By Rolando Cerdas Delgado - Informatics degree student
“Fake news” is a well-known concept today by most part of the society in the world. Whether because we have run into one of the ‘innocent’ WhatsApp chains about a potential countrywide power blackout caused by solar flare, or because we have heard the term being mentioned in mass media or television related to a major scandal. Whatever the vehicle, magnitude, and source of the piece of misinformation, most people have experienced fake news personally. The Cambridge Dictionary defines the term as “false stories that appear to be news, spread on the internet or using other media, usually created to influence political views or as a joke”. The biggest problem is that not always everybody considers them to be, indeed, fake or jokes.
During the U.S. presidential elections in 2016, many fake news circulated across all major social networks. But probably the most memorable and frightening story is related to a collection of fake news that assured that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, as well as other members of the party, were involved in a child abuse and sex trafficking ring operated from the a pizza parlor (Kang, cited in Kline, 2017).
According to Robb (2017) the whole conspiracy theory originated from a Facebook post on October 29th, 2016, which soon made its way into Twitter. The story was picked up not only by uninformed individuals, but it was also spread out by far-right websites. The same author presents data provided by Professor Filippo Menczer where he demonstrates that, in period of time of five weeks, around 1.4 million Twitter posts included a hashtag related to the Pizzagate misinformation campaign. Robb (2017) mentions the use of tweet bots as strategy to propagate the news. However, in contrast, Vosoughi et al. (cited in Kim and Dennis, 2019) explain that “fake news spreads faster than true news on social media, primarily because of people, not bots”.
The dissemination of the Pizzagate fake news worsened to a point where many shared the belief that Hillary Clinton was really behind such indecent business. In particular, as described by Hillary Clinton, “a very unfortunate young man from North Carolina” decided to take action and rescue the abused children (Politics and Prose, 2017). Edgar Maddison Welch was one of many who believed on the conspiracy theory and on December 1st, 2016 entered the premises of the Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant armed with a rifle with the purpose of finding and liberating children from the “child abuse and sex ring” that supposedly operated from the basement of the pizza business. Welch did not find any children being kept captive; and in fact, the place does not even have a basement (Robb, 2017).
Many of the consequences of the Pizzagate conspiracy will probably remain unmeasurable. The main purpose for the distribution of these fake news was not to provoke people to break into a pizza place to rescue children, but it was rather to influence voting decisions during a tough presidential campaign (Kline, 2017). Kline (2017) explains that conspiracy theories are born easily during time of uncertainty and instability, right when society is more vulnerable and easier to persuade; right when people do not want to trust others and rather hear what they want.
There are three main factors that can influence people to believe in fake news during such times. The first reason is “fake news is more novel and more affectively engaging than truthful news” (Kline, 2017); second, we are biased to what we believe (Mills et al., 2019); and third, a “human touch” (Robb, 2017) to motivate others to roll the snowball. Image 1 shows a pro-Pizzagate conspiracist video in You Tube with thousands of likes and hundreds for comments supporting the conspiracy. Clearly, we will not get rid of fake news or people who believe in them any time soon.