‘Pizzagate’ scare becomes flashpoint in fake news debate

‘Pizzagate’ scare becomes flashpoint in fake news debate
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A conspiracy theory that drove a man to fire a gun inside of a Washington, D.C., pizzeria is fueling conflict between the media and President-elect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump pens op-ed on kindergartners learning tech Bharara, Yates tamp down expectations Mueller will bring criminal charges Overnight Cybersecurity: Equifax security employee left after breach | Lawmakers float bill to reform warrantless surveillance | Intel leaders keeping collusion probe open MORE’s inner circle over the dissemination of fake news.

The so-called Pizzagate controversy leaped from conspiracy-minded corners of the internet into the real world over the weekend when a man from North Carolina fired a rifle inside Comet Ping Pong, a family restaurant in the Northwest quadrant of the nation’s capital.

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Comet’s owners and workers have been besieged with threats and nasty messages since a story began to circulate online that the restaurant was a front for a child sex ring operated by top Democrats, including presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonChris Murphy’s profile rises with gun tragedies DNC, RNC step up cyber protections Gun proposal picks up GOP support MORE.

That theory has been pushed by some of Trump’s supporters, including Michael Flynn Jr., the son of Trump’s top national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn.

Flynn Jr. has advised his father and accompanied him to meetings at Trump Tower. CNN reported Monday that the younger Flynn also has a transition team email address, an indication that he is working for the president-elect in some capacity.

Amid the controversy, Flynn Jr. changed his Twitter bio from saying he is the son of Michael Flynn to stating, “My comments are my own.”

But the controversy has cast further scrutiny on the elder Flynn, whom Trump has chosen to lead the White House’s National Security Council. The retired Army officer has shared separate false stories about Clinton’s supposed involvement in child trafficking.

Pizzagate dominated political chatter on Monday, stirring heated debate over the proliferation of fake news and the president-elect’s propensity to share dubious information. 

“Even without knowing precisely what the motives were, there’s no denying the corrosive effect that some of these false reports have had on our political debate,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters. 

“That’s concerning in a political context. It’s deeply troubling that some of those false reports could lead to violence.”

Top anchors on cable news outlets criticized Flynn and his son on Monday for passing off the Pizzagate story and other questionable material as legitimate news.

Flynn Jr. mockingly tweeted out messages he received from Jake Tapper, in which the CNN anchor implored him to stop spreading the conspiracy theory.

“The police called ‘Pizzagate’ a fictitious conspiracy theory tonight,” Tapper wrote to the younger Flynn. “Does someone have to die before you take this shit seriously? Spreading this nonsense is dangerous.”

Flynn Jr. responded on Twitter: “Want evidence??? I must’ve really hit a nerve.”

On MSNBC, Joe Scarborough lashed out at the elder Flynn, who earlier this year apologized for retweeting an anti-Semitic slur. Michael Flynn has also been criticized for sharing fake news stories and tweets from controversial figures on the alt-right, a movement often associated with white nationalism.

“He has left a trail of crap behind him with retweets, retweeting something about Jews, retweeting something about Muslims, retweeting fake news,” Scarborough said. “He needs to clean this up. He needs to step up and clean this up.”

The Trump transition team did not respond to a request for comment, but the president-elect’s allies have so far been dismissive of the controversy over fake news.

Trump was roundly criticized by the media for making the baseless claim that “millions” of people had illegally cast ballots for Clinton, helping her to a popular vote victory in the election.

Trump’s top lieutenants, like incoming chief of staff Reince Priebus, have refused to concede that the claim was made up. Instead, they’ve sought to put the burden of proof on those questioning Trump’s claim to prove him wrong.

Speaking Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” anchor John Dickerson pressed Priebus on whether Trump and his team shouldn’t be held to a higher standard as they prepare to enter the White House.

“When you’re president, can you just offer a theory that has no evidence behind it or does he have to tighten up his standard of proof?” Dickerson asked.

“I think he’s done a great job,” Priebus responded. “I think the president-elect is someone who has pushed the envelope and caused people to think in this country. He has not taken conventional thought on every single issue and has caused people to look at issues they may have taken for granted.”

Some Republicans have gleefully turned the fight over fake news against the media and Democrats.

Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, has blamed the proliferation of fake news shared on Facebook — some of which is believed to originate in Russia — for Clinton’s campaign loss. That charge has drawn mockery from conservatives.

The real fake news, Trump’s allies have said, is what the mainstream media printed ahead of the election — that Clinton would easily defeat Trump and that Democrats would reclaim a majority in the Senate.

On Monday, in response to the Comet Ping Pong incident, conservatives and Trump allies argued that the media has seized on the fake news angle to blame the actions of a mad man on Trump’s supporters.

“There’s now an eager effort to shift responsibility from the shooter to whoever wrote about this restaurant,” tweeted National Review writer Jim Geraghty.

Former Trump campaign adviser Steve Cortes noted that the president-elect has said he is saddened to hear of acts of violence or harassment carried out by his supporters and has publicly told them to stop.

“Here in Chicago, a guy was viciously beaten on videotape and the assailants believed he had voted for Donald Trump,” Cortes said, referring to a Nov. 9 incident in Chicago’s West Side. “He was pulled out of his car, carjacked. Are we to immediately then ascribe blame to Hillary Clinton for that? I think that’s incredibly unfair.”

Still, the outburst of violence at the restaurant has heightened concerns inside of Washington about the real-world impact of false information that spreads online.

“It raises questions about what their filters are and how they are taking in news and processing it and informing or influencing others with it,” said Ron Hosko, a former senior FBI official who now leads the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund. “You hope that people coming into the government and settling into roles of great importance and authority are informed by reality.”