He took it to the extreme, but Edgar Welch is far from the only duped and media-illiterate American out there these days.

In an incident known as #Pizzagate, Welch stormed into the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 4, with a high-powered rifle, eager to free Hillary Clinton’s den of child sex slaves.

Welch thought all of the stories he read on the internet about the pizza place and its underground tunnel systems were true. I pity him, because he was trying to be a hero and ended up becoming the village idiot.

Yet the terrifying undercurrent of this story is that more and more of these types of ignorant, arrogant, misguided people are getting enraged and emboldened daily by fake news, and the most unhinged often are armed.

Reporter covers Governor Ige's press conference. 14 jan 2016. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Never has so much information been at your fingertips. It’s up to you discern what’s credible. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

I acknowledge that much of perception is relative, and fake news is not new. But I find it inconceivable that we live in a world without common facts and truth — a suggestion that Trump surrogates now are using to poison the media ecosystem.

This strategy is not about being right or wrong; it’s about gaining enough power to dictate truth.

To obliterate our tethers to reality, and gather unlimited power, Scottie Nell Hughes, a Trump media surrogate, offered such eye-bulgers as “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.”

Reince Priebus, who will soon be the White House chief of staff, denied that Trump’s assertion about 3 million illegal voters was baseless, offering as evidence only, “It’s possible.”

Googling it, or checking Facebook or Twitter, has subverted the societal tradition of getting common facts from common sources, which are vetted by people with some expertise in their fields.

Vice President-elect Mike Pence calls such falsehoods “opinion.” And the speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, when asked if Trump’s claim about the illegal voters was true, grinned uncomfortably and responded, “It doesn’t matter to me. He won the election.”

Well, it might not matter to Ryan, but it does matter to me, and I surely hope it matters to you. Because without truth, we all will be tilting at pizza parlors.

Our educational system clearly needs to refocus on civics (and quit trying to convert every mind into an engineer). One of my colleagues teaching journalism at the University of Hawaii, Ann Auman, wrote recently in a Civil Beat opinion piece about the skills we teach university students to spot fake news and more effectively navigate our media environment, which includes social media but also search engines that manipulate our perspectives.

Yet a recent Stanford study on media literacy appears to present a daunting task for us all, with its dismaying results about the next generation of Americans.

Googling it, or checking Facebook or Twitter, has subverted the societal tradition of getting common facts from common sources, which are vetted by people with some expertise in their fields. Nowadays, algorithms and uses of those computer programs give all of us different results, depending upon what we respond to, as if we were Pavlov’s pet.

Instead of reading the same daily newspaper or listening to the same news broadcast, which has transparent protocols and procedures and ethical standards for news gathering, “technopolies” now control our culture through the distribution and manipulation of information.

At this point, we do not need more ways to get news. We need better ways to get better information that is more reliable and truthful. I had a lengthy back-and-forth discussion about such matters with a reader, “Bronson Kaahui,” in the comments section last week.

You can read the entire exchange, but here is my interpretation of it: Besides relatively mainstream sources, such as National Public Radio and Civil Beat, Kaahui gets his news from fringe media on the left, the right and even beyond.

Our conversation ended when he proclaimed that The Washington Post “is the Pravda of the United States. Pure political propaganda. It is not a credible source of information, nor is the (New York Times).”

He seems aggravated and annoyed that other people, including me, do not see the world of information as he sees it.

I think that’s because we are being picked off, one by one, and parsed into smaller and smaller circles of influence, despite the appearance of the contrary. We are creating containment chambers of our own designs, and then stepping into those as a way to escape others. Because the people with real power in this world want it that way and grin mischievously, like Ryan, as they do it.

All of us end up living in fear and loathing of our neighbors, our friends and our family members who do not perfectly align with us on every viewpoint, and, in turn, we have no chance at reclaiming power by working together for public good.

So how do we recolonize a shared space and begin talking with each other again, not just talking to each other? I think the media that has divided us also offers a path to reunite us. Through even-minded and fair forums – offered via community-oriented organizations such as Civil Beat, Hawaii Public Radio, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, etc. –  we can disagree but also discuss and seek truth together.

Imagine, for a moment, a world in which such media organizations did not exist and at least offer the potential for community-wide discourse. Canada began preparing for just such a countrywide media meltdown, with its government exploring scenarios in which the two largest newspapers in that country simultaneously collapse.

While you might not directly read all of the local news sources, or The New York Times or The Washington Post, much of the “news” you get each day actually is based upon the work of those journalists or is a response to that work.

The United States used to have a very strong secondary market of local and regional dailies, like the Star-Advertiser, but those have been shriveling because we have found the new gizmos so much more fun and exciting, neglecting legacy media and its importance to our democracy.

In a world without The New York Times, or without Civil Beat, what would you be reading right now?

If it were up to the person who might be our next national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, and his son, fake news would be considered just as worthwhile as real news. Even after Welch’s pseudo-heroic stand with his rifle, taking out – once and for all – the degenerates who enjoy Comet Ping Pong pizza, Michael Flynn Jr., continued to write on Twitter that “Until #Pizzagate proven to be false, it’ll remain a story.”

Unless you stop paying attention to it, that is. You, too, can fire these clowns, by no longer reading and recirculating them. The future of what kind of news you want – fake or real – is up to you, through your patronage.

About the Author

  • Brett Oppegaard

    Brett Oppegaard has a doctorate degree in technical communication and rhetoric. He studies journalism and media forms as an associate professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, in the School of Communications. He also has worked for many years in the journalism industry. Comment below or email Brett at brett.oppegaard@gmail.com.

    Reader Rep is a media criticism and commentary column that is independent from Civil Beat’s editorial staff and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Civil Beat.