An armed shooter opened fire at a Washington, D.C., pizzeria in order to “self-investigate” a false conspiracy about the restaurant pushed by fake news websites and spread by fringe right-wing media outlets. Yet right-wing media figures have dismissed and downplayed the impact of fake news, calling it “satire and parody that liberals don't understand,” saying it is “in the eye of the beholder,” and claiming that concerns about fake news are “silly” and “nonsense.”
Fake News Just Caused An Active Shooter Situation In D.C.
A Fabricated Story Claiming That A D.C. Pizzeria Is A Child-Trafficking Hub Led To A Man With Gun Opening Fire In The Restaurant. Fake news articles alleging that the Washington, D.C., restaurant Comet Ping Pong was a hub for child trafficking were widely shared on social media after the pizzeria was mentioned in hacked emails from Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, that were released by WikiLeaks. As The New York Times reported, “The articles appeared on Facebook and on websites such as The New Nationalist and The Vigilant Citizen, with one headline blaring: ‘Pizzagate: How 4Chan Uncovered the Sick World of Washington’s Occult Elite.’” As a result, the owner of the restaurant and the staff started receiving a torrent of threats via social media, including one message that said, “I will kill you personally.” On December 4, a man walked into the restaurant with an assault rifle and fired “one or more shots,” which did not hit anyone, because he was trying to “self-investigate” the conspiracy theory. [The New York Times, 11/21/16; Media Matters, 11/22/16; The Washington Post, 12/4/16]
Conspiracy Spread Due To “Alt-Right” And Fringe Right-Wing Media. The Daily Beast noted that the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory “began proliferating on websites like 4chan and Reddit, especially a Reddit forum frequented by Trump supporters and the alt-right,” which is a movement made up of white nationalists and misogynists, along with the right-wing media website Breitbart. The outlet also noted that the shooter on “his Facebook account ... likes both InfoWars and its host Alex Jones,” who “published innumerable stories about Pizzagate.” [The Daily Beast, 12/4/16; Media Matters, 8/25/16]
Yet Right-Wing Media Figures Have Dismissed And Misrepresented Concerns About Fake News
Radio Host Rush Limbaugh: Fake News Is Simply “Satire And Parody That Liberals Don't Understand." Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh claimed that fake news has “been so blown out of proportion,” claiming it “largely” is “satire and parody that liberals don't understand because they don't have a sense of humor.” From the November 28 edition of Premiere Radio Networks’ The Rush Limbaugh Show:
RUSH LIMBAUGH (HOST): Now, this fake news business. Let me tell you why it’s even a factor, let me tell you why -- it’s the same thing I said here at the opening of the program, I don’t know what to believe in the mainstream media anymore. My instinct is to not believe any of it. And it’s their fault, they got this ball rolling.
I really -- fake news has been so blown out of proportion anyway. What it largely is, is satire and parody that liberals don't understand because they don't have a sense of humor, particularly if it's about them. You can't laugh at them, you can't mock them, you can't make fun of them like they can laugh at and mock and make fun of everybody else. [Premiere Radio Networks, The Rush Limbaugh Show, 11/28/16]
MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough: Media Looks “Silly” For Reporting On Fake News When They Wrongly Said Trump Couldn’t Win. MSNBC co-host Joe Scarborough called media “silly” for “talking about all these stories about fake news on Facebook.” Scarborough falsely conflated fake news with reporting from legitimate news organizations during the campaign that suggested Trump would not win the election, saying such reporting “looks like fake news because it was fake news.” From the November 29 edition of MSNBC’s Morning Joe:
MIKE BARNICLE: There’s a reason why people are going to Facebook for news, unfortunately. I really regret saying that, but you can't ignore the facts.
JOE SCARBOROUGH (CO-HOST): And Willie, how silly does the media look after the election talking about all these stories about fake news on Facebook, which drive me crazy --
MIKA BRZEZINSKI (CO-HOST): And doing a cross-country tour on how they got it wrong.
SCARBOROUGH: Despite the fact that, for most of America, the mainstream media has been reporting fake news over the past year and a half, because they have read every single day, “Donald Trump can't win.” The best and the brightest in the media profession, “Donald Trump can't win, he’s got a one percent chance of winning the nomination” --
BRZEZINSKI: “There’s no way.”
