WASHINGTON, December 11, 2016 – The proliferation of fake news and conspiracy theories has been growing in recent days. What this says about our society is less than clear. That some of these false stories seem to be embraced by people of influence, who should know better, is particularly disturbing.
Recently. A woman in Tampa, Florida who thinks the Sandy Hook school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut was staged has been charged with threatening a parent of one of the slain children. The woman, Lucy Richards, sent four messages in January that said things such as, “You gonna die. Death is coming to you soon.”
Ms. Richards’ belief that, “The school shooting was a hoax and never happened allegedly motivated her to make the charged threats,” the U.S. Attorney’s office in Miami said. The threats were sent to Lenny Pozner, whose son, Noah, was the youngest of 20 children murdered ar Sandy Hook Elementary School four years ago.
Mr. Pozner now dedicates himself to unmasking the various conspiracy theorists who declare that the Obama administration orchestrated the massacre using actors to further a gun-control agenda.
When Mr..Pozner asked a Florida Atlantic University professor, James F. Tracy, to stop posting photos of Noah, the professor sent him a certified letter asking for proof that the boy existed. The professor, who was tenured, was soon fired.
One of the most vocal promoters of the idea that the Sandy Hook massacre never occurred is Alex Jones. It is Jones who is also spreading the false accusation that Comet Ping Pong, a family pizza restaurant in a residential neighborhood of Washington, D.C., is a front for a Hillary Clinton-affiliated pedophilia ring.
On the Internet, there has been a frenzy of discussion, including threats of a “public lynching” with one man stating, “I pray someone comes to Comet pizza with automatic weapons and kills everyone inside.”
In early December, a North Carolina man, carrying a rifle, walked into Comet and started shooting.
The man told police he had come to “self-investigate” the pedophilia conspiracy.
There have always been conspiracy theorists spreading false and fantastic stories. Today, the Internet gives them a platform to reach millions, which they never had before. And today, their influence even extends to people who should know better.
President-elect Donald Trump has appeared on Alex Jones’ radio program and praised Jones’ “amazing reputation.” He called Jones after winning the presidency to thank him for his support.
With the embrace of the president-elect, is it any wonder that other Americans take Jones and his theories seriously? And consider Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s choice for national security adviser. Both he and his son, Michael G. Flynn, have used social media to spread fake news stories linking Hillary Clinton to both underage sex rings and other serious crimes, backed by no evidence.
Six days before the election, for example, Flynn posted on Twitter a fake news story that claimed the police and prosecutors in New York had found evidence linking Mrs. Clinton and much of her senior campaign staff to pedophilia, money laundering, perjury and other felonies.
“U decide,” Flynn wrote in his Nov. 2. Twitter message.
The younger Mr. Flynn, hours after the gunfire at the pizza restaurant, went on Twitter to say that until “Pizzagate” was proved false, it remained a story. Michael Flynn, 33, in recent years has served as the chief of staff to his father, who started a private intelligence and consulting business, after being forced to retire from the military in 2014.
Even after the gunfire at Comet Ping Pong, Michael Flynn continued to retweet messages that say the news media is seeking to normalize pedophilia. Finally, he was removed from the Trump transition.
Joseph Uscinski, a professor at the University of Miami and author of “American Conspiracy Theories,” notes that while “Pizzagate” may defame Hillary Clinton, those on left are equally responsible for the spread of such stories. Radical 9/11 “truthers” viewed the 9/11 attack as a Republican-led plot to,provoke a war. A libertarian fringe promoted 9/11 as a secret government ploy to enact laws curtailing civil liberties and expanding government power. “It’s not like one party has a monopoly on viewing the world conspiratorially,” says Uscinski.
Michael Lynch, a professor of philosophy at University of Connecticut, says that,
“There are an alarming number of people who tend to be credulous and form beliefs based on the latest things they’ve read, but that’s not the wider problem. The wider problem is fake news has the effect of getting people not to believe real things. There’s no way for me to know what is objectively true, so we’ll stick to our guns and our own evidence. We’ll ignore the facts because nobody knows what’s really true anyway.”
The Internet is a breeding ground for radical ideologies and conspiracy theories and can quickly move troubled people to violence. In an age when fake news is magnified by those with political and financial interests, the problem becomes increasingly difficult to counter.
FBI Director James Comey points out that,
“It used to be that the person who’s now on Twitter would be down at the end of the bar late at night shouting at the television, and the only people he could shout with would be the other people who were down at the end of the bat. Now he can shout with 600 other people who are at their own metaphorical bars, and it’s a constant reinforcement of their view of the world.”
When large numbers of people in society cannot distinguish between what is true and what is not, that society is in trouble. And when its leaders, such as President-elect Trump and Gen. Flynn, embrace individuals such as Alex Jones who spread such false theories as describing the massacre of children in Connecticut as a government-sponsored hoax, it is almost impossible to ask average citizens to distinguish between fantasy and reality.
This is a growing problem which we ignore at our peril. And what does it say about our educational system that so many Americans are unable to recognize dangerous nonsense when it is set before them?