Fear and Loathing in Fake News Facebook

“A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth has time to put on its shoes”

It is strangely fitting that one of the most infamous quotes on the subject of falsehoods has no known author. It has been ascribed to such noble figures as Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, Jonathan Swift, and Alexander Pope. Hitler’s favorite propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, is often thought of as the founder but while he did coin the term ‘Big Lie’, for the truthism that a lie repeated often enough becomes fact, the traveling truth predates him by more than a century. Perhaps we will never know who spoke the now infamous words, but we see their effect both online and off. The frightening reality is that the fake news which permeates social media is responsible for the radicalization of homegrown terrorists.

Since the rapid, and disturbing, rise of ISIS sympathizers in the West, the media and political organizations have focused on the role of social media and how it is being used to recruit terrorists. San Bernardino, Dallas, Orlando are all examples of how ISIS has utilized the incredible, and far-reaching, powers of social media to inundate potential terrorists with a daily diet of propaganda, extremism, and the idea of heavenly rewards. Police and intelligence agencies are turning their attention to how the terror group is using YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking services to bombard lonely and frustrated netizens, perfect candidates for radicalization, to turn them into unsuspected jihadists. For ISIS and other terror groups, online radicalization is the perfect recruitment tool for the cash-strapped insurgency group: all they need is an internet connection and a false identity, and they can begin the process of raising a small army of jihadist terrorists in the heart of the USA.

However, while everyone is focusing on the terrorists and their plans to radicalize the youth of America, there is little attention being paid to the online radicalization of white males. In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s win, itself a beneficiary of false news stories, we see the manifestation of violent extremism in the form of a significant increase in hate crimes and violent threats towards innocent minorities and businesses. Just this week, a gunman walked into a pizza parlor, Comet Ping Pong, to ‘investigate’ a child sex ring that he had learned about through a fake news story. The fact that the false story had been pushed by Michael Flynn Jr, a member of Trump’s transition team and the son of his National Security Advisor, gave his story an aura of credibility that could only be seen in this bizarre, ‘post-truth’ world that we seem to inhabit.

The disturbing reality is that the pizzagate episode could have ended in tragedy. Had the gunman open fired on staff or customers in the restaurant, under the belief that he was protecting the lives of innocent children condemned to a life of sex slavery, then we would be mourning the deaths of a number of innocent people today.

Social media is saturated with fake news from legitimate looking websites. People are far too easily failing to discern between fake and real news. Conspiracy theories, bogus information, and inflammatory claims are all packaged into quickly digestible articles with click-bait headlines. All of this, in conjunction with a renewed populist push towards ethnonationalism, is leading to the online radicalization of white males. Our ‘yeehawdist’ recruits are far more dangerous than those from ISIS because they aren’t in need of conversion to a violent ideology; many of them have already been raised on one. Violence, xenophobia, and toxic masculinity have been combined with white nationalism to create an aura of invincibility in the wake of Trump’s election. This belief in their moral superiority is leading these newly-radicalized converts to sexually assault women (remember: the President-elect has allowed them to grab any woman by the pussy), assault hijab-wearing immigrants, spray-paint swastikas on synagogues, and intimidate anyone that they feel contributes to the downfall of America. These are the same yeehawdists who believed that the Federal government was taking their guns away, that Obama was a secret Muslim, and that Black Lives Matter are akin to the KKK. These are the same people who will also walk into a restaurant with an assault rifle to self-investigate a pedophile ring because they read about it on Facebook.

Not everyone will act on a fake news story, as the perpetrator of pizzagate did when he walked into Comet Ping Pong. The reality is that those who will are heavily armed and are suspicious of government and police agencies. These radicalized terrorists are simply wicks looking for a flame. The spark that will lead to a mass shooting will be an innocuous story concocted in a third-floor apartment in Crimea and pushed to prominence via Facebook. The threat from domestic terrorism has never been higher and the echo chamber of fake news contributing to radicalization can no longer be ignored.

A Pakistani preacher telling his students that the Jews are behind 9/11 in a bid to radicalize them is as dangerous as a fake news site announcing that Hillary Clinton runs a pedophile ring in DC. Both speak from positions of authority, the preacher from a communal religious authority and the fake news site from an appearance of media legitimacy, both are trying to undermine the truth and both are more than happy to see their students commit violence in their name. Social networking sites have taken a significant step towards collaborating on preventing terrorist and racializing content from reaching their users but the same must be done for fake news.

Fake news is a real problem for the social networks, and it extends beyond our apparent illiteracy to our inability to discern false from actual news. We cannot say that the inundation of bogus news sites tipped the scales in favor of Trump’s win, but it certainly created a significant narrative for his supporters to follow. What we can say is that an increasingly radicalized populace is now being brainwashed by the fake news sites and it is up to police and intelligence agencies, as well as the social networks themselves, to tackle it with the same vigor that it does ISIS. Failing to do so could soon have catastrophic results.