On Sunday in Washington, D.C., a man carrying an assault rifle entered Comet Ping Pong Restaurant, a pizzeria. The man from North Carolina was hunting down the “truth” behind a story that originated online and connected Hillary Clinton to the pizzeria’s owner and an alleged child sex operation. He was investigating a conspiracy theory through and through—baseless information fueled by social media and “news” websites that do not fact check or investigate their stories.
The story goes like this: Last month, just before Election Day, fake reports indicated that Hillary Clinton and her campaign chairman, John Podesta, were involved in a child sex operation at Comet Ping Pong. People showed up at Comet Ping Pong to check if the establishment indeed had a basement where these operations were taking place (it doesn’t) and the alt-right’s online world threatened its owner, James Alefantis, and his employees. There is seemingly zero truth in any of this conspiracy theories, but the online world of fake news proliferated the story so much a man from out of state showed up with an assault rifle to find out the “truth.” No matter the motive, his perception was his reality, and it was the truth.
Oxford Dictionaries has declared “post-truth” to be its international word of 2016. Circa 1949, George Orwell said, “The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. Lies will pass into history.“ Orwell is revered for accurately predicting our current uncontrolled media environment in his dystopian novel 1984, but even so, fake news is not a new phenomenon. Remember when people were talking about how JFK’s assassination was a ploy by the Russians? Or when you heard people saying that 9/11 was an inside job? Or when papers all over the world reported on the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2003? Fake news is nothing more than propaganda and doublethink rebranded.
The difference now is twofold, however. We have international and local fake news websites set up specifically to share nonsense stories and t0 generate ad revenue from said stories—no matter the ramifications, whether political or violent. We have Facebook and social media platforms scaling up distribution and making sharing too easy without measuring or regulating what is real and what is not. Shiny headlines and “OMG, Can you believe this?” moments are now more prized than real insights into the world. In a recent BuzzFeed News analysis, it was reported that “three big right-wing Facebook pages published false or misleading information 38% of the time during the period analyzed, and three large left-wing pages did so in nearly 20% of posts.” These pages, which feed on eschewed factual reporting, are growing at a rapid rate, leaving their audiences hearing “exactly what they want to hear” and further confirming their biases.
There is no real-time solution to this glut of fake news; the onus has just changed. “Just Google it” is no longer a fail-safe and can no longer be guaranteed to proffer the answers. We certainly can’t fix this by starting to censor the internet in an Orwellian, dystopian style, nor should the government or Mark Zuckerberg choose what you see and what you don’t.
People’s trust of the American media apparatus will, and should, be tested. In the meantime, instead of reading everything either out of context or believing things at face value, readers are now expected—no, required—to do the work and fact checking themselves. Because if PizzaGate proves anything, it’s that the truth will always merely be a perception of an individual’s reality.