Conservatives have tried to dismiss concerns that have arisen about fake news since the 2016 election, suggesting that liberals are simply misinterpreting satire. But the phenomenon of false claims that have spread on the internet has had real-life consequences.
Since the 2016 election, there has been widespread focus on the danger of fake news and its impact on society. Responding to concerns that intentionally misleading stories were dramatically outperforming real news, companies like Facebook and Google announced half-measures to stop the reach of these fake news stories and the websites that share them, even as those sites continue to profit from Google’s advertising network. Meanwhile, conservatives have dismissed concerns about fake news, saying the content in question is “satire and parody” and that use of the phrase is “nonsense.” Yet they have also invoked the term in an attempt to delegitimize real reporting and confuse people about the actual meaning. In fact, fake news is a real problem, and its spread has had drastic real-life consequences.
Over the last few months, fake news purveyors have targeted multiple people with smears, lies, and false claims. These fallacies have spurred harassment, harmed reputations, had negative financial impacts, and almost yielded a body count. As fake news spreads around the globe and continues to draw Facebook clicks, it is likely more people will be harmed unless further steps are taken to curb its dissemination.
Fake News Purveyors Pushed Fake News Story That Clinton Campaign Ran Pedophilia Ring At Restaurant. Perhaps the most well-known fake news story is “Pizzagate,” the conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton’s campaign trafficked children through a Washington, D.C., pizzeria. The conspiracy theory started on fringe Twitter pages and blogs before reaching fake news-purveying websites and their Facebook pages. As the conspiracy theory spread through those websites, the owner of the restaurant and its staff started receiving threats via social media, including one message that said, “I will kill you personally.” Other businesses in the area were also targeted.
Conspiracy Theory Inspired Man To Fire Shots Inside The Restaurant. On December 4, a man from North Carolina drove up to the pizzeria, walked into the restaurant with an assault rifle, pointed the rifle “in the direction of a restaurant employee,” and then fired one or more shots, The Washington Post reported. According to the Post, “The incident caused panic, with several businesses going into lockdown as police swarmed the neighborhood.” No one was hurt, and after being arrested, the man told police he went to “self-investigate” the conspiracy. The shooter reportedly was a fan of Alex Jones’ conspiracy theory website Infowars, which had also run with the fake news story.
The Conspiracy Theory Is Still Being Pushed. The conspiracy theory has not completely faded since the shooting. Restaurants in other cities have also come under threat due to the false claims, as has another pizzeria in Washington, D.C. Some media figures and fake news purveyors continue to lend credibility to and push the conspiracy theory.
Model And Photographer Laura Hunter Sues Fake News Purveyors For Stealing Her Identity. Laura Hunter, a photographer and model, was forced to sue fake news-purveying websites Conservative Daily Post and Conservative Daily Review after they stole her identity. Fake news purveyors portrayed her as an “ardent supporter of President Donald Trump” to push stories with “anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and very pro-Trump views,” even though she told CBS she was “a bit more to the liberal side.” According to the complaint filed by Hunter, fake news purveyors used her likeness for news articles and a Facebook page that has nearly a million followers. The Facebook page’s biography of Hunter was also fake.
Hunter Was Harassed Online For Filing Her Lawsuit. While these websites have stopped using her identity since the lawsuit, the impact of their misuse has persisted. According to CBS, “fans of Hunter’s online persona got angry, and came after her,” and Hunter said, “They go ballistic, and ‘how dare you,’ and ‘she is such a wonderful woman and you are just riding her coattails.’”
Muslim-American Activist Linda Sarsour Helped Organize The Women's March. Linda Sarsour, an American Muslim, was one of the organizers of the January 21 Women's March. Sarsour, who is the executive director of the nonprofit Arab American Association of New York and co-founder of Muslims for Ferguson, was deemed a “Champion of Change” by the Obama administration and acted as a surrogate for Bernie Sanders during his presidential campaign.
Fake News Purveyors Ran With And Expanded On Right-Wing Media Smears. Following the Women’s March, Sarsour was the target of a widespread smear campaign that started on right-wing websites that soon spread to fake news purveyors. The Daily Caller, with almost no evidence, claimed that Sarsour’s family had ties to terrorists and that she had met with an “ex-Hamas operative.” The Gateway Pundit, a fringe blog that has spread fake news itself, claimed that “Sarsour is pro-Sharia law with ties to Hamas.” Following those reports, fake news purveyors began to post multiple articles taking claims from The Daily Caller and The Gateway Pundit to smear Sarsour, along with mischaracterizing a photo of Sarsour showing solidarity with students attacked by an anti-Muslim blogger. Fake news purveyors ran with articles claiming Sarsour “wants Sharia law in America” and “sen[t]” a “signal to ISIS.”
Sarsour Said The Attacks Caused Her To Be Harassed On Twitter. The Huffington Post reported in January that Sarsour was “relentlessly trolled on Twitter since the Washington march,” although she noted that her “‘Twitter mentions are now overpowered by love from celebrities, high-profile activists, faith leaders, and ordinary people.’”
