In December 2016 Edgar M. Welch drove six hours from his home to Washington DC, where he opened fire in a pizzeria with an assault rifle. He had previously read an online news story about the restaurant being the headquarters of a group of child abusers run by Hillary Clinton. He decided to investigate for himself; fortunately, no one was hurt.
The story about Hillary Clinton is one of the most famous examples of the growing phenomenon dubbed ‘fake news’. The conspiracy theory about the pizzeria began to appear on websites and social networks in late October, before the US election. This was quickly denounced by publications such as The New York Times and The Washington Post. However, many people thought that these papers were themselves lying for political ends and instead of disappearing, the fake story snowballed. Tweets from ‘Representative Steven Smith of the 15th District of Georgia’ claimed that the mainstream media were telling falsehoods. Even though both this name and district were invented, the message was re-tweeted many times. A YouTube refutation of the New York Times article got 250,000 hits.
Fake news stories can be hard to control for several reasons. Many people mistrust established news sources and others just don’t read them, so the debunking of a fake story by a serious newspaper or TV channel has limited effect. In addition, the internet is very hard to police. When users are caught misusing one media platform, they simply go to another one or start up a website themselves.
There are also various reasons why people create fake news. Some have political motives, to belittle or incriminate their opponents. Other websites, like The Onion, deliberately publish fake news as satire – humorous comment on society and current affairs. Another group is in it for the profit: many people clicking on entertaining fake news stories can bring in a lot of advertising revenue. One man running fake news sites from Los Angeles said he was making up to US$ 30,000 a month in this way. There are also those, like the small-town teenagers in Macedonia who wrote fake news stories about Donald Trump, who seem to be motivated partly by money and partly by boredom.
So, what can we do to stop fake news spreading? First, make sure that the websites you read are legitimate, for example by looking carefully at the domain name and the About Us section. Check the sources of any quotes or figures given in the story. Remember that amazing stories about famous people will be covered by the mainstream media if they are true. Only share stories you know are true and let your friends know, tactfully, when they unknowingly share fake news. Together we can turn around the post-truth world!
assault – the crime of attacking somebody physically
rifle – a gun with a long barrel which you hold to your shoulder to fire
headquarters – a place from which an organization or a military operation is controlled; the people who work there
abuser – 1. a person who makes bad use of something or uses so much of something that it harms their health
2. a person or an organization that uses power or knowledge unfairly or wrongly
investigate – 1. to carefully examine the facts of a situation, an event, a crime, etc. to find out the truth about it or how it happened
2. to try to find out information about somebody’s character, activities, etc.
3. to find out information and facts about a subject or problem by study or research
dub – (somebody + noun) to give somebody/something a particular name, often in a humorous or critical way
conspiracy – a secret plan by a group of people to do something harmful or illegal – դավադրություն
denounce – 1. to strongly criticize somebody/something that you think is wrong, illegal, etc.
2. to tell the police, the authorities, etc. about somebody’s illegal political activities
claim – 1. to say that something is true although it has not been proved and other people may not believe it
2. (something) to get or take somebody’s attention
falsehood – 1. the state of not being true; the act of telling a lie
2. a statement that is not true
debunk – (something) to show that an idea, a belief, etc. is false; to show that something is not as good as people think it is
belittle – (somebody/something) to make somebody, or the things that somebody does, seem unimportant
incriminate – (somebody) to make it seem as if somebody has done something wrong or illegal
opponent – a person who is against something and tries to change or stop it
deliberately – done in a way that was planned, not by chance – դիտավորյալ
satire – a way of criticizing a person, an idea or an institution in which you use humour to show their faults or weaknesses; a piece of writing that uses this type of criticism
affairs – events that are of public interest or political importance
profit – the money that you make in business or by selling things, especially after paying the costs involved
revenue – the money that a government receives from taxes or that an organization, etc. receives from its business