Fake news is domestic terrorism

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Story highlights

  • Cedric L. Alexander: We have been warned -- fake news can trigger real bullets
  • We all have a responsibility to weigh and consider the source before sharing online, he writes

Cedric L. Alexander is a CNN law enforcement analyst and director of public safety at the DeKalb County Police Department in Georgia. He is a former national president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)On the night before Halloween, October 30, 1938, the CBS radio network's Mercury Theatre of the Air broadcast an adaptation of H.G. Wells' novel "The War of the Worlds," about Martians invading the Earth. Directed by a young genius named Orson Welles, the radio drama was presented as actual news coverage of an invasion from outer space. Many listeners across the nation swallowed it whole. Genuinely terrified, they flooded police departments with panicked calls.

Cedric L. Alexander
The story was fictional, but the fear it produced was real. We laugh at this today, or appreciate its artistry as satire. The "Greatest Generation" may have been great -- but they were awfully gullible, too! We're much more media savvy than our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents ... or not. Look no further than the phenomenon of fake news -- false stories reported on the Internet and often amplified by social media. As someone who has spent a career in law enforcement, I can say without hesitation that fake news -- producing it and sharing it -- constitutes a very real threat to public safety.
Fake news can ruin reputations, lives, and careers. It can wreck businesses. It can be used to terrorize individuals, public officials, or anybody somebody doesn't like. It can influence elections. Fake news can even contribute to shaping decisions made by leaders of companies, institutions, government agencies, and the government itself. Fake news can kill.
On December 5, fake news propelled 28-year-old Edgar M. Welch as he drove from his home in Salisbury, North Carolina, to Washington, D.C. At 3 p.m., he walked into Comet Ping Pong, a popular pizzeria in the northwest quadrant of the nation's capital carrying a rifle. Some sources say he pointed it at a restaurant employee, but all that is known for certain is that he fired it. Whether he intended to kill, he thankfully hit no one. Police responded, and while much of the neighborhood was locked down, heavily armed officers took Welch into custody.
It is only by the grace of God that the rifle round fired by Welch found no human target in the busy family restaurant he invaded. But we have been warned: Fake news can trigger real bullets.
Welch told police that he was on a mission to "self-investigate" a news story posted on Facebook and on websites including The New Nationalist and The Vigilant Citizen under headlines like this: "Pizzagate: How 4Chan Uncovered the Sick World of Washington's Occult Elite." Appearing in variations across the Internet shortly before the presidential election, "pizzagate" consisted of dozens of online news "reports" that Hillary Clinton was the mastermind of a criminal ring that kidnapped children, using the backroom of Comet Ping Pong to "molest and traffic" them. These stories sent Welch to the pizzeria to "self-investigate" -- with his rifle.
He was not alone in having taken the stories with dead seriousness. James Alefantis, owner of Comet Ping Pong, had been receiving "hundreds of death threats ... via texts, Facebook and Twitter," all alleging that his restaurant "was the home base of a child abuse ring led by Hillary Clinton and her campaign chief, John D. Podesta." Many of Alefantis' employees were also being barraged with similar online accusations and threats.
It is obvious to assume that Welch suffers from some delusional disorder. Yet, as I say, he was -- and is -- not alone in giving credence to stories that Clinton -- the former first lady, US senator, secretary of state, and presidential candidate -- partnered with her campaign chairman, the former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton and counselor to President Barack Obama, in a child sex trafficking enterprise headquartered in the backroom of a DC pizza parlor. No less a figure than Michael G. Flynn, the son of retired US Army Lt. Gen. Michael T. (Mike) Flynn, whom President-elect Donald Trump has named as his national security adviser, tweeted on December 4: "Until #Pizzagate proven to be false, it'll remain a story. The left seems to forget #PodestaEmails and the many 'coincidences' tied to it." A few days later, the younger Flynn left the transition team, though Trump officials would not explain why.
A month earlier, on November 2, Lt. Gen. Flynn himself had tweeted "U decide -- NYPD Blows Whistle on New Hillary Emails: Money Laundering, Sex Crimes w Children, etc ... MUST READ!" The only trouble here is that the NYPD blew no such whistle. As reported by Politico, the retweeted "news" is fake, as were Lt. Gen. Flynn's retweeted stories that Hillary Clinton "secretly waged war" on the Catholic Church and that President Obama is a "jihadi" who "laundered" money for Muslim terrorists. (It was Obama who appointed Flynn in 2012 as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency). Lt. Gen. Flynn currently has 106,000 Twitter followers.
Fake news is unquestionably an industry, and a growth industry to boot. "How much money can you bring in by making stuff up and putting it on the Internet?" the Washington Post asked Paul Horner, "a prolific, Facebook-focused fake-news writer. "I make like $10,000 a month from AdSense (a company that sells advertising placement on websites)," Horner answered. The Post went on to report that "among a growing group of Macedonian teenagers who see fake-news sites as a way to make easy money from American gullibility, the most successful can make about $5,000 a month ..."
I would argue, however, that regardless of its profits, fake news' stock-in-trade is terrorism. We are all too familiar with the way ISIS uses the Internet to incite collective and individual acts of terrorism in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. The ISIS online strategy is to win recruits by undermining local national allegiances, loyalties, and values, and to destroy faith in government. This is also precisely the effect of fake news. And that makes fake news a form of domestic terrorism.
The First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech, of the press, and of peaceful assembly, all rights indispensable to democracy, makes it difficult for government and law enforcement to combat fake news. I am greatly heartened by the December 5 announcement by a coalition among Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Microsoft "that they have teamed up to fight the spread of terrorist content over the web by sharing technology and information to reduce the flow of terrorist propaganda across their services." Welcome to the fight, I say. I only hope that these and other tech companies will recognize fake news -- deliberate disinformation intended to do harm -- as terrorist propaganda.
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In the meantime, it is up to us, the stakeholders in the world's greatest democracy, not to believe the Martians are invading just because the Internet tells us they are. Media of all kinds is vital to our freedom. In a 1787 letter to the Virginia statesman Edward Carrington, Thomas Jefferson wrote, "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter." Strong words, good words, and I agree with them. But each of us, whether we are a parent, teacher, police officer, or presidential adviser, needs to do three things, without exception, before sharing a story on social media. Consider the source. Weigh the source. Question the source.