In its beginning, Pizzagate seemed silly in a can-you-really-believe-anyone-would-actually-fall-for-this-horse-manure way.
In early October 2016, stories began circulating in the darker, paranoid recesses of the pro-Trump, alt-right, conspiratorial online universe. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and campaign manager John Podesta (when they weren’t otherwise engaged running a complex, expensive and contentious presidential campaign) were secretly filling up their off-hours operating a child sex ring in the basement of Comet Ping Pong, a popular pizzeria in an affluent Washington suburb.
The evidence? Well, start with hacked, leaked emails in which Podesta mentioned the name of the owner of Comet Ping Pong, James Alefantis, a Democratic donor who was once in a relationship with David Brock, a conservative-turned Liberal operative…
What?… You’re not convinced.
How about this? The owner’s name, James Alefantis, actually derives from the French, “J’aime les enfants.”I love children. I kid you not. It’s in State of the Nation.
And note this in the emails: “cheese pizza.” Not what you think. Cheese starts with “C,” pizza with “P.” Isn’t it obvious? Child pornography! The menu items at Comet are actually code words for sex acts you can order right on the premises…
But then, manure got all too really real.
At 3 p.m. on December 4, 2016, a 28-year-old North Carolina man named Maddison Welch, armed with an assault rifle and a gun, walked into Comet Ping Pong, which was crowded with families eating pizza. He confronted an employee, telling him he was “self-investigating” the stories he’d read online and hoped to “rescue” some of the children in the basement. Although several shots were fired, luckily, no one was injured.
Imagine Welch’s surprise when he discovered there were not only no children in the basement to rescue, but also that the building didn’t have a basement. “The intel on this,” he told the New York Times from jail, “wasn’t 100 per cent.”
We live in an age of fake news. Welch is far from alone in falling for it. In the aftermath of Pizzagate, Public Policy Polling, a respected U.S. pollster, posed the following question to 1,224 registered American voters: “Do you think = Hillary Clinton is or is not connected to a child sex ring being run out of a pizzeria in Washington, DC?”
Forty-six per cent of Trump supporters (close to half!) said Clinton either was, or could be connected to the non-existent child sex ring.
While we can blame much of the current fascination and focus on fake news on the dark forces that metastasized around and even inside Donald Trump’s presidential election campaign, our growing willingness to accept lies as convenient truth fits a pattern.
Consider climate change. When he was running for U.S. president, climate-change denier Ted Cruz invoked history to justify his argument. “It used to be… accepted scientific wisdom the Earth is flat, and this heretic named Galileo was branded a denier.”
Ignore for the moment that Ted Cruz just compared himself to Galileo. The lesson for Cruz and his fellow deniers seems to be that since the scientific best evidence is subject to change as new evidence emerges (a basic tenet of science) we should ignore the current best evidence altogether and make the truth whatever we want it to be.
And so it goes.
What to do about it? In the here and now, there’s lots we can do: from checking the sources of the material we share on social media, to supporting fact-checking sites like Snopes.com, to being willing to pay for real fact-based journalism.
But there’s a bigger discussion we need to have about public school education. We focus a lot of our attention on making sure students score well on science and math tests, but remarkably little on educating them about basic citizenship and real media literacy. That must change and soon — or Donald Trump is only the beginning.