Reflecting on the holiday that is bearing down on us this week, I am thankful for the First Amendment, which protects the rights of every American to the free exercise of religion, the freedom of speech and of the press, the right to peaceably assemble and to petition the government for redress of grievances. As a newspaper journalist for more than three decades, I am especially fond of the freedom of the press, and especially thankful for reporters, because they stand as a bulwark against a rising tide of internet propaganda, much of it outright lies that are spread and cultivated by people with ulterior motives.
A recent story produced by the Center for Investigative Reporting — which has produced top-notch journalism for 40 years — examines the phenomenon of the "Pizzagate" scandal and the shadowy forces that helped to spread it.
Pizzagate was the completely ludicrous allegation that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex slavery ring out of the basement of Comet Ping Pong, a Washington, D.C., family pizza parlor. Spawned by a Facebook post and spread by Twitter, the fake story was picked up by far-right websites Breitbart and InfoWars. Before it was over, the hoax had prompted one unhinged man to go to Washington and walk into Comet Pizza with an assault weapon to "save the children." He found no captives, of course, just kids eating pizza with their parents. The place doesn't even have a basement.
But what is most disturbing about the Pizzagate hoax is what the investigative reporters uncovered: evidence that the story was being spread by internet "bots" — automated social media accounts and groups of accounts that generate tens of thousands of tweets and posts. In addition, anonymous "users" hold forth on social media sites such as 4chan and Reddit, and the lies they spread go viral from there.
One researcher, a professor of informatics at Indiana University, found the Pizzagate allegation was shared 1.4 million times by more than 250,000 accounts in its first five weeks. The reporters also found that at least 14 social media accounts with links to Russia retweeted the "story."
There is more — too much to recount here. Read the reporting for yourself at www.revealnews.org/article/anatomy-of-a-fake-news-scandal/.
I'm not here to point fingers at one side of the political spectrum or the other. There is fake news on the left as well.
The point is that there is an abundance of solid, factual, responsible journalism being produced and disseminated online. Virtually every newspaper in the country publishes its stories online and shares them on Facebook and Twitter. There are also internet-only publications that do a good job of producing responsible journalism. But those stories can't compete with trolls and bots spreading complete lies at superhuman speed.
The First Amendment is a marvelous thing. But the First Amendment cannot by itself preserve the role of a free press in American society. If news consumers no longer recognize the value of factual news reporting, or can no longer tell the difference between real news and fake news, then we really will have entered a "post-truth" era.
— Reach Editorial Page Editor Gary Nelson at firstname.lastname@example.org.