aNewDomain — The day after a gunman entered a Washington DC pizza joint at the center of a Reddit-borne conspiracy theory, claiming he was there to “self-investigate it,” a high-profile political activist warns “criminal charges” are in store for the fake news story’s “publishers.”
In a tweet earlier today, Keep American Great PAC’s Scott Dworkin said “we’re filing (a) criminal complaint on (the) publishers” of the so-called #Pizzagate story. That conspiracy theory has tens of thousands of Americans — or more — enraged about a child sex and pornography ring that doesn’t exist.
Those who subscribe to the conspiracy theory claim to believe the ring is orchestrated by former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and campaign chair, John Podesta — and that it is operating out of the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria.
Police say such accusations are baseless.
Dworkin was unavailable for comment during the overnight hours, and it’s unclear, too, what “we” Dworkin refers to in his update.
Edgar Maddison Welch, 28, of Salisbury, N.C., burst into the restaurant Sunday afternoon and discharged his assault rifle, touching off a panic and a lockdown.
That incident, together with recent developments that some say might expose Reddit to litigation, could well combine to create a perfect storm for the social network.
A civil or even a criminal action together with state authorities could unfold quite quickly, with or without Dworkin.
If it does, it’ll be a real shot over the bow to fake news purveyors and the networks who host them, however unwittingly.
A perfect storm
For one thing, Comet Ping Pong shop owner James Alefantis is wide open to file a civil suit against Reddit, whose popular /R/The_Donald appears to have originated the fiction. Some 300,000 members belong to this community of hard-core, alt-right leaning Trump fans, one lawyer told us.
After all, Alefantis has already been in contact with the FBI. He’s received several hundred death threats, he told the New York Times days ago. And, among the images shared in connection with the fake story were shots of babies and childrens taken from websites and online, some of his own children were even shared as “evidence,” he said.
“I’ve done nothing for days but try to clean this up and protect my staff and friends from being terrorized,” he added.
On Sunday, when the man carrying an assault writer burst into his pizza restaurant, families with small children and babies were inside, according to reports.
If Reddit is hit with a lawsuit or criminal complaint, it will be significant: it will be the first time a social media network has been held responsible for fake news, an epidemic of which took social networks by storm during the election cycle, fooling millions to like, share and reshare false claims far more frequently than they were accessing real, media reports about the campaign, according to this Buzzfeed investigation conducted in mid-November
Why Steve Huffman and not, say, Mark Zuckerberg?
The conspiracy theory went viral well before Election Day. Retired US General Mike Flynn was among the more high profile figures to spread it around the social net. Flynn, who is Donald Trump’s national security adviser pick, shared one version of it on Twitter two days before the polls opened with the comment, “you decide.”
But the furor surrounding the fake #Pizzagate controversy grew far greater in the days and weeks since the election. And on Nov. 24, after Reddit members reportedly took to sharing personal information on a subreddit they created around the theory, Reddit closed it down.
Meanwhile, though, it came to light that Reddit’s founder and recently returned 33-year-old CEO, Steve Huffman, edited Reddit member comments at the popular/r/The_Donald forum, which Huffman reportedly admitted after weeks of name-calling from the Trump fans gathered there. To the group, Huffman wrote:
Further stirring up the soup was alt-right commentator Mike Cernovich, who shared an archive of what appears to be this Reddit-internal Slack discussion where Huffman (@spez) openly discussed the matter.
Not only did few find Huffman’s candor refreshing, but most of the first Reddit commenters who reacted immediately called for his ouster.
That would be bad for Huffman, but it is worse news for Reddit. According to this legal analyst, his intrusion into the posts of his users may even have left Reddit open for a lawsuit like the one sources envision may come from Comet Ping Pong management or patrons.
A chilling effect
The legal experts we spoke to for this story said that a suit against Reddit wouldn’t necessarily kill off fake news, but it would provide a significant chill factor.
Fake news, particularly from the alt right, is believed to have influenced the opinions of millions of American voters during this cycle. Though Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg called the idea of fake news actually influencing the outcome a stretch, a growing chorus of media analysts disagree, pointing out how many more eyeballs for affixed on fake news than they were real stories.
Because social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Reddit, however, don’t create the fake news but merely are the platforms on which others proliferate it, whether accidentally or for profit, they have largely been considered safe from suit. A Reddit suit involving fake news would be sure to sound alarms.
And there’s another alarm that the #PizzaGate controversy has already sounded: That even after fake stories are debunked, they are defended all the more by those who refuse to believe the debunkers, and consider all such attempts as just further plots by those who would manipulate them.
For his part, Dworkin is no stranger to controversy when it comes to Trump or his supporters on the right and alt-right. Most notably, his PAC filed a complaint with the US Department of Justice about FBI director James Comey’s decision to release information implying there was a new inquiry into Hillary Clinton’s email case a week before the election, a move that drew heavy criticism from GOP and Democratic lawmakers.
Meanwhile, thousands of Reddit users have so far signed a petition calling for Huffman to resign. His predecessor, Ellen Pao, left last year after riled up users similarly called for her exit.
For aNewDomain, I’m Gina Smith.
Cover image: CapitalWired.com, All Rights Reserved; Comet Ping Pong image: WeLoveDC.com, All Rights Reserved.