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The Consequences of Fake News

If you're on Facebook, you've probably seen some of the breathless, clickbaity political headlines. Republicans Ban First Amendment in Congress or California Democrats Legalize Child Prostitution.

Like all good lies, these are based on a grain of truth. The California Legislature did pass a law preventing minors from being charged with prostitution. And Congressional Republicans did propose a rule change that would create a penalty for certain types of behavior at certain times inside the Capitol building. But on top of that single grain, these articles build towers of allegation and insinuation, spinning a simple action as a nefarious plot.

The goal appears to be to incite anger against the politicians spotlighted in the articles. But if there's anyone we should be angry at, it's the purveyors of this fake news. The unintended consequences can put people's lives in jeopardy.

Last fall, Centerville Elementary School in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, made the decision to cancel the planned performance of "A Christmas Carol" because teachers believed practice for the play was taking too much of their fifth graders' time. But in December the fake news site Breitbart.com got ahold of the story, altering it to allege the play was cancelled due to complaints over line "God bless us, everyone," spoken by the Tiny Tim character. Commenters on the Breitbart article discussed finding the family who objected and publishing their name and address. One Jewish family with a fifth grader in the school was blamed for the cancellation, and both the child and the parents faced a backlash from their peers. The family told reporters they were leaving town for a while until the outrage settled down, fearing something similar to "the pizza incident".

The pizza incident is another example of the dangerous consequences of fake news. A conspiracy theory originating from the troll site 4chan, "#pizzagate" alleges that Hillary Clinton and her campaign staff were running a child sex trafficking ring in the basement of Washington, D.C. pizza restaurant Comet Ping Pong. Mentions of the pizza place in emails released by Wikileaks were taken to be coded references to prostitution.

In December, a North Carolina man, disturbed by the allegations, drove to Washington with an assault rifle to "self-investigate" the allegations. Before his "investigation" was over, he fired one or more shots inside the restaurant. Although nobody was hurt, they very well could have been. Next time, we may not be so lucky.

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