Trump claims mirror conspiracy website
The power of ‘fake news’
Some of the most incendiary claims made by Donald Trump - both before and after his election appear to be based on a US website denounced as a purveyor of hoaxes and conspiracy theories. The president-elect’s unsubstantiated claim this week that “millions” of people voted illegally in this month’s election had been reported on the infowars.com website, based on a study debunked by the online fact-check group Snopes and others.
It was not the first time Trump had repeated information reported in infowars, a site operated by radio host Alex Jones, who is known for claims that the 9/11 attacks were faked by the US government. During the White House campaign, Trump had repeated claims made on infowars that his rival Hillary Clinton was “wearing an earpiece” and that Muslims had celebrated during the Sept 11 attacks.
Left-leaning media watchdog group Media Matters for America has documented dozens of instances where Trump has recycled claims from Jones and infowars. Trump has not repeated some of the most outlandish claims on infowars - that aliens from space had landed in Florida or that the mass killing of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School was faked to win support for gun control - but critics say that it would be troubling for the president-elect to rely on the site for information.
“A lot of what he (Jones) says is just pure nonsense,” said Angelo Carusone of Media Matters. “What he is presenting is an alternative universe. He is advancing a broader world view that there is a global world government and every day they are going out there to take away your power.” For Carusone, it remains unclear if Trump believes what was published on infowars or is merely pandering to its readers, but he said either scenario would be disturbing.
For example, Carusone said that infowars ran “completely fabricated” stories saying that Muslims were imposing sharia law in US cities. “If the president believes that and starts to make policy based on the belief that we have sharia law, we have a problem,” said Carusone. Infowars has nonetheless amassed a significant reader base - with some 14.3 million unique global visitors and 75 million views over the past month, according to the web intelligence firm Quantcast.
Other spectacular - and wholly unsubstantiated - stories on the site included claims that Clinton was involved in a child pedophilia ring operated out of a Washington pizza parlor, and that juice boxes had been laced with chemicals to induce homosexuality in children. In the most recent incident, Trump appeared to echo the claim by infowars that he would have won the popular vote against Clinton in addition to the Electoral College if votes by illegal immigrants were discounted. As it stands, Clinton won the popular vote by more than two million ballots and both experts and officials across the political spectrum have disparaged Trump’s unsubstantiated claim of mass fraud.
Trump was interviewed during the campaign by Jones, who also claimed to have had several phone conversations with the Republican billionaire, raising concerns about influence on policy. “Alex Jones is the most prolific and unhinged conspiracy theorist in America,” said Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group which monitors “hate groups.”“The fact that our presidentelect treats him as if he were a serious thinker and critic is appalling. This is a man who believes, among other things, that the government is responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing, the Boston Marathon attack, the mass murder in Orlando, Florida, and any number of other similar attacks by terrorists.” —AFP
The Internet rumor had the makings of a bizarrely sordid scandal involving a top political aide to Hillary Clinton, allegations of pedophilia and a restaurant in an upscale part of Washington. It ended in death threats against a small business owner - and became a shocking case study in the dangers of the growing prevalence of “fake news”. The fake news phenomenon has sent major internet companies scrambling to respond amid claims that bogus reports that proliferated ahead of the US presidential election may have skewed the result.
This episode started in October after WikiLeaks published a batch of hacked emails from John Podesta, the chairman of Clinton’s presidential campaign. Journalists and others have pored over the tens of thousands of stolen communications in search of politically relevant information. But some readers honed in on a handful of innocuous messages recounting a Clinton fundraiser involving James Alefantis, the owner of a popular Washington pizzeria called Comet.
Almost immediately, “pizzagate” was born as right-leaning conspiracy theorists on the discussion sites 4chan and Reddit claimed Comet was not just a purveyor of pizza and beer but in fact a sinister front hiding a politically connected pedophile ring. Word quickly spread. “They’ve apparently uncovered an elite child trafficking network which celebrates its tendencies using code words and disturbing artworks,” alleged the website The Vigilant Citizen, which claims to study symbols.
In this world, nothing was innocent. Nude paintings on the walls were suspect. Patterns on a child’s dress or the menu revealed supposed pedophile symbols and a picture of a girl playing with masking tape was evidence of sexual abuse. Theorists even resorted to the French language in search of potential codes: the name James Alefantis was supposedly derived from the French phrase for“I love children.”
As the Nov 8 election drew near, hundreds of threatening messages flooded Alefantis’s Instagram account. The restaurant’s Facebook page was also barraged with negative comments. “My first reaction was there’s a bunch of crazies out there. Everyone is hyped up about the election, so it will go away,” Alefantis told AFP. “But instead it went the other direction.”
After Donald Trump’s shock victory, things got even worse. “It was a combination of people telling us that they were going to come and do something or that we’ve been found out and that we should show where the tunnels are,” Alefantis told AFP. To all appearances, there is nothing untoward about Comet. Friendly and stylish, the restaurant is divided into several areas, including one with ping-pong and Fussball tables, and stages for alternative rock performances in the evening. “Comet is a place that bridges,” said neighborhood resident Leslie Harris who is helping the restaurant respond to the onslaught. “In the early evening, people with strollers bring their little kids in for pizzas. It’s an adult hang out but the irony of it is that it has also been this safe place for our teenagers.”
Alefantis believes the “coordinated and orchestrated attack” was in reality retribution for his political views and his support of Democrats. “I’m an independent business owner and I feel I have the right to make decisions on who I support and how I utilize my resources,” he said. Alefantis has contacted the local police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation but there is little that can be done for the time being. Under pressure, Reddit has closed the “pizzagate” discussion, citing“repeated violations of the terms of our content policy”.
But the attacks have not ended. “It would be like whack-a-mole,” said Claire Wardle of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. “It’s impossible to regulate or to police these places so instead we have to think of other ways to give users tools to recognize what’s trustworthy or not.”In the meantime, Alefantis is calling for greater social media awareness. “It has to be recognized within the broader society that social media can be weaponized,” he said. “You can be easily taken down or destroyed by this sort of attacks.” —AFP