When Edgar M. Welch walked into a Washington, DC pizza parlour, armed with a military grade AR-15 rifle, he thought he was on a heroic mission. He was going to save children from a secret child pedophile ring, with a notorious ringleader: former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Welch told the New York Times that as he drove into town to pay an investigatory visit to the restaurant, his “heart was breaking over the thought of innocent people suffering.”
He entered the restaurant and started shooting. Thankfully, no one was hurt and he was brought into police custody.
It’s hardly worth mentioning, but obviously there is no child pedophile ring orchestrated out of the basement of Comet Ping Pong pizzeria (in fact, Comet Ping Pong has no basement.)
But despite frequent debunking, the claim still has fervent defenders all over the internet, saying the “mainstream media” (the English version of Lügenpresse) is trying to cover up the truth.
Even Welch, now in prison, isn’t convinced that just because he found no children, there isn’t really some sinister truth to “pizzagate.” In fact, investigation into and dismissal of the claim by journalists and fact-checkers has only made the story spread further.
Pizzagate is only one of the latest (and most outlandish) examples of “fake news” being hotly discussed by the press.
The production of excitingly packaged lies, produced by media outlets hoping to earn money from clicks and then spread ceaselessly by users of social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, has been seen as a major issue in the US election, confusing voters from the left and the right alike and perhaps helping propel Donald Trump into the presidency.
And occasionally these emotionally manipulative stories push people to violence.
But here in Germany, people don’t fall for egregious lies and conspiracy theories so easily, do they?
After all, German news prides itself on being sober (read: boring) and shying away from flashy, confrontational style programmes, the likes of which run 24 hours a day on American news channels. But not so fast. Haven’t we already seen violent acts propelled by fake news here in Germany?
In the west German town Altena, a man confessed to setting a home alight from the basement while seven refugees slept above. In court, he said, “I thought they are all criminals.”
Another man in Escheburg threw an incendiary device into a refugee shelter, confessing later that he saw himself as a “protector of women and children.”
Hundreds of arson cases and hate crimes over the last year show that there are plenty of Germans who envision themselves as heroes like Welch, prepared to commit violence to protect the innocent – unaware that they themselves are the real threat.
Despite numerous police reports demonstrating that crime is no more prevalent among refugees than any other segment of the population, and despite the fact that reported rape, sexual assault, murder and street crime all declined last year, as close to 900,000 refugees came to Germany, the belief in “fake” refugees and criminal migrants only grows stronger. It is only bolstered by posts shared by “concerned citizens” on Facebook that link to well-known Islamophobic conspiracy sites such as Gatestone Institute and Infowars.
Fake-news evangelists spread easily falsifiable stories amongst their networks, and comment under real news posts from sites like The Local to link to fear-mongering articles and videos that some people mistake for being real, and spread still further.
Until somewhere down the line, it pushes a violent, fearful person to take matters into their own hands.
In the US there is a saying: “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” The problem with “fake news” (or as we used to more accurately refer to it, propaganda) is that the people who fall for it the hardest are those who believe they stand for something.
The ones who share these propaganda pieces without caring enough to take a second and consider its authenticity are enabling people who really can’t tell the difference between fact and fiction.
In order not to become victimized by these wannabe heroes, we need more than ever to stand up for facts and real news, and against lazy stereotypes and logical fallacies. And we need to call out the people in our networks who help spread the hate before fake news turns into real consequences.
Christina Lee is a Berlin-based researcher and journalist who often writes on the topics of migration, human rights and feminism. She is sub-managing editor of the journal Refugee Review and can be found on Twitter: @tinaleeinberlin