An entire D.C. neighborhood was in lockdown Sunday because some dope with a gun believed a fake news story that wildly and wrongly linked a neighborhood pizzeria to a child sex ring.
You could conclude that Edgar Maddison Welch, the 28-year-old man from North Carolina who allegedly walked into the Comet Ping Pong restaurant carrying an assault rifle, pointed it at an employee and then fired one or more shots, might be a singular nut job. He told police he had come to the restaurant to “self-investigate” a false election-related conspiracy theory that linked Hillary Clinton to the nonexistent child sex ring.
But he wasn’t the only dope roped into this.
A week before the presidential election, the son of retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn — the man Donald Trump has selected as his national security adviser — shared the fake Comet Ping Pong conspiracy story. Thousands of others shared it, too.
Days later, the retired general himself tweeted a hashtag referring to another fake news story that accused Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, of satanic rituals using body fluids. That there, the Satanic ritual stuff, is straight out of the grocery checkout line.
Remember when Americans used to laugh at the crazy-bad supermarket tabloid stories on “Bat Boy!” or “Titanic Survivors Alive!” or “Alien Bible Found! They worship Oprah!”?
What was different back then? Why didn’t a desperado come storming toward the White House gates with his gun after the story about George Bush meeting with aliens hit the stands? Because most people knew the source of the news — the National Enquirer, News of the World, etc. — wasn’t remotely serious, as lacking in nutrition as the candy bars the tabloids were displayed alongside.
But in today’s social-media universe, there’s a flood of stories from fake news sites that look legit. In an era when we have more access to more information than ever before, we’ve also become more willing to believe the crazy — and share it with others.
That kind of disregard for common sense and responsibility has kudzu-ed into what we have today, educated leaders willing to believe conspiracy theories about child sex rings and satanic rituals thanks to nothing more than a slick-looking online story.
The owner of Comet Ping Pong had endured weeks of death threats. There is no FBI investigation, no New York Police Department takedown. None of that. “What happened today demonstrates that promoting false and reckless conspiracy theories comes with consequences,” wrote owner James Alefantis on a Facebook page Sunday.
Those who run our social media companies and internet search engines need to find a way to help a gullible country differentiate between fake news and real news. Let’s make America believe in facts again.