Fake New has often made the news, generally when Donald Trump is assaulting news outlets he doesn’t like. Yet there is a more sinister side to the trend that helps enable the darkest sides of humanity to seep into our politics. When “fake news” is so easily circulated and plays into some of people’s darkest tendencies, terrible things can happen. Recently fake news spread of a 100% made up “Minnesota Islamic anti-blasphemy law” which reports claimed would prohibit people from criticizing Islam in Minnesota. The real law in question was designed to create a hotline system to report hate crimes against the Muslim residents of Minnesota. It might be easily proved false but the impact the sites spreading these fake reports is enormous.
The fact that an anti-hate crime law can be spun as sharia law impeding on free speech is telling of the political times we find ourselves in.
Since the beginning of Donald Trump’s campaign there has been a significant rise in the number of anti-Muslim hate crimes and hate groups espousing Islamophobia. Attacks on mosques have risen dramatically across the country. Traumatic events such as the hate speech riddled diatribe turned double homicide on a Portland train and the murder of a young Muslim girl, Zarha Jones, returning from IHOP late at night during Ramadan. Emboldened hate groups, increased, hate crimes, and even these murders are all pieces of the same political environment that enables the spread of easily verifiable and obviously Islamophobic fake news narratives. By any fair estimation taking steps to stem the tide of hate crimes is necessary in a time like this, but to conservative fake news sites it’s an attempt to enact “anti-Islam blasphemy laws in Minnesota”. Unfortunately this isn’t the first time an entirely false narrative has been created on the conservative fake news machine.
The PizzaGate incident months after election day showed the sinister impact these narratives can have in the real world. When a man showed up to investigate what dubious internet sources claimed was a child sex trafficking ring frequented by Democratic Party operatives, people embedded in the media bubbles where the narrative flourished took that to heart. Some even decided to act. One guy showed up with a gun, but some unknown and probably uncomfortably large number of people thought about it and decided not to. As it stands now some unknown number of people currently live in hyper Islamophobia social media bubbles that paint a picture of impending Sharia take over that will be embedded just as deeply into their thinking as people influenced by the fake narrative surrounding “Pizza Gate”.
Right now it seems Islamophobic fake news is an organic trend driven by people attempting to gain clicks and profit from some of the darkest tendencies in American political life. It’s important to be vigilant and bat down any such stories because the fear that drives those fake stories and clicks is the same fear that politicians stoke to win elections or consolidate power. It’s not a trend that can be reversed easily and must be addressed in a broad fashion by anyone engaged in civil discourse. These stories consistently make it into the mainstream and will continue to do so until they are adequately batted down. That’s the biggest problem with these fake stories is when they bleed into the mainstream or influence voices with larger audiences further away from the fringes.
Take the controversy surrounding Alex Jones, Breitbart, and Chobani yogurt for example. A similar Islamophobic story was trafficked by fringe outlets on the far right, which reported workers from a Chobani plant, known for giving refugees jobs, assaulted a child near a plant in Idaho Falls. The story in question was 100% false, but eventually the fringe conservative blogosphere created a large enough commotion that beacons of the far right fringe Breitbart and Alex Jones picked up the story as true, giving it millions of eyeballs it never otherwise would have reached. This implored major outlets to step in giving millions more the opportunity to glimpse into a media environment that might resonate with them but otherwise never would have reached them. The entire incident highlights exactly how a story can start as twitter blogspam and eventually reach the most mainstream media outlets in the country.
This is a trend that isn’t going away. The Islamophobic fake news about Minnesota and Chobani yogurt are both part of a broader trend that is created by an underlying current of paranoia and xenophobia, stoked by those interested in a quick dollar. The same was true of PizzaGate. It’s when these narratives grow and inject themselves into the mainstream, adding to the number of people sympathetic with such fringe views, that they become a real problem. They need to be sought out with vigor and will continue to be powerful until the people pushing them are ridiculed in the same fashion members of the Flat Earth Society are.
Until that happens people will find them, some people will be persuaded by them, and an incredibly small but ever growing number of people will act on these false narratives.