Following An Arrest For Civil Disobedience, Sarsour Was Again Attacked By Fake News Purveyors. After Sarsour was arrested in March for “civil disobedience” for protesting outside Trump International Hotel in New York City, fake news purveyors relaunched their Islamophobic smears of her, again calling her a “terrorist sympathizer” and “a supporter of Shariah law.”
Former NSC Staffer Pens Piece Explaining That Her Resignation Was Due To Trump’s Policies. Rumana Ahmed, a former staffer at the National Security Council (NSC), wrote in a February 23 piece for The Atlantic that she quit the NSC eight days into the Trump administration because “I could no longer stay and work for an administration that saw me and people like me not as fellow citizens, but as a threat.”
Fake News Purveyors Baselessly Attacked Ahmed As Not Qualified And A Spy. Following the publication of the piece, Ahmed was targeted by fake news purveyors, which baselessly claimed that Ahmed was a “liar” who stayed under Trump to “spy” on him and “got her marching orders from … [Obama aide] Ben Rhodes.” Fake news purveyors also questioned Ahmed’s qualifications to be in the NSC and suggested she and other Muslims “should take responsibility for the fear their religion has inflicted on this country.”
Fake News Purveyors’ Smears Reached Right-Wing Outlet Weekly Standard. The smears then broke out of the fringe fake news-purveying websites, reaching the conservative Weekly Standard, which said that the “basic premise” of Ahmed’s story “doesn’t pass the smell test.” The piece falsely claimed that Ahmed was a “political appointee in the Obama White House” who was given a “civil service position” right before Obama left office. As The Atlantic noted in response, “Ahmed held a term appointment that was not set to expire until the summer of 2018,” and her type of appointment “‘would not ordinarily be described as a political appointment.’”
Megyn Kelly: The Former Fox And Incoming NBC Anchor Had Her Safety Threatened Due To Fake News Attacks
Megyn Kelly Has Repeatedly Butted Heads With Donald Trump Since Mid-2015. Megyn Kelly, the former Fox News anchor and incoming anchor at NBC, got into a feud with now-President Donald Trump when she questioned him about his comments about women at a GOP primary debate in August 2015. He characterized her questioning by saying that she had “blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her whatever.” He has also called her “not very good or professional” and “crazy,” among numerous other attacks.
Fake News Purveyors Pushed Numerous False Stories About Kelly. Fake news purveyors published numerous fake news stories about Kelly in seeming support of Trump. One fake news story published last August from purveyor End The Fed, which falsely claimed that Fox had fired Kelly for being “a closet liberal who actually wants Hillary to win,” wound up trending on Facebook, for which the website was forced to apologize. Other fake news purveyors also ran with versions of the story, calling her a “traitor.”
Kelly Continues To Be Target Of Fake News Purveyors. Fake news purveyors continue to go after Kelly. Right Wing News and TruthFeed claimed in March that her replacement on Fox, Tucker Carlson, is “humiliating” her and that she is “about as likable as a 48-hour flu.” Another fake news purveyor in February called her a “pretend journalist.”
Kelly Said She And Her Kids Have Armed Security Because Of Threats. Kelly in December said that Trump and his social media director needed to get Trump supporters to stop harassing her online, saying, “It’s that far corner of the internet that really enjoys nastiness and threats and unfortunately there is a man who works for Donald Trump whose job it is to stir these people up and that man needs to stop doing that. His name is Dan Scavino.” According to Mediaite, Kelly has “had to deal with security threats due to all of the hate online and she and her children have to constantly be under the protection of armed guards.”
Fake News Purveyors Falsely Claim Whoopi Goldberg Attacked Wife Of Fallen Navy SEAL. Fake news purveyor The Underground Report published a fake news story claiming that after Trump saluted a widow of a Navy SEAL killed in combat during his February 28 address to Congress, TV host Whoopi Goldberg said that the widow “was just looking for attention. These military widows love their 15 minutes in the spotlight.” The claim spread among other fake news purveyors and was debunked by Snopes.
Goldberg Said The Fake News Story Endangered Her Family. During the March 13 edition of ABC’s The View, Goldberg said the fake news story “endangered my family’s life, it endangered my life.” She threatened the originator of the fake news story with a lawsuit, saying, “If you’re going to involve someone in fake news, you should have their permission,” and adding, “You cost me money because I had to protect my family.”
Chrystia Freeland: Canada’s Foreign Minister Was The Target Of Russian Fake News That Eventually Reached Canada's Newspapers
Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland Was The Target Of A Misleading Russian-Based Claim About Her Grandfather’s Nazi Past. Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s minister of foreign affairs, was accused of covering up the fact that her Ukrainian grandfather was the editor of a Nazi newspaper. But Freeland's family members were the ones who reportedly had released the archives of her grandfather’s material in the first place. The false claim, according to a European Union task force, came from “pro-Kremlin disinformation” and “fake media stories that support Russia’s policies,” likely in response to Freeland’s criticism of Russian aggression in Ukraine. According to Maclean's, the story began in “the Moscow blogosphere” and was “cut-and-pasted from one website to another,” before it eventually reached Canada’s Globe and Mail.