Fake news will be the death of us if we don’t do something about it.
As a “free” society, we have been arguing about the rights and consequent responsibilities of our media since someone first penned their first pamphlet sometime in the late 18th century. Once radio took off and we decided that the airwaves across which radio stations broadcast belonged to the public, we tried to find a way to make sure that the people enjoying the privilege of using those airwaves provided a valuable service to the public. Thus, we saw the passage of the Mayflower Doctrine in 1941, which required radio broadcasters to “provide full and equal opportunity for the presentation to the public all sides of public issues.”
Even back then, such regulations did not sit well with a segment of the public who believed that the Mayflower Doctrine amounted to a violation of the First Amendment. The Mayflower Doctrine was repealed in 1948 and replaced a year later with the Fairness Doctrine, which survived until 1987. Despite being upheld as constitutional by an 8-0 Supreme Court decision in 1969, the Reagan Administration decided that the Fairness Doctrine was violative of the first amendment, and repealed it.
Then, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 allowed for cross ownership of media. This opened the door for the end of media as we know it, as on October 7th of that year, a beast slouched onto our cable lineups and flickered to life as Fox News, a channel dedicated to the official use of dishonesty in order to perpetuate the conservative political message without that pesky nuisance of offering a counterargument.
It was arguably cable TV’s first echo chamber.
In the ensuing years, “fake” news became more and more normal, and more and more influential, as our nation’s “official” media decided to take a permanent vacation from performing journalism. Fox News infected our national consciousness with flashy lies and self-righteously indignant screamers who worked tirelessly to wear us down.
Fast forward twenty years, and the freeform, lawless frontier of the Internet has seamlessly meshed with the dissemination of Fox-News-style political bullshit as well as social media, and what we were left with were people breathlessly sharing such easily debunked stories such as the Hillary Clinton campaign paying provocateurs to infiltrate Trump rallies to tussle with Trump supporters.
One of the more egregious fake news stories of the 2016 dealt with a Washington D.C. pizza parlor called Comet Ping Pong.
Here’s a brief rundown of how the Right Wing Bullshit Machine nearly resulted in the deaths of innocent people on a cold December night in Washington D.C.:
Comet Ping Pong owner, James Alefantis, was once in a relationship with David Brock, a former conservative operative who came to his senses some years ago, and helped create media watchdog site MediaMatters.org. Both David Brock and James Alefantis were supporters of Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president.
From that, right-wing operatives developed a convoluted conspiracy theory that had Comet Ping Pong the epicenter of a vast child sex trafficking ring.
Various Trump supporters have taken to social media to push this conspiracy theory to the point of saturation. Not an opportunity is wasted to portray Comet Ping Pong and its owner, as well as Hillary Clinton and John Podesta, as these super villain characters engaged in an horrific crime.
On Sunday, December 4, an armed gunman walked into Comet Ping Pong, determined to “investigate” these accusations for himself. Terrified customers fled the restaurant, and when Edgar Madison Welch pointed a weapon at an employee, the employee was able to flee and notify the police.
First, it’s important to remember that the story of Comet Ping Pong is not true. It was entirely fabricated in the fake news universe that has erupted in recent years with the sole intent of losing the 2016 presidential election for Hillary Clinton.
Perpetrators of fake news and Fox News, along with Breitbart, are prime culprits in the Bullshit Business, and have worked relentlessly to rile up the easily agitated nationalists, jingoists, and xenophobes that populate the darkest, dankest corners of Illiterate America. Entities like Fox News and Breitbart do this purely for political gain, but the consequences are all too real, as patrons of Comet Ping Pong found out when their meals were interrupted by a denizen of Illiterate America who failed to engage his frontal lobe and determine on his own that the story that influenced him to terrorize innocent diners was entirely made up.
What if Edgar Madison Welch had walked in, guns blazing? What if there was an armed customer already in the establishment when Welch walked in, weapon at the ready? Would Sharif Silmi, his wife, and his three young children have been innocent victims in a gunfight inspired by political and corporate newswhores who have no qualms triggering the violent impulses of our nation’s lesser inhibited psychopaths in order to win some ultimately meaningless political victories?
Will we ever regain our goddamned senses and demand that our media act responsibly while enjoying the blessings of constitutionally protected freedoms? When someone ultimately dies as the result of the fake news industry, will we and our media take a hard look at how far we’ve strayed from being good curators of truth, or will we, as we did in the wake of Sandy Hook, simply respond by encouraging more dishonesty from our media?
Let’s hope we don’t have to wait for a body count as a result of fake news to have that discussion.