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OpinionOpEd

At a D.C. pizzeria, the dangers of fake news just got all too real

Edgar Maddison Welch, 28 of Salisbury, N.C., surrenders

Edgar Maddison Welch, 28 of Salisbury, N.C., surrenders to police Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016, in Washington. Welch, who said he was investigating a conspiracy theory about Hillary Clinton running a child sex ring out of a pizza place, fired an assault rifle inside the restaurant on Sunday injuring no one, police and news reports said. (Sathi Soma via AP) Photo Credit: AP

The fake news stuff we’ve been talking about?

That all just got real.

An entire D.C. neighborhood was in lockdown Sunday because some dope with a gun believed a fake news story that wildly and wrongly linked a neighborhood pizzeria to a child sex ring.

You could conclude that Edgar Maddison Welch, the 28-year-old man from North Carolina who allegedly walked into the Comet Ping Pong restaurant carrying an assault rifle, pointed it at an employee and then fired one or more shots, might be a singular nut job.

He told police he had come to the restaurant to “self-investigate” a false election-related conspiracy theory that linked Hillary Clinton to the child sex ring.

But he wasn’t the only dope who was roped into this.

A week before the presidential election, the son of retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn - the man Donald Trump has selected as his national security adviser - shared the fake Comet Ping Pong conspiracy story.

Thousands of others shared it, too.

Days later, the retired general himself tweeted a hashtag referring to another fake news story that accused Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, of satanic rituals using body fluids.

That there, the Satanic ritual stuff, is straight out of the grocery checkout line.

Remember when Americans used to laugh at the crazy-bad supermarket tabloid stories on “Bat Boy!” or “Titanic Survivors Alive!” or “Alien Bible Found! They worship Oprah!”?

What was different back then?

Why didn’t a desperado come storming toward the White House gates with his gun after the story about George Bush meeting with aliens hit the stands?

Because most people knew the source of the news - the National Enquirer, News of the World, etc. - wasn’t remotely serious, as lacking in nutrition as the candy bars the tabloids were displayed alongside.

But in today’s social media universe, there’s a flood of stories from fake news sites that look legit. And stories that sound as ludicrous as alien love triangles don’t get a laugh, they get shared by our leaders, generating violent threats, dangerous reactions and, in the worst cases, bloodshed.

In an era when we have more access to more information than ever before, we’ve also become more willing to believe the crazy - and share it with others.

What happened at Comet Ping Pong isn’t the first time we’ve seen real consequences to the doctored news phenomenon.

A year ago, a gotcha video - created by folks who lied, schemed and plotted to get a doctor to talk about the graphic details of her work while secretly being record - was pinging in the head of Robert Lewis Dear Jr. when he stormed a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado.

Dear used the phrase “no more baby parts” after he allegedly killed three people - a police officer, an Iraq war veteran and a mother of two - and injured nine others in that shooting rampage.

Grandstanding congressmen fed him the “baby parts” line after they watched that heavily edited video of a Planned Parenthood executive talking about the donation of tissue from aborted fetuses. (They must’ve forgot that fetal tissue has been used in important medical research since the 1930s and helped produce vaccines for polio, measles and mumps.)

The video was created under false pretenses, heavily edited and would have never met the standards of a legitimate news organization.

That faux investigation ended in hours of congressional hearings, a budget crisis for Planned Parenthood in many states, and the deaths of those three people in Colorado.

Five years ago, it wasn’t fake news but an equally careless use of words that helped incite an equally terrible burst of violence.

Sarah Palin’s supporters put out a map with crosshairs targeting the districts of 20 House Democrats and urging folks: “’Don’t Retreat, Instead - RELOAD!’”

Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Arizona, was on that map and criticized it as soon as it was posted online and her office was vandalized.

“We’re on Sarah Palin’s targeted list, but the thing is that the way she has it depicted has the cross hairs of a gun sight over our district,” Giffords told MSNBC at the time. “When people do that, they’ve got to realize there’s consequences to that action.”

On Jan. 8, 2011, the consequences were chilling: Jared Loughner showed up with a gun outside a Tucson supermarket where Giffords was greeting constituents and killed six people and injured 20 more, including Giffords.

Still, as the funerals were being held and Giffords was in intensive care, Palin’s supporters insisted crosshairs were never a reference to guns.

Words matter.

That kind of disregard for common sense and responsibility has kudzu-ed into what we have today, educated leaders willing to believe conspiracy theories about child sex rings and satanic rituals thanks to nothing more than a slick-looking online story.

Get a grip, America.

The owner of Comet Ping Pong had endured weeks of death threats. Phone calls, messages, stalkers, the employees have been harassed.

They’ve all complained about the relentless attacks. Then they faced a real attack, which has left a business and a neighborhood deeply shaken.

“Let me state unequivocally: these stories are completely and entirely false, and there is no basis in fact to any of them,” wrote owner James Alefantis, on his Comet Ping Pong Facebook page Sunday night.

There is no FBI investigation, no New York Police Department takedown. None of that.

“What happened today demonstrates that promoting false and reckless conspiracy theories comes with consequences,” wrote Alefantis. “I hope that those involved in fanning these flames will take a moment to contemplate what happened here today, and stop promoting these falsehoods right away.”

Those who run our social media companies and internet search engines need to find a way to help a gullible country differentiate between fake news and real news. Let’s make America believe in facts again.

Dvorak is a Washington Post columnist.

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