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Beware of Fake News Online

February 2017

This is painful to write, knowing that at least some of my readers are convinced that Hillary Clinton and her campaign chief John Podesta are at the head of a pedophile ring based in Washington, DC. This ring, alleged to be the largest in the world, is said to "rape, sodomize, murder, and cannibalize children."

I can't joke about this topic in the way I often do. The issue of so-called fake news has become serious. And it may even have played a role in the recent election.

The supposed pedophile ring is said to operate out of a pizza parlor known as Comet Ping Pong, and the scandal is referred to as PizzaGate. This story has been circulated widely on the Internet, especially via Facebook and Twitter.

For example, I received an excited email from an acquaintance with a link to posts from the Twitter account of the renowned prosecutor Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City, in which he talks about the depredations of PizzaGate and says that "it's completely true." The page contains an "Official Statement" from him, in which he urges people to share his statement and help expose the scandal. But in fact, the real Rudy Giuliani doesn't use Twitter. Someone was posing as him. It was all fake.

The PizzaGate story has been circulated so widely, and there are so many reports online, that it's easy to fall for it. As did 28-year-old Edgar Welch of North Carolina. He became so convinced of the existence of the pedophile ring at Comet Ping Pong that he packed up a Colt AR-15 rifle, a Colt .38 handgun, a shotgun, and a folding knife and drove to Washington, DC, with the intention of rescuing the child sex slaves. He went into Comet Ping Pong and spent 45 minutes searching, firing several shots from the rifle but not injuring anyone. He didn't find any children and immediately surrendered peacefully to authorities.

He's not alone. Michael G. Flynn was fired from Donald Trump's transition team in December after repeatedly promoting PizzaGate online. And as I write this, Flynn's father, Lieutenant General Michael T. Flynn, is slated to be national security advisor in the Trump administration. He, too, appeared to be referring to PizzaGate when he posted this to Twitter on Nov. 3: "U decide - NYPD Blows Whistle on New Hillary Emails: Money Laundering, Sex Crimes w Children, etc...MUST READ! https://t.co/O0bVJT3QDr. The link is to a story on TruePundit alleging Clinton's involvement in child exploitation, sex crimes with children, etc.

A study by the website BuzzFeed found that in the three months leading up to the election, fake election news stories on Facebook were actually shared more times than election-related news stories from outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, and NBC News. The 20 most popular false news stories received 8,711,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook compared to 7,367,000 for the 20 most popular news stories from major news outlets.

In late 2016 Facebook and Google vowed to take steps to limit the spread of misinformation. Facebook said it would make it easier to report fake news, would partner with fact-checking organizations to label suspect articles, and would no longer allow Facebook ads to appear on fake news websites — a substantial source of income for these sites.

It turns out that the motivation for fake news stories seems not to be ideology but money. For example, the second-most popular fake news story on Facebook leading up to the election was "Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President, Releases Statement." It received nearly 1 million Facebook shares, comments, and reactions. The story originated on the WTOE 5 News website, which refers to itself as a "fantasy news website." That fake story generated a lot of traffic, and income, for the site.

Some 140 fake news websites related to the topic of Donald Trump were traced to a small town in Macedonia, where a group of teens figured out that it was an easy way to make money. In the U.S., in mid-November 38-year-old Paul Horner admitted in an interview in the Washington Post to making $10,000 a month from Google Adsense on his fake news sites (though he prefers to call it satire). Trump's son Eric and his campaign manager Corey Lewandowski both shared one of Horner's false articles, and Horner's articles have appeared on Google News.

I have friends who will say I've been brainwashed, that the real fake news is found in the New York Times, Washington Post, NBC News, etc. That may be true, but frankly I'm more inclined to believe those sources than I am a website that says Hillary Clinton is selling children to be eaten.

© 2017 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

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