After weeks of debate about the theoretical and abstract dangers of fake news, there’s finally a concrete incident to discuss. On Sunday, a North Carolina man walked into Comet Ping Pong, a pizzeria in an affluent corner of Northwest D.C. wielding an assault rifle, which he fired at least once.
The man, 28-year-old Edgar Maddison Welch, told police he intended to “self-investigate” a bogus story alleging that Hillary Clinton was running a pedophilia ring out of the restaurant. The story, dubbed, deplorably, “Pizzagate” has spread around certain fake news circles, culminating in Welch’s expedition to Comet on Sunday.
So much of the discussion about “fake news” has involved vague questions about, for example, whether Russian-backed propaganda could have been a factor in Donald Trump’s victory. A big Washington Post report suggested that Russia had played a role in spreading lots of fake news; Adrian Chen, among others, convincingly argued that one major basis for that report was extremely fraught. There’s a broader question of the extent to which a foreign power could influence the election, and the extent to which that would really be anything new. Jack Shafer suggests not.
But the Comet incident offers a disconcerting example of what looks like a concrete result of fake news leading to violence. BuzzFeed’s Craig Silverman last month offered an excellent forensic tracing of how the story came about. A white-supremacist Twitter account falsely claimed on October 30 that emails showed a pedophilia ring centered around Clinton. It jumped from there to message boards, and then to bogus news sites. Eventually, the Patient Zero Twitter account passed along the bogus posts as affirmation of his tip, even though the story originated with him anyway. The connection to Comet came because the restaurant’s owner popped up in emails with Clinton campaign chair John Podesta discussing a fundraiser. Those emails were hacked and then leaked during the election by an unknown actor, though U.S. intelligence officials have said they believe Russia is behind the hacks.