The most dangerous thing about fake news sites is not what they say, but how they say it

Alex Jones, an american conspiracy theorist and radio show host, is escorted out of a crowd of protesters after he said he was attacked in Public Square on Tuesday, July 19 2016, in Cleveland, during the second day of the Republican convention. CREDIT: AP Photo/John Minchillo

In journalism, the credo imparted upon cub reporters is simple: “Trust, but verify.” Sources are an important part of any story, but what they say should be subjected to close scrutiny and verified whenever possible.

In other words, the impetus is on the reporter to provide hard evidence and authoritative confirmation of a story before publishing — an intentionally high bar for any journalist to clear.

Fake news sites, which spin innuendo, rumor and conspiracy into digestible, shareable headlines, has inverted that obligation.

Over the weekend, a gunman was arrested after entering Comet Ping Pong, a pizzeria in Washington, D.C. at the center of a conspiracy theory advanced by white supremacists and fake news sites. For weeks, conservatives have obsessed over the pizzeria, insisting—with zero evidence — it is a front for a child abuse ring with ties to the Clintons.

The ludicrous story was largely confined to the more vile corners of the internet, at least until a member of Donald Trump’s transition team promoted it. Michael Flynn Jr., whose rumor-mongering father is Donald Trump’s pick for national security adviser and who himself has been active on Trump’s transition team, spent the weekend sharing the conspiracy.

His response to those who called him out for spreading a lie is telling — and indicative of the recent spread of fake news.

“Until Pizzagate is proven false, it’ll remain a story,” he tweeted.

First of all, arguing something is true simply because it hasn’t yet been disproven is a logical fallacy usually weeded out by the end of your freshman year of high school. But even when journalists oblige by debunking conspiracies like PizzaGate, their work is dismissed as biased drivel from a media that’s in cahoots with the liberal elitist cabal.

Take another recent fake news story. It is indisputable that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by more than 2 million votes. And yet for a time, the first link in Google when you searched for “final election results” was a story from a fake news website alleging Trump won by a narrow margin.

When Trump supporters were presented with hard evidence — like, say, the raw vote totals taken directly from state boards of election — the data only birthed a new fake news story, this time about 3 million votes being illegally cast by a consortium of dead and non-citizen voters.

There is no evidence that any large-scale voter fraud took place in 2016, or in any presidential election in modern history. But that’s of no importance to the Trump supporters who are now demanding hard evidence that 3 million people didn’t vote illegally — the same logic being employed by Flynn Jr.

Verification, normally the absolute minimum requirement for publication, is not only expendable but anathema to fake news sites. Journalists who are trained to search for and promote the verifiable truth in the service of their readers are now being asked to chase down readers’ feverish premonitions instead. And when journalists invariably fail to do so, they unwittingly lend credence to the very conspiracies they sought to undermine.

It’s easy to blame Donald Trump and his own strained relationship with the truth for the warm, welcoming climate in which fake news has thrived. But the seeds were planted ages ago by many of the same conservatives who, years later, stood by aghast as a racist reality television star seized control of their party.

For years, Republicans have primed their voters to distrust the media, scoff at statistics and science, and generally treat verifiable information as biased. There are fake news sites that cater to the left as well, but as one of the more prominent creators of fake news told NPR, conservatives are far more susceptible to fake news stories, in part because they distrust actual news by far wider margins.

Fake news is insidious in a number of ways, but its most dangerous gimmick is its perversion of the contract journalists have with news consumers to deliver stories that have been thoroughly and responsibly vetted.