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Pizzagate-style fake news gives Americans affirmation, not truth

Edgar Maddison Welch, 28 of Salisbury, N.C., surrenders to police Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016, in Washington. Welch, who said he was investigating a conspiracy theory about Hillary Clinton running a child sex ring out of a pizza place, fired an assault rifle inside the restaurant on Sunday injuring no one, police and news reports said.
Edgar Maddison Welch, 28 of Salisbury, N.C., surrenders to police Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016, in Washington. Welch, who said he was investigating a conspiracy theory about Hillary Clinton running a child sex ring out of a pizza place, fired an assault rifle inside the restaurant on Sunday injuring no one, police and news reports said. AP

OK, you don’t trust the mainstream media. I get that. You don’t trust politicians. Or big business. Or anybody in The Establishment telling you what is and isn’t true.

Hey, I get all of that. Some degree of skepticism is healthy and normal. But we’re way beyond healthy and normal here. It wasn’t normal or healthy for people to spread fake news online about Hillary Clinton’s fake involvement in a made-up child sex ring operating out of Comet Ping Pong, a real Washington, D.C., pizza place. Pizzagate, they called it.

And it sure wasn’t normal or healthy when gullible fake news consumers swamped the restaurant’s owner and employees with death threats. Ditto for Sunday, when an assault-rifle-wielding Edgar Maddison Welch, 28, of Salisbury, visited that pizza joint to “self-investigate” the rumored child sex ring. He fired off a couple of shots, but thankfully no one was hurt.

It’s time for everyone – especially those on the far right, the favored targets of these baseless, ideologically driven reports – to stop feeding this frenzy of fake news. We can start with Donald Trump, who as president-elect badly needs to swear off his addiction to internet conspiracy theories such as the unfounded claim that millions of people voted illegally in the elections he just won.

All of this is making us look – and, in the pizza joint case, act – as if we’ve lost our minds.

Are we really so desperate to be “right” or on “the right side” that we’ll slurp any rancid drivel that trickles across our computer screen, as long as it confirms what we already believe? What does it mean when we become a society where objective, verifiable facts no longer matter as much as our preconceptions and passions do?

It means we devolve into an Orwellian society where ideas and “facts” get mass-marketed like toothpaste or socks, where the best of these “thought products,” as I’ll call them, aren’t necessarily those of the highest cognitive quality, but the ones that are easiest for “consumers” to “buy” and digest. The click-hunting producers of fake news have figured out an important, painful fact: Many people aren’t seeking truth anymore. They’re seeking affirmation.

I’ve been thinking a lot in recent days about William Butler Yeats’ famous poem, “The Second Coming.”

He published it in 1921, trying to make sense of the dying social order of his day, and the birth of an unknown and uncertain new one. At the end of 2016, a year of street protests, HB2 and Trump’s shocking victory, the most famous line from that dark poem keeps looping through my head:

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”

We can’t even agree on what a fact is anymore. Our center is long gone.

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