(Originally published by Alaska Commons on January 15, 2017.)
Several weeks ago, a man wielding a rifle opened fire in Comet Ping Pong, a Washington D.C. pizzeria.
No one was injured, but when accosted by police the man claimed he was “self-investigating” an online conspiracy theory. Specifically, the claim that the pizza joint was the “hub of an international Satanic child sex abuse cabal hosted by powerful Democrats,” including Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
In a press release issued shortly after the incident, police stated that this conspiracy along with several others inspired the assault on the restaurant.
Normally, I would chalk this behavior up to the work of a lone wingnut. I’ve spent the better part of 20 years in the world of conspiracy and alternative news.
Typically, your average conspiracy theorist will spend numerous hours researching both sides of a fantastic claim before nailing their colors to the mast on it. We all know those websites and those people who ascribe to the outlandish nonsense they perpetuate. No, I am not talking about the folks who think that the ancient megaliths are not the work of human hands, but extraterrestrial engineering.
Frankly those folks are on par with our Anchorage’s own local lovable wingnut, Dustin Darden.
Believing that the pyramids are the creations of little green men is no more dangerous than the arguments for the veracity of that claim. The worst outcome of such a worldview is being thought of as nut, and the worst consequence of the implementation of that worldview is getting your own show on The History Channel.
The same cannot be said of individuals like Alex Jones or outlets like Breitbart, which perpetuate stories like the one that led a man to shoot up a pizzeria — and, more importantly, the people in it.
Claims surrounding the involvement of government officials in sex trafficking and pedophilia are nothing new. In fact, there have been several high-profile cases over the years, including that of Anneke Lucas, which grants credibility to allegations that American and European elites are involved in criminal misconduct. However, none of the individuals working to expose these heinous crimes have avoided going through the appropriate law enforcement and media channels, nor have they publicly called for the assassination — implicitly or explicitly — of those who are involved.
Instead the focus has been on exposing perpetrators as part of an effort to hold them accountable and bring them to justice.
However, (as demonstrated by the events at Comet Ping Pong), those efforts can be hindered by individuals or organizations who perpetuate “fake news” or propaganda.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum defines the latter as utilizing “techniques and strategies used in advertising, public relations, communications, and mass psychology. It simplifies complicated issues or ideology for popular consumption, is always biased, and is geared towards achieving a particular end.”
This stated purpose is what sets propaganda apart from actual news. The latter is geared towards informing the public about a subject, and engendering an informed opinion or response. The former uses facts in conjunction with spin or bias to shape public opinion and behavior about an individual, situation, or event. In other words, the use of media to manipulate the masses.
One would think that in the age of modern telecommunications that such Orwellian antics would be all but impossible. The internet makes information available 24/7 to anyone with access to a computer. The reality is that propaganda, like all other means of human communication, has adapted to the digital era. The availability of various sources makes it easy for the promulgators of propaganda to create entire networks of websites geared towards the perpetuation of their agendas and corresponding worldviews.
Anchorage Assemblywoman Amy Demboski is a recent example of the efficacy and pervasiveness of propaganda.
Several weeks ago, Demboski shared an article from alt-right alarmist website The Clarion Project alleging that a Wasilla electrician, Gregory Jones, was a supporter of the terrorist group Jamaat ul-Fuqra. The allegations turned out to be false, but not before creating scandal and placing Jones and his wife — both practicing Muslims — at risk of vigilante justice. The fact that Fox Business legitimized the fake news did not help.
This last concern was dismissed by Demboski supporters who claimed that websites like The Clarion Call are simply advising American citizens to be cautious and aware of the signs of terrorist activity. Great! I am all for citizen involvement in communal safety. Making baseless allegations that a middle-aged electrician is a terrorist mastermind with a compound hidden in the wilds of the arctic isn’t it.
If one is to combat propaganda, one needs to be able to discern it from actual news.
Facebook recently announced that it would begin flagging articles identified as being potentially fake, but consumers need to take it a step further. Vetting media outlets and their sources is the responsibility of whoever is using that service for information.
The era of implied trust between the news media and the masses is over.
Instead, citizens need to educate themselves on what to look for when deciding whether or not an outlet is providing accurate and trustworthy information.
Wynne Davis of NPR recently published an article listing several steps people can take in order to become media literate, and FactCheck.org has created a more in-depth outline for identifying fake news on their website. Without the proper vetting of media, one might end up sharing articles about how the moon landing was fake, Bill Clinton is a reptilian shape-shifter, and taking history lessons from this guy: