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Sunday 25 February 2018

The very real danger of fake news

After the farcical-yet-scary armed ­incident in Washington this week, Niall Stanage asks if anything can be done to stop this new phenomenon

Hands up: Edgar Welch (28) surrenders to police in Washington. Welch, who said he was investigating a conspiracy theory about Hillary Clinton running a child sex ring out of a pizza place, fired an assault rifle inside the restaurant on Sunday, injuring no one
Hands up: Edgar Welch (28) surrenders to police in Washington. Welch, who said he was investigating a conspiracy theory about Hillary Clinton running a child sex ring out of a pizza place, fired an assault rifle inside the restaurant on Sunday, injuring no one
Hillary Clinton

Fake news turned very real less than five miles from the White House this week. The only surprising thing is that no-one was killed.

At the heart of the story are Hillary Clinton and a man named Edgar Welch.

Welch is a 28-year-old from North Carolina. Last Sunday, he is alleged to have driven about six hours from his home to the American capital. He made the trip, according to police, to "self-investigate" a story that Clinton and some of her closest aides were involved in a child-abuse ring.

The story is false. It has credibility only in the fevered minds of Clinton's fiercest detractors and emerged primarily on online forums, where would-be internet sleuths seized on mundane details to fashion a dark conspiracy out of whole cloth.

Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton

Welch was apparently one of the believers, however. According to reports, he arrived at the epicentre of the non-existent paedophile ring - a fashionable pizzeria called Comet Ping Pong - carrying an assault rifle. He appears to have pointed the weapon at a staff member and fired two rounds.

No-one was injured but Welch now faces charges including assault with a deadly weapon.

According to the criminal complaint filed against him, Welch surrendered to police after failing to uncover any evidence that "children were being harboured in the restaurant".

The incident is the scariest yet to emerge from the fake-news phenomenon - a label that has become a catch-all for absurd web-based conspiracies and "news" that is known by its creators to be fictional but is propagated for profit.

The Comet Ping Pong incident's genesis is complicated, but troubling.

The website Buzzfeed conducted an in-depth analysis of how the story spread. It traced the beginnings to Twitter and to something that did, in fact, happen.

The late stages of the presidential race were shaken in October when the director of the FBI, James Comey, announced that emails had been discovered that might relate to an earlier investigation of Clinton's use of a private email address and server while she was Secretary of State.

It was subsequently reported that the new emails were on a laptop owned by Anthony Weiner, a former New York congressman who had fallen into disgrace after several episodes where he had been discovered sending explicit messages to women who were not his wife. His wife is Huma Abedin, one of Clinton's closest aides, though the couple are now estranged.

The Clinton emails - which ultimately proved to be innocuous - were reportedly found during an unrelated investigation into whether some of Weiner's explicit messages had been sent to an underage girl.

That is where the truth of the story that apparently sent Edgar Welch to Comet Ping Pong ends and fantasy takes over.

According to the Buzzfeed investigation, the beginning came with a tweet - from an account that may be under a fictitious name - asserting that rumours were "stirring" among New York police that "Huma's emails point to a paedophilia ring and @HillaryClinton is at the centre".

No such rumours have ever been confirmed. But the story then leapt to an internet discussion board, according to Buzzfeed, and to a website called YourNewsWire.com. The website published a story headlined, "FBI Insider: Clinton Emails Linked to Paedophile Sex Ring." The "source" for that story was yet another anonymous internet discussion forum.

The tale became even more bizarre from there. One website published a photo of New York police under a headline claiming that law enforcement "just raided Hillary's property!" (The photo was unrelated to Clinton and the "property" was the emails on Weiner's computer.)

Meanwhile, some internet users seized on hacked emails from Clinton's campaign chairman, John Podesta, to prove more nefarious wrongdoing.

At some point, they decided that references in Podesta's emails to pizza actually connoted child abuse. Comet Ping Pong, owned by a man with links to the broad Clinton circle, was fixed on as the HQ of this awful conspiracy - a conspiracy which does not exist. The internet-detectives claimed to have found evidence of secret rooms and tunnels beneath the pizzeria. Its owner says the business does not even have a basement. Comet had been subject to all manner of threats and abusive phone calls before Welch allegedly walked in armed with a rifle. So, too, had a number of neighbouring businesses that were also falsely said to be connected with Comet and paedophilia.

The whole farcical-yet-frightening story has members of the legitimate media up in arms.

Amy Davidson of The New Yorker lamented: "There is nothing to explain - no missing children, no accusers, no break-ins involving intelligence agents, no odd incidents, no inexplicable phone calls from powerful people, no baseless firing of someone asking questions."

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson worried that "fake news eventually leads to real tragedy".

Robinson went on to draw a line between the 'Pizzagate' fantasy and Donald Trump's candidacy. While it is true that fake news was a phenomenon even before Trump's rise - and conspiracy theories have existed forever - there does appear to be some linkage.

This week, Trump's presidential transition team ousted Michael G Flynn, the son of retired General Michael Flynn, who will soon become national security advisor to the new president. The younger Flynn had tweeted that the Comet conspiracy would "remain a story" unless it were proven false.

More broadly, several of the most brash propagators of "fake news" have said that, during the campaign, they found pro-Trump, anti-Clinton stories to be more popular, and thus more profitable, than stories tilted in the opposite direction.

The business model for this brand of fake news is straightforward.

The perpetrator sets up a website as cheaply as possible, while giving it at least some superficial similarity to a legitimate news site. He or she then publishes fake news designed to draw an audience.

Facebook and other social networks are especially useful in propagating such stories, because credulous users share them with their friends. Search-engine optimisation - the strategy used by many legitimate businesses to try to push themselves up the listings of giants such as Google - also plays its part.

The end result is clicks on the fake news website - and advertising income for the person behind it. The cash generated is not a fortune but it is a healthy sum. Several reports have indicated that the counterfeit journalists can rack up monthly takes between $5,000 and $10,000.

Even before the outcry over Comet Ping Pong, Facebook and Google had said that they would take steps to try to counteract the growth in fake news.

Last month, Google said it would seek to stop sites that trade in fake news from using its advertising service and Facebook said it would "vet" publishers to its platform in the similar hope of denying ad revenue.

But whether the milk can be unspilled is open to question. A survey this week, commissioned by Buzzfeed from Ipsos Public Research, found that "fake news headlines fool American adults about 75pc of the time".

Leslie Harris, a former president of the non-profit Center for Democracy & Technology, delivered a depressing verdict to the New York Times last week.

"The reason why it's so hard to stop fake news," she said, "is that the facts don't change people's minds."

Niall Stanage is Associate Editor at US political newspaper The Hill

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