WASHINGTON—It was an event that many of us in the news business have feared would happen: A deranged gunman, fueled by passion based on a series of fake news stories, came to the nation’s capital with an assault rifle, entered a place of business and fired.
The gunman, Edgar Maddison Welch of Salisbury, North Carolina, was quickly arrested after shooting into the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria three times. He told police after he was arrested that he came to Washington to investigate reports of a child sex-trafficking ring being run out of the pizzeria by Hillary Clinton and her campaign manager John Podesta.
The fake news about Comet Ping Pong had been circulating on social media since before the election, with increasingly shrill stories seemingly attributed to reliable media sources. The stories got so far out of control that one site, Reddit, banned any discussion of what had become known as “pizzagate” from its forums.
But that wasn’t the only incident based on this fake news story.
Up the street, another pizza shop, Terasol, was experiencing a similar flood of activity. And, like the owners of Comet Ping Pong, the owner of Terasol was receiving dozens of death threats directed at his family, his employees and him.
Again, they were all based on the conspiracy theory that Clinton and Podesta were running a human trafficking operation out of the shop. The fake news led to assaults on one of Terasol’s employees, who was seriously injured.
At this point, the Washington, D.C., police and the FBI are investigating the people who were sufficiently riled up to begin attacking innocent people. But other than the arrest of Welsh, who is being held without bond, there has been little other official action.
It’s important to note there are plenty of people, irrationally agitated about one issue or another, who come to Washington in an attempt to make a point, attack the White House or perhaps fly an aircraft and land on the National Mall, for example. But the motivation by fake news is something new. Now, social media is playing directly into the hands of those who benefit in some way from the dissention.
As it turns out, a lot of fake news is distributed intentionally because it brings some benefit to the originator. That benefit may be the financial gains from clickbait, to influence an election or simply to find out even better methods of causing social disruption.