Pizzagate is an insane conspiracy theory that nearly ended with innocent people being killed. It spread largely thanks to uncritical propaganda sites more interested in clicks than facts, and that used social media to spread misinformation for money. It’s reasonable to ask what the people who run and write for these sites think, now that they’ve nearly killed somebody, and the short answer is mostly they’re worried Facebook will punish them and hurt their traffic.
In the wake of the election, and especially Pizzagate, Facebook and other social media sites are looking into preventing the spread of propaganda — aka “fake news” — and the reaction has been fairly telling. First, there’s Buzzfeed’s discussion with Cyrus Massoumi, a self described “socially liberal, culturally conservative, fiscally libertarian” man from a Muslim family and owner of the Facebook page called Mr. Conservative. He claims that he only started posting fake news stories when it became apparent that he was having trouble competing for clicks with real news stories that leaned favorable to conservative. They simply weren’t sensational enough.
Massoumi acknowledged that during the election his and other big pages did publish some misleading and false information, though he said they removed the latter once they realized their mistake. He said they began to push the boundaries after new players, such as sites run from Macedonia or others such as Ending the Fed, entered the market, copied their approach, and then began reaping huge Facebook engagement by publishing false and misleading content.
“We strayed because of the competitive nature of the algorithm in the News Feed and we do need to be brought back,” he says. “But the problem is I operate in an environment where sites like Ending the Fed and these unknowns are going to beat us unless we go from tilted to misleading.”
Massoumi admits to posting factually inaccurate stories, but claims he later deleted them. Worth noting is that one of the top posts on his page at the time of this writing is this image, which includes no source:
Meanwhile, the Toronto Star interviewed Stefanie MacWilliams, a Canadian stay-at-home mom who contributes to the site Planet Free Will, and she says she has “no regrets” about her posts on Pizzagate because they were great for traffic:
“I was personally a little bit insulted. Fake news has become used as this ridiculous term . . . it’s the new ‘conspiracy theorist.’…I really have no regrets and it’s honestly really grown our audience.
As a reminder, MacWilliams is discussing claims that Hillary Clinton, her campaign manager, and other high-level Democratic politicians were operating a child sex slavery and murder ring from underground tunnels underneath a Washington D.C. pizza restaurant, which is mostly based on the fact that John Podesta, Clinton’s aforementioned campaign manager, occasionally eats there. MacWilliams, insofar as we can determine, has done no personal investigation into these claims.
What’s most troubling here is not just MacWilliams and Massoumi’s mercenary attitude, although both seem overly unconcerned that they’re part of a machine that nearly veered into homicidal territory. Many news outlets are only as honest as their readers, in the end. It’s the readers who demand factual accuracy, critical thinking, and the careful sorting of speculation from fact. That seems to be missing, here. The readers of this propaganda are accepting it uncritically, to the point of being ready to kill. Even if Facebook and Google turn making a buck of propaganda into a financial loser, breathtaking stupidity mixed with homicidal tendencies is not a problem any website can fix.
CORRECTION: Mr. Moussavi contacted us to request that we revise that he is from a Muslim family, but is not in fact a Muslim himself.