I live only a few miles from Comet Ping Pong, the DC pizza place where a man with an assault rifle walked in to “self-investigate” a fake story about a child sex trafficking operation taking place in the restaurant’s “underground tunnels.” I’ve never read the original fake news stories purporting this nonsense, and frankly I don’t want to, but the long and the short of the conspiracy theory ran like this: Hillary Clinton and the local pizza joint owner were in cahoots to cater to bizarre sexual whims of Washington elites using children.
Even before the man from North Carolina walked in with his assault rifle, the owner and employees of Comet Ping Pong had been receiving death threats via social media.
A Local’s Perspective on Comet Ping Pong
For those of you outside DC, I need to put this neighborhood in context a little for you: Comet Ping Pong is in Northwest DC, close to Chevy Chase, which means it’s on the edge of a hoity-toity neighborhood. It’s about a mile north of the National Zoo, and it’s right next to a real DC institution called Politics & Prose, an independent bookstore / coffeehouse / place to hear interesting speakers of all sorts.
In other words, the block with Comet, P&P, and other local places is a community-oriented go-to block for people in Northwest DC. It’s family friendly, a place where everyday people meet friends for coffee or dinner, a place where you go to hear authors read from their latest books. It’s supposed to be safe. So to say the very least, people in my neighborhood are really shaken up by what happened.
And they worry: Is this a harbinger of things to come?
We in DC already felt like we had a target on our backs; what happened at Comet is like a confirmation of our worst fears.
All of Us Have to Fight Fake News.
The Cheetoh “won” the election thanks to xenophobia, conspiracy theories, and a slew of non-facts. As Jon Oliver recommended in his brilliant post-election piece, we have to keep reminding ourselves: This is not normal. It’s not normal, and we have to refuse to let it become normal.
When you see a fake news story on your Facebook timeline, you’ve got to do more than just roll your eyes at cousin Billy and scroll on. You have to stop and say, “Billy, this is fake, here’s a reference proving that it’s fake, and please stop sharing this — remember what happened at Comet Ping Pong. Sharing fake news has real consequences.”
Liberal Fake News? Yes. It exists.
Here’s the thing. I doubt any of you reading this would be sharing weird alt-right conspiracy theories on your Facebook feed, but you might be sharing liberal fake news. According to the Jon Oliver video I cited above, 44% of adult Americans use social media as their primary source of news. Of the news they consume, 38% of news stories on right-leaning pages are fake, which probably doesn’t surprise you, *but* a full 19% of news stories on left-leaning pages are also fake.
19% means almost 1 in 5 of the liberal posts on your newsfeed might be fake.
Here’s an example that was on my own news feed that I didn’t even know was fake until Oliver pointed it out:
Have you inadvertently shared fake news and helped it to go viral? You might have. If so, you get a free pass. But from now on, you need to be responsible and fact-check before you share.
Here’s a Thought: Go Back to Using Facebook for Cat Videos, and Use NYT & WaPo for Your News.
LGBTQ people have a very good reason for being suspicious of the mainstream media — it hasn’t always been our friend, and it doesn’t always represent our stories or our best interests. But regardless of that, you’re still a lot more likely to get an accurate story from the New York Times or Washington Post than you are from Facebook.
So go back to using social media for what it was intended for — sharing pictures of your family and friends — and share your news from actual legitimate news sources.
But if you *are* going to share a story, use Snopes first.
Snopes.com is a fact-checking website that is good at catching what’s fake and pointing it out. For years, they’ve been a go-to site for people wondering about the validity of news stories, politicians’ statements, hoaxes, and more. If you want to make sure that something you’re sharing is valid, use Snopes first by running a quick Internet search like “pizzagate snopes.” You should find out pretty quickly if what you’re about to share is true or not.
If we don’t get savvier about this, folks, it’s only going to get worse.
We all suffer from confirmation bias, which means that we look for “facts” and examples that confirm what we already believe. So if you believe the Cheetoh is a dangerous person who takes advantage of American ignorance, you’re very likely to believe and share the meme I posted above.
We CANNOT become a society in which facts don’t matter. Some people are actually already saying facts don’t matter, like when Cheetoh-supporter Scottie Nell Hughes came onto The Diane Rehm Show and claimed: “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of facts.”
Wrong! There are facts! And they matter! And we have to make them matter again!
Otherwise, we’re going to have years or even decades with Presidents who say things like:
and National Security Advisors — National Security Advisors! — who promote ridiculous conspiracy theories:
That’s our new National Security Advisor saying that we are going to reverse two centuries of “innocent until proven guilty” and make conspiracy theories “true until proven false.”
The Election Was Lost on Factory Floors, in Living Rooms, and in Church Basements.
The presidential election wasn’t lost because the Cheetoh out-debated Clinton. He didn’t win because he had better policies (as far as I can tell, he doesn’t have any policies). He didn’t win because he was smarter, more experienced, wrote a brilliant op-ed, etc.
He won because he was able to control millions of “small” conversations amongst “small” people. He was able to appeal to people like the guy who walked into Comet Ping Pong with an assault rifle. He appealed to grandmas who believe the Somalis moving into her Minnesota neighborhood are dangerous because they look different. He appealed to men struggling to feed their children with only a high school education and a hope that maybe one day, the plant will re-hire all those it laid off. He appealed to my own family members, who still think Obama was dead-set on taking their guns away.
It’s bad news that so many ordinary people have been taken in by these conspiracy theories. But it’s also good news, because ordinary conversations are ones that ordinary people like us can have an influence over. You may not be able to sit on the debate floor next to Anderson Cooper and ask a candidate an insightful question, but you *can* control what you share on social media, and you can encourage your friends and family to be responsible about what *they* share.
I know that it won’t always be easy. I know it’ll be contentious sometimes. But we have to at least TRY to set cousin Billy straight the next time he posts about #PizzaGate. Because if we don’t say it, who will? His friends? Probably not. And then the Cheetoh will have controlled yet another conversation.