SCARBOROUGH: “Donald Trump can't win, he’s got a five percent peak, he can't get above 20 percent. Donald Trump can't win because of this. Donald Trump can't win because of that.” Now, that's the message they have read every day and seen on TV every day from the mainstream media, and to them, going up, following up on Mike’s point, that looks like fake news because it was fake news. They were wrong from the beginning. Their assumptions were wrong from the very beginning, and their assumptions polluted their reporting. [MSNBC, Morning Joe, 11/29/16]
Fox’s Sean Hannity: Concerns About Fake News Are “Nonsense.” On his radio show, Fox’s Sean Hannity criticized “nonsense” concerns about fake news, listing examples of alleged media bias against Trump to argue that established media outlets are “not news organizations,” but rather are the ones actually creating fake news. From the November 30 edition of Premiere Radio Networks’ The Sean Hannity Show:
SEAN HANNITY (HOST): All right, so fake news. Would fake news be a, quote, “news organization” feeding questions to Hillary? Would fake news be, let's see, a news organization going to the [Democratic National Committee] to question the other side like Donald Trump? Would fake news be allowing one candidate access to articles by The New York Times and Politico before they're actually sent out publicly to give them an opportunity to fix it the way they like it? Yeah, that's fake news. Would fake news be somebody moderating a debate, and then when Trump wins, they're crying on national television? “He won; I can't believe it.” Would fake news be John Harwood consulting the [Hillary] Clinton campaign, and he's a moderator, then brags how he got under Trump's skin in one of the debates? Yeah that's fake news. All this fake news nonsense. That's fake news. They're not news organizations. [Premiere Radio Networks, The Sean Hannity Show, 11/30/16]
Fox’s Steve Doocy: Fake News Is “In The Eye Of The Beholder.” In a segment on tools for identifying fake news, Fox co-host Steve Doocy asked, “What is fake news?” claiming, “It’s in the eye of the beholder.” Guest co-host Pete Hegseth claimed the election showed people do not want to be told “who the credible source is” and that they want to “go find” news sources on their own. From the December 2 edition of Fox News’ Fox & Friends:
STEVE DOOCY: (CO-HOST): What is -- so many people -- a couple of weeks ago, they said the reason that Hillary lost was because there was so much fake news put out there by the Trump supporters online. What is fake news?
KURT KNUTSSON: Well, that's at the heart of the question, right?
DOOCY: It's in the eye of the beholder.
KNUTSSON: Right, it is.
KNUTSSON: Here's the end of all of this. At the end of the day, it's going to boil down to, Facebook, everybody else, is going to have to make the decision that says, “You know what? We know who to trust. We know that these particular media organizations are credible,” and you'll start to see the Fox Newses of the world really populate Facebook.
PETE HEGSETH (CO-HOST): But is that not what this election is about? Don't tell me who the credible source is? Let me go find -- and it's interesting, as you pointed out, I don't know if we can put the elements on the screen. A lot of left-wing sites are not being labeled as biased. Of course they pass right-wing sites --
KNUTSSON: This isn't a left or right issue. I'll tell you what it is, 7,000 Stanford students right now in a study, 80 to 90 percent of them could not identify a credible news story online. Hello. Wake up call right there. [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 12/2/16]
But Right-Wing Media Have Pushed Fake News Themselves
ABC News: Fox’s Megyn Kelly Was Forced To Apologize For Repeating A Fake Story That Claimed Clinton Called Sanders Supporters A “Bucket Of Losers.” A fake news website attributed a fabricated quote to Clinton in October, claiming that she had called supporters of presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) a “bucket of losers” in a Goldman Sachs speech. The claim spread to Fox News, where Megyn Kelly reported the fake story and was later forced to apologize. Days later, Fox media analyst Howard Kurtz also attributed the fake quote to Clinton on his Sunday show, MediaBuzz. The false claim, noted ABC News, “is yet another example of fake news making real news headlines.” From the November 29 article:
When Marco Chacon first saw the phrase “bucket of losers” trending online, he said he “freaked out.”
