By Nick Leininger
Propaganda and fake news have existed for hundreds of years and not without consequence. In the early 1400s an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory perpetuated by Bernardino da Feltre resulted in Prince-Bishop Hinderbach calling for all of the city’s Jews to be arrested and tortured. Even renowned founding father Ben Franklin utilized fake news. During the revolutionary war, Franklin claimed that King George III was conspiring with Native Americans to nullify the patriots’ war effort. During the 1800s fake news was used to encourage violence against African Americans and promote the act of slavery. While fake news has certainly become a timely topic of discussion in the age of the Internet, its roots lie deep in history.
Fake news has become commonplace in the current multimedia landscape. It has even become an effective tool for deceiving the American public and manipulating the political process. During the 2016 presidential election, conspiracy theories and fake news were in constant circulation with social media being used as a lead platform for the proliferation of ignorance. Hillary Clinton was no stranger to having negative news about her in the press. Infowars.com founder, conspiracy theorist, and white supremacy champion Alex Jones, claimed that the Sandy Hook shootings were a hoax and years later, during the 2016 presidential election, he also claimed that demonic forces possessed both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Jones has established a strong media following receiving over 512 million global views over the course of a year, close to 200 million of which come from the U.S. His conspiracy theory site Infowars reaches over 4.2 million people per month, 74% of which are in the United States.
During the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton fell victim to numerous fact void conspiracy theories; the most famous of which revolved around Washington D.C. pizzeria Comet Ping Pong. The pizzagate conspiracy theory perpetuated by Alex Jones claimed that Hillary Clinton and John Pedesta were involved in a satanic pedophilic human trafficking ring run in the restaurant’s basement, even though Comet Ping Pong doesn’t have a basement. This conspiracy theory nearly took on deadly consequences when North Carolinian Edgar Welch fired gunshots from his rifle into Comet Ping Pong claiming he was investigating the sinister activities taking place. A few months later after Comet owner James Alefantis wrote Jones a letter, Jones released a public apology for his role in the pizzagate story. However, the timing of his apology indicated that Jones was most likely attempting to avoid a libel suit.
Libel suits aren’t enough to combat the immeasurable consequences of fake news. Freedom of speech is paramount to any nation’s democracy, but it can’t be abused to the point that people can no longer decipher the difference between fact and fiction. Discourse of opinion is important for challenging social norms, but if we continue to allow fake news outlets to exist unchallenged, we risk an exponential increase of ignorance. How can we combat issues of climate change when 48% of Americans and 15% of conservative Republicans believe humans are not the cause for the rapid increase in global warming? How can we have an intellectual debate about fiscal conservatism vs. social safety nets and wealth redistribution when over 12 million Americans believe the country is run by an elite race of lizard-people? How do we improve the education system when many Americans including influential celebrities still believe the world is flat? Suing fake news charlatans like Alex Jones only hacks at the branches of a much deeper well-rooted informational issue. It is imperative that we make a steadfast effort to educate the American people and actively combat the systematic perpetrators of ignorance by exposing them as such.