Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

America’s latest scourge is fake news on social media. Its president-elect is a serial conspiracy theorist. Read his wild Twitter feeds to laugh out loud, get alarmed, or pity the 60 million Americans who were naïve enough to vote for him. Far scarier and lethal is Trump’s choice for National Security Advisor, General (retired) Michael Flynn. He excels in peddling bizarre falsehoods. Six days before the presidential election, Flynn falsely tweeted that the law enforcement authorities had found proof that tied the Clinton campaign to a child sex trafficking ring in the basement of a Washington pizzeria. Nicknamed ‘pizzagate’, the bogus story was vigorously pushed by Flynn and son. Recently, a crackpot turned up with a rifle and a shotgun at the pizzeria to ‘rescue’ the children. He opened fire. No one was hurt. But think, is Flynn the man to keep America safe?

The year 2016 will long be remembered for an explosion of fake news in cyber space. Donald Trump delegitimised the print media and television news channels by aggressively asserting that both are “corrupt” and “dishonest” in their reporting of the president-elect. He stoked the perception that traditional journalism is not the honest arbiter of truth — his dozen-a-day tweets are the naked truth! Donald Trump won the White House by feeding ‘red meat’ mostly laced with false facts to his ravenous supporters hungry for change in Washington DC. Twitter was his 24/7 messenger reaching millions of his followers. Truth got bludgeoned. Social media won the day. With outrageous lies and venomous remarks tweeted against anyone challenging him, Donald Trump continues to dupe his critical mass. And where does he get his information from? Mostly from a man called Alex Jones dubbed as the father of all conspiracy theories.

Alex Jones is a radio host whose website, InfoWars, is Trump’s wellspring of conspiracy theories. Not surprising then, Jones was among the first to receive a phone call from Trump after he won. “He was just thanking me for fighting so hard for Americans, and for Americanism, and thanking my listeners and supporters and to let me know that he was working really hard around the clock,” Jones told the New York Times. Jones has 1.8 million subscribers on YouTube, while 160 stations carry his radio show. President-elect aside, General Flynn and his son ‘owe’ most of their conspiracy theories to InfoWars that they cyclically tweet and retweet. ‘Pizzagate’is an example. Flynn junior who had government security clearance was a member of president-elect’s transition team. After the shootout at the DC pizzeria, junior got kicked out, but not his dad, the future National Security Adviser. As Donald Trump’s intelligence czar, the retired army general, has “used social media to promote a series of outrageous conspiracy theories … pushing dubious factoids at least 16 times since August 9 [2016]” reports Politico, a respected news outlet.


Will Trump’s White House be a breeding ground of fake news and conspiracy theories?


Fifty-three organisations, representing Muslim and other religious and human rights groups have written to Trump saying that General Flynn is unfit for the job. “His appointment will damage America’s standing in the world and pose a threat to our national security. General Flynn has repeatedly made Islamophobic statements and peddled anti-Muslim conspiracy theories.” Indeed, his Twitter feed is brimming with posts assuring his followers that “fear of Muslims is rational.” Flynn plays a dangerously devilish game by what Pew Research calls ‘ideological silos’. He’s encouraging fellow Americans to isolate Muslims because “Islamism is a vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people” that must be “excised”.

Beware America! Such viperous conspiracy theories end up in the echo chambers of ISIS which in turn offers itself as a vanguard of hope for disaffected youth in the West. It too maintains many tens of thousands of accounts on social media platforms, including Twitter and Facebook, which are used to plant fake news to entice gullible men and women. Sickened by what fake news is doing to America, Pope Francis jumped into the discussion by comparing the US media’s “obsession with scandal to an obsession with faeces.” Spreading disinformation, said the Pope, was “probably the greatest damage that the media can do … it’s a sin.”

Computer science students wanting to earn a quick buck harvested fake news during the US elections. To drive traffic to their websites, these fakers posted anti-Hillary Clinton stories that, many say, sealed her fate. Picture a starving student thousands of miles away in a country called Georgia setting up a website dripping with fictitious yarns against Clinton. In Canada, a satirical website run by John Egan found pro-Trump fake news to be a “gold mine”. The website cashed in with stories like President Obama migrating to Canada if Trump won. “It’s all Trump”, Egan told New York Times, “People go nuts for it.” Indeed, the “basket of deplorables” as Hillary Clinton disparagingly called Trump’s supporters, fell hook, line and sinker for everything the web carried against the presidential candidate.

With nearly 66 percent of adult Americans getting their news from Facebook, fake news has found its lucrative niche. And it is here to stay. Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder of Facebook, which today has 1.8 billion users around the world, initially refused to accept responsibility for the witch’s brew. Later, Zuckerberg relented. He said Facebook would ban websites hosting fake news. Google made the same pledge. The question remains: can the two social media giants quarantine counterfeit news? Besides, the damage is already done. The worst candidate for the most important job wrangled his way into the White House on the coattails of social media that doubled down on outright lies. Styled as newscasts with news-like image memes posted by individuals and shared by millions, including the quotes and video clips of candidate Trump himself repeating falsehoods, fired up his core supporters.

Here’s one news that defies a label. While Donald Trump has yet to be sworn in, the man who predicted his win is now foreseeing an impeachment for the president-elect. Dubbed as “Prediction Professor,” Allan Lichtman’s presidential predictions since 1984 have always been accurate. “There’s a very good chance that Donald Trump could face impeachment,” says the professor of political history at the American University in Washington. His gut tells him that the Republicans are “nervous” about Trump, because “he is a loose cannon. Nobody knows what he believes or where he stands. He can’t be controlled.”

Are we looking at a White House whose Donald-the-dweller and BFF (Best Friends Forever) the Twitter, together turn it into a hotbed of fake news and conspiracy theories?

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, December 18th, 2016

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