Dispatches from the Potomac#19 | Real Events Caused by Fake News in the US

In the US, “fake news” frequently becomes widely shared on the internet. Recently, a shooting incident occurred as a result of this spreading of fake news. The location was Washington D.C.

This is a translation of an article originally written in December for publication in the January 2017 edition of the Marubeni Group Magazine, M-SPIRIT.

Washington D.C. Office General Manager, Marubeni America Corporation    Takashi Imamura

A Tweeted Lie Triggers an Incident

On Sunday, December 4, 2016, a shooting incident occurred at a pizza shop in northwestern Washington D.C. during the middle of the day. This was in a busy but peaceful shopping district, and the shop was filled with families. A man brought a rifle into the shop and began shooting. Fortunately, no one was hurt, and the suspect was arrested, but the motive for this crime and the circumstances that triggered it were shocking.

The pizza shop, called Comet Ping Pong, had become embroiled in a strange situation due to an event that had occurred about one month earlier. There were false tweets widely spread on the net claiming that this pizza shop was the base for a pedophile sex ring involving Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, a former Secretary of State, and members of her campaign. The operators of the pizza shop began receiving threats from right wing activists who believed that the reports were true.

According to The Washington Post, the trigger was the announcement on October 28 about the resumption of the investigation by the Federal Bureau of investigation (“FBI”) into the issue of the use of private e-mail by Hillary Clinton during her tenure as Secretary of State. Two days later, there was a large volume of tweets about newly-discovered e-mail related to a pedophile sex ring. These posts were spread on anonymous bulletin board sites and via social media; and there were many abusive videos directed at Ms. Clinton posted on extreme-right-wing sites. Two days before the election, the FBI announced that they had reached a conclusion that they would not seek prosecution of Ms. Clinton.

The anonymous bulletin board sites then focused their attention on the pizza shop called Comet Ping Pong, which was frequently mentioned in the e-mail of John Podesta, head of the Clinton campaign, whose e-mails were being successively leaked on the whistle-blower site WikiLeaks at about this same time. This escalated into posts that this shop was the site of child sex trafficking. The day before the voting in the presidential election, the hashtag “#pizzagate” appeared. Even after Ms. Clinton’s defeat the following day, the tweets did not subside, and instead continued to expand. It was reported that the Central Intelligence Agency (“CIA”) had determined that there were cyber-attacks on the e-mail of Democratic Party officials, like Mr. Podesta, indicating that there was intervention from Russia aimed at ensuring that Mr. Trump would win the election; and President Obama demanded a thorough investigation of the government intelligence agencies before his own retirement.

As the number of people who believed in the “pizzagate” conspiracy grew, and the threats directed at the pizza shop increased, the shops in the neighborhood also became involved. The operators of the pizza shop and surrounding businesses said they became frightened by more and more confrontations with people who believed the fake news. Although social media subsequently banned posts related to pizzagate, the threats did not stop, culminating in the appearance of a 28-year-old man from North Carolina, who showed up at the shop with a rifle to do his own “investigation.” According to a New York Times interview with the suspect after his capture, he was a soft-spoken, polite man who intended to rescue the children trapped in the shop.

Society that Facilitates the Spread of Fake News

Although no one was hurt, a real shooting being caused by fake news is serious. After this, one of the members of the transition team for the next president Mr. Trump posted a tweet saying “Until #Pizzagate proven to be false, it’ll remain a story.”, and was subsequently dismissed from the team. The people who believe the fake news, like the suspect in this incident, are often people who appear to be perfectly ordinary. Furthermore, people who do not hesitate to try to gain a political advantage, even when they are aware that the news is fake, are present in positions that can affect the formation of the next administration.

And, new fake news continues to appear. This is partly because the business model of US media companies has shifted from paper to digital media, making it possible to widely distribute fake news at a low cost. News sites that currently post fake news have names that sound like actual newspapers, like the Denver Guardian, and even include local weather forecasts in the content. Since the fake news attracts many viewers, the site operators can easily obtain advertisers. It is said that writers who find it difficult to make a living in the conventional media are willing to accept high fees to “report” fake news stories, regardless of their own ideology.

To eliminate fake news it is essential for the technology companies that operate social media to promote the development of technology to delete fake news, and for the conventional media to report truthful, accurate news. Some of the leading technology companies have started working on joint development, and the results are being awaited. The problem is the media. According to a 2016 opinion poll, in the US only 32% of the population trusts the media. Among Republican supporters, the rate is only 14%. They say that the media has a liberal bias and is suspicious; and that there is no trustworthy conservative media. In addition, the fact that conventional media charge fees to access their sites has created the niche for the free sites that post the fake news.

Under these circumstances, if the Trump administration does not take clear action to eradicate fake news, the situation will not improve; and, there is the risk that incidents like the Comet Ping Pong shooting will continue to occur. At the moment, however, the next administration has not issued any message that suggests there will be any improvement in the future. The Marubeni Group has developed numerous projects in the US, and has many employees there. While being aware of the current situation, we can only watch cautiously for the time being.