We are living in a time when our concepts of news, information, fact and fiction are being undermined by rapidly advancing communications technology.
The culprits are usually one form of social media or another, especially the use of Twitter, which disseminates rumors at lightspeed — in ways that print publications and even television never would or could.
An April 2 Washington Post article that traced how a tweet can reach firestorm stage underscores just what kind of damage (as well as, potentially, long-term good) can be created in the wake of un-fact-checked content in the Twitterverse.
It’s the story that began with internet comments about a “spike” in missing teenage girls in Washington, D.C., most of them African American. These cases allegedly remained unsolved and were getting scant attention from the Metropolitan Police Department. The tweets went viral and the stories national, fired up by comments from celebrities as disparate as LL Cool J and Roseanne Barr.
As panic spread through the affected communities, the police and Mayor Muriel Bowser responded to the reports of this perceived trend, stoked with exaggeration and understandably strong feelings, even outrage. Some of the teens mentioned were, in fact, temporary runaways who had been located. A few others were not. But there was no spike in missing teens.
The dust-up exposed just how quickly genuine information and fast-and-loose information can become a volatile stew of “news” or “fake news” — a phrase used with almost casual disdain by our highest ranking political leaders to distract from criticism or looming scandal (while generating and making use of fake news themselves).
In the missing-girls brouhaha, Bowser acknowledged that the problem needed more attention from the city government and the police because it involved economically challenged, predominantly black parts of the District. Alas, the perception persists that police are less prone to deal with reports of missing girls in such neighborhood than in wealthier (read: whiter) parts of the city.
During the heated internet and media debate, the much publicized case of then eight-year-old Relisha Rudd, missing since 2014, came up again.
Fake news has consequences. Most of the time, social media and the web are arenas of short-term memory, flaring up with the next big rumor and the rise of the next troll. Speaking of which: it should be noted that conspiracy theorist Alex Jones apologized for spreading an internet rumor about an alleged sex-trafficking ring in which Hillary Clinton was involved, based at the Comet Ping Pong pizza parlor on Connecticut Avenue.
Just four months ago, the Pizzagate lie provoked a North Carolina man to drive up to D.C., march into the restaurant and fire his semiautomatic rifle. No one was hurt. He remains in custody, facing more than a year in prison, and this rumor — now not only fake news but old news — is dead and forgotten.