It came from a story he had posted on his website about a supposed “secret transcript” of a Hillary Clinton speech given inside a Goldman Sachs boardroom, which claimed Clinton had called Bernie Sanders supporters a “bucket of losers.” Once posted, the story quickly went viral and was even picked up on Fox News.
It would have been the scoop of a lifetime, but the problem was Chacon had made the whole thing up.
“My hands were shaking, I was like, ‘This is ridiculous,’” he said. “I was thinking that, that had gone way too far.”
Fox News issued an on-air apology for reporting it.
NY Times: Conservative Blogs Like Gateway Pundit Promoted Fake News Story, Falsely Claiming That Paid Protesters Were Being Bused To Demonstrate Against Trump. Fake news websites spread a false claim from a Twitter user named Eric Tucker, who wrote after the election that “paid protesters” were “being bused to demonstrations against President-elect Donald J. Trump,” according to The New York Times. The Times noted that Tucker’s tweet spread on fake news websites and then right-wing media like Gateway Pundit and “throughout the conservative blogosphere.” President-elect Trump then “joined in promoting” the false claim. From the November 20 article:
Eric Tucker, a 35-year-old co-founder of a marketing company in Austin, Tex., had just about 40 Twitter followers. But his recent tweet about paid protesters being bused to demonstrations against President-elect Donald J. Trump fueled a nationwide conspiracy theory — one that Mr. Trump joined in promoting.
Mr. Tucker's post was shared at least 16,000 times on Twitter and more than 350,000 times on Facebook. The problem is that Mr. Tucker got it wrong. There were no such buses packed with paid protesters.
A user on Free Republic, a conservative discussion forum, linked to the Reddit thread about Mr. Tucker’s post, increasing the attention and spreading it further into the online world. Later, Facebook pages like Robertson Family Values, which is named for but not affiliated with the stars of “Duck Dynasty,” and Donald Trump Commander in Chief 2020, linked to the Free Republic discussion. Those posts were shared more than 5,000 times each, and more than 300,000 Facebook users have linked to the Free Republic thread.
Around 6 p.m., the conservative blog Gateway Pundit posted a story using Mr. Tucker’s images under the headline “Figures. Anti-Trump Protesters Were Bussed in to Austin #FakeProtests.” The post, which included a mention of “Soros money,” has been shared on Facebook more than 44,000 times, according to statistics on the website.
The story line became a prominent one throughout the conservative blogosphere, with other sites incorporating Mr. Tucker’s tweet into posts about paid protesters, referring to him as an eyewitness in Austin. [The New York Times, 11/20/16]
Fortune: Data Journalism Expert Found Breitbart And Daily Caller Were Major Distributors Of Fake News. Data journalism professor Jonathan Albright “created a network map or topology that describes the landscape of the fake-news ecosystem” and found that some of the “prominent destinations” “that propel a lot of the traffic involving fake news” include right-wing media “sites like Breitbart News [and] DailyCaller,” according to Fortune. From the November 28 article:
Jonathan Albright, a professor at Elon University in North Carolina, is an expert in data journalism who has worked for both Google and Yahoo. He specializes in media analytics and social networks, and he has created a network map or topology that describes the landscape of the fake-news ecosystem.
Next Albright did what he called a “medium-scale data analysis,” crawling and indexing 117 websites that are known to be associated with fake news. In a follow-up post, entitled The #Election2016 Micro-Propaganda Machine, he mapped the connections between those sites and plotted them as dots, based on the strength of their connections.
Albright subsequently expanded his sample to include more than 300 sites, including some prominent distributors such as Breitbart News. In total, he collected and analyzed the incoming and outgoing traffic of more than 1.3 million URLs.
More than anything, the impression one gets from looking at Albright’s network map is that there are some extremely powerful “nodes” or hubs that propel a lot of the traffic involving fake news. And it also shows an entire universe of sites that many people have probably never heard of.
Two of the largest hubs Albright found were a site called Conservapedia—a kind of Wikipedia for the right wing—and another called Rense, both of which got huge amounts of incoming traffic. Other prominent destinations were sites like Breitbart News, DailyCaller and YouTube (the latter possibly as an attempt to monetize their traffic). [Fortune, 11/28/16]