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Commentary: #Pizzagate and the broader problem of "fake news"

CEO of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump campaign Stephen Bannon is pictured during a meeting with Trump’s Hispanic Advisory Council at Trump Tower in the Manhattan borough of New York, U.S., August 20, 2016.

REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

I’ll start with an anecdote. About four years ago I wrote something that mentioned in passing the fact that Adam Lanza used an AR-15 rifle in the Sandy Hook massacre. And for months afterward, I got email after email from irate readers insisting this was not the case.

Their theory, in broad strokes, went like this: Lanza had used semiautomatic pistols to carry out the assault, and the media and the government were claiming he used an AR-15 because they were looking for reasons to ban that particular weapon. It’s an example of what we would now call “fake news,” but at that time, it was just a regular old conspiracy theory.

Thankfully, the conservative blogger Erick Erickson wrote a piece in the weeks after the shooting insisting that Lanza had used an AR-15. I forwarded his post to the people emailing me and, if memory serves, that always ended the discussion. They trusted Erickson, and if he said it was an AR-15, then that’s what Lanza must have used.

I doubt that approach would work anymore. Erickson was a prominent member of the #NeverTrump movement, which means his opinions would likely be seen as suspect by conspiracy theorists.  

Maybe I’m wrong about that, but I doubt it: Trump embraced conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones from the start of his campaign. His longtime political consigliere, Roger Stone, is the author of books arguing, among other things, that Lyndon Johnson had President Kennedy murdered. For a certain segment of Trump’s supporters, particularly his very vocal internet fans, all conspiracy theories are true until proven otherwise, and the word of some anti-Trump pundit like Erickson would mean little.

That brings us to #Pizzagate, the inane allegation that John Podesta and other Clinton allies are part of a child pedophile ring based out of a Washington, D.C. restaurant. It’s a belief that inspired a man to arrive at that restaurant with a rifle over the weekend. And it apparently counts among its adherents Michael Flynn, Jr., the son and erstwhile business partner of Trump’s incoming national security adviser, Gen. Michael Flynn.

The most worrying part of all this is that it is not at all clear who can knock this theory down in the same way Erickson was able to help quiet the fringe after Sandy Hook. People don’t know whom to believe anymore, as institutions we used to trust – law enforcement, the church, the press – have become discredited. And #Pizzagate is just one symptom of this dysfunction.

I say that as someone who’s been pretty skeptical over all this hemming and hawing over “fake news” lately. On the one hand, “fake news” is a real problem. On the other, the fact that “fake news” only became this issue of grand national importance after Trump’s victory makes this newfound emphasis a bit questionable. Some Clinton backers refuse to believe their candidate lost on the merits, and their search for hidden culprits have given rise to their own conspiracy theories, such as pro-Trump “fake news” sites taking their orders from Moscow.

For more on that, look no further than the Washington Post’s breathless coverage of PropOrNot, which is supposedly a group of non-aligned researchers who’ve discovered that many American online news outlets are actually, and perhaps unwittingly, allies of Russian intelligence.

Interestingly, these outlets tended to be either hard-right or hard-left, i.e. abstainers from the elite liberal consensus. And PropOrNot’s findings had apparently been peddled to numerous outlets before the Washington Post gave them its imprimatur; The New Yorker’s Adrian Chen, one of the reporters who passed on PropOrNot’s story, quickly gave it all a thorough debunking.

Needless to say, the fight between “real news” and “fake news” was not helped by a major national paper’s wholehearted embrace of PropOrNot’s conspiracy theory. But its also noteworthy that the story fell apart under scrutiny from The New Yorker, that most establishment of magazines, and not, say, Alex Jones’ InfoWars.

But who can debunk #Pizzagate? Not The New Yorker. Not the Washington Post or The New York Times or, for that matter, CBS News. That is to say, we can present readers and viewers with endless reasons for why it’s absurd to think that a Podesta email about ordering pizzas is somehow about prostitution, but some people simply won’t believe it because we’re the ones saying it.

When Erickson debunked the “Lanza used pistols” theory, he had a big tea party following, and as such his opinions had weight back when that was a dominant force on the right. And Erickson, for whatever people say about him, was not about to cynically indulge in conspiracy theories, whether they were about the president’s birthplace or Sandy Hook. He endeavored to be a responsible actor when it came to things like that.

But the alt-right, the extreme right wing movement that favors white supremacy and the place where these new conspiracy theories are now taking root, doesn’t have such responsible actors. If, say, Breitbart’s Milo Yiannopoulos, or even Trump himself, were to say #Pizzagate was a bunch of nonsense, that theory and others like it might quickly vanish.

They probably won’t, though, and that’s because paranoia is profitable, and so is the rot it leads to. “Fake news” has been with us since the founding of the republic. What’s new, and what’s very troubling, is furthering America’s broader epistemological crisis has become good business and good politics in the digital age.

This is a problem without easy solutions, but we do need to find away for mainstream news outlets to regain the trust of the public, part of which will involve avoiding easily-disprovable clickbait like PropOrNot. Less than 1-in-3 Americans have a lot of faith in the press, per Gallup, which is a horrible thing for our democracy, and an invitation to the type of “fake news” we’re so flummoxed by.

In the short term, though, our president-elect and his subordinates, having earned the alt-right’s trust, should go and try to knock some of this stuff down. Send Steve Bannon out there to say this #Pizzagate stuff is malarkey. Have Michael Flynn disavow his son’s comments. Let it be known that Trump thinks #Pizzagate is the stuff of moonbats.

The first step in stopping the spread of a “fake news” story is for trusted people to forcefully debunk it. Erickson could do it among the conservative rank-and-file in 2012, and someone like Bannon could plausibly do it among alt-right #Pizzagate theorists.

This is a small step, and one that won’t solve the broader problem of “fake news” and the lack of faith in our institutions. But given what happened over the weekend, a decision within the incoming administration to condemn at least this one absurd theory could wind up saving lives. 

  • Will Rahn

    Will Rahn is a political correspondent and managing director, politics, for CBS News Digital.