The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A harsh truth about fake news: Some people are super gullible

Hillary Clinton, pictured during a speech at the Newseum in Washington, was the subject of some truly bizarre fake news stories during the presidential campaign. (Cliff Owen/AP)

On Sunday, a North Carolina man was arrested at D.C. pizza restaurant Comet Ping Pong after he walked in carrying an assault rifle and fired one or more shots. Police said the man told them he had come to investigate the false election-related conspiracy theory involving Hillary Clinton that we first noted last month, when we took a closer look at why those sorts of fake stories keep resurfacing.  

Fake news is bad because lying is bad. But fake news is a problem because people believe it — or, at least, want to.

After all, it is wrong (factually and ethically) to publish false reports that Donald Trump earned Denzel Washington's endorsement and won the popular vote in the presidential election, but that kind of garbage wouldn't matter very much if everyone could recognize what rotting trash smells like — or, if they did, wanted to avoid it. Clearly they can't, or don't.

A Stanford University study published Tuesday concluded that many students, from middle school through college, struggle to discern what is legitimate reporting and what is not. The Wall Street Journal summarized some of the most alarming findings:

Some 82 percent of middle-schoolers couldn’t distinguish between an ad labeled “sponsored content” and a real news story on a website. . . . More than two out of three middle-schoolers couldn’t see any valid reason to mistrust a post written by a bank executive arguing that young adults need more financial-planning help.
And nearly four in 10 high-school students believed, based on the headline, that a photo of deformed daisies on a photo-sharing site provided strong evidence of toxic conditions near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan, even though no source or location was given for the photo.

Lest you think this kind of naiveté is unique to millennials, consider some of the fake news stories that have caught on in the general population recently. In October, a Twitter joke about an Ohio postal worker who was supposedly tearing up pro-Trump absentee ballots fooled Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge and Jim Hoft. A week before the election, Sean Hannity got taken in by a made-up report that President Obama, Michelle Obama and Elizabeth Warren had unfollowed Hillary Clinton on Twitter.

Consider these points before sharing an article on Facebook. It could be fake. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

Some fabricated stories have been truly bizarre and wildly far-fetched yet have still duped people who read them — or at least, been embraced and used by some readers. On Tuesday, the New York Times unspooled the way “dozens of made-up articles about Mrs. Clinton kidnapping, molesting and trafficking children” in the back rooms of a D.C. pizzeria called Comet Ping Pong gained traction.

The misinformation campaign began when John Podesta’s email account was hacked and his emails were published by WikiLeaks during the presidential campaign. Days before the election, users on the online message board 4Chan noticed that one of Mr. Podesta’s leaked emails contained communications with [Comet Ping Pong owner James] Alefantis discussing a fund-raiser for Mrs. Clinton.
The 4Chan users immediately speculated about the links between Comet Ping Pong and the Democratic Party. Some posited the restaurant was part of a larger Democratic child trafficking ring, which was a theory long held by some conservative blogs. That idea jumped to other social media services such as Twitter and Reddit, where it gained momentum on the page “The_Donald.” A new Reddit discussion thread called “Pizzagate” quickly attracted 20,000 subscribers. . . .
Soon, dozens of fake news articles on sites such as Facebook, Planet Free Will and Living Resistance emerged. Readers shared the stories in Saudi Arabia and on Turkish and other foreign language sites.

Some of the people who share fake news stories on social media surely know they are spreading fiction. They just like to imagine a world that conforms to their views. Or something.

Others are genuinely conned, either because they don't know how to tell the difference between real and fake news or because they don't care to try. Deception may drive the creation of fake news; gullibility helps create a market for it.