first with a story – getting the story right is not always easy, but I believe that journalists are generally doing their best, and are not intentionally trying to present anything “fake.”
What is dangerous about the term “fake news” is the inherent subtext that comes with it: do not trust facts, do not trust your own eyes and ears, do not trust traditional news sources. The only source of information upon whom you can confidently and consistently rely is the President himself.
Demonization of the news media has been used successfully in the past by other authoritarian leaders to help achieve their ends: Pol Pot, Mao Tse Tung, Fidel Castro, Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad, Joseph Stalin, Vladimir Lenin, Vladimir Putin, Benito Mussolini, and Adolf Hitler. The latter branded the media the “lügenpresse,” or “lying press.”
“We must challenge this statement and this sentiment that the news media is the enemy of the American people. This sentiment may be the greatest threat to democracy in my lifetime.”
William H. McRaven
Retired Four-Star Admiral/former Navy SEAL who organized and oversaw the operation that killed Osama bin Laden
Washington Post – 2/24/17
Is the press “the enemy of the American people,” as President Trump asserted last week? Absolutely not. At a time like this, it is essential that we support the news outlets that we consider the most credible and accurate, so that they can continue steadfastly doing their work that is so vital to our democracy, without the threat of being hamstrung or worse by a President who does not always like what the facts reveal about him.
– rob rünt