Sunday’s scary incident in Washington, D.C. in which a man opened fire inside a pizza restaurant where he had come to investigate an Internet-rumored child sex abuse ring will undoubtedly boost recent concerns about the danger of “fake news.” The “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory, which links the restaurant, Comet Ping Pong, to a secret pedophile and child trafficking network involving Hillary Clinton and her campaign chief John Podesta, was one of many fact-free stories that swarmed the social media during this year’s presidential campaign. But the outcry against fake news has been met with skepticism from conservatives and other critics of the liberal establishment, who charge that this alleged crisis is itself a fake intended to discredit non-mainstream opinions. Dissenters throw the “fake news” label right back at the mainstream media.
The Comet Ping Pong shooting, which follows weeks of harassment and threats toward the restaurant’s owner and staff, is certainly a sobering reminder that, as The Washington Post put it in an editorial ten days ago, “fake news hurts real people.” And, while “real news” outlets have indeed had their infamous (and far from harmless) fake-news moments, the mainstream media in general are far more reliable than their critics allow. But it is also quite true that media coverage often does gets skewed by a largely unconscious bias favoring causes and people journalists tend to perceive as “worthy.”
Case in point: “Pizzagate” versus another hoax related to sex offenses against minors.
Even before the Sunday shooting at Comet Ping Pong, several major media outlets—The New York Times, The Washington Post, BBC News—debunked and decried the conspiracy theory based on wild speculation about coded language in WikiLeaks-released Clinton campaign emails. And rightly so. But three years ago, there was another conspiracy theory about a non-existent sex abuse ring that spread like wildfire online and hurt real people. And in that case, some mainstream journalists not only sympathized with the perpetrators of the hoax but, on occasion, helped disseminate it.
Unlike “Pizzagate,” that hoax was at least connected to an actual, and serious, sex offense: the Steubenville, Ohio high school rape case which became a national story. The facts in that case were real and ugly. At the Steubenville High School end-of-summer party in August 2012, a severely intoxicated 16-year-old girl from a nearby West Virginia town was sexually assaulted while unconscious or barely conscious. Two boys, star athletes on the high school football team, penetrated the victim with their fingers; one of them also sexually molested her in other ways and then circulated a nude photo of her. The two perpetrators, Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, were arrested a few days later and were eventually convicted of rape (which includes digital penetration under Ohio law). After the trial, a grand jury investigation also found that several high school employees had failed to report the assault – despite hearing about it the day after the party – and had deleted related emails.
Yet as the case moved toward trial in late 2012 and early 2013, some bloggers and activists began to speculate that local law enforcement, too, was engaged in a massive cover-up to protect other high school athletes supposedly implicated in this rape of a minor. Eventually, the far-left “hacktivist” group Anonymous decided to get involved to punish these other “rapists” and their “accomplices”.
In January 2013, Anonymous began to circulate, via a WikiLeaks-style Ohio website called LocalLeaks, a shocking account of the sexual assault based on hacked materials and “tips” from unnamed sources (i.e. gossip and rumors). According to this account, the victim was deliberately set up for rape to punish her for breaking up with a Steubenville High football player she had dated; she was lured to the party by another teenage girl and then drugged, kidnapped, driven around stuffed in the trunk of a car, repeatedly raped and sodomized by at least four attackers, urinated on, and finally dumped unconscious and naked on her parents’ front lawn. What’s more, this heinous crime was said to be just one of a series of sexual assaults perpetrated by the “Steubenville Rape Crew”—high school football players whose reign of terror was abetted by adult mentors and protectors. The “rape crew” was rumored to include the teenage son of Jefferson County prosecutor Jane Hanlin, who had supposedly tried to pressure “Jane Doe” and her parents into dropping the charges. (In reality, Hanlin had recused herself from the case early on because of possible conflict of interest posed by her son’s football team membership and had insisted on having the suspects tried as adults.)
Some of the so-called evidence for the “rape crew” conspiracy was no less bizarre than the “evidence” for Pizzagate. Thus, Jim Parks, who ran an unofficial Steubenville football team fan site, was accused of mentoring the rapists, and possibly paying them for pictures of underage victims. The “proof”? One of Parks’s hacked emails contained a photo of a young woman supposedly resembling Savannah Dietrich, a teenager who had gone public in 2012 about her sexual assault by two lacrosse players at a party. While Anonymous claimed that Dietrich’s assault happened in Louisville, Ohio, just 60 miles from Steubenville, it actually happened in Louisville, Kentucky, some 350 miles away.
The “Steubenville Rape Crew” story was picked up not only by small progressive blogs such as OpedNews.com but by Atlantic Wire, Atlantic magazine’s online news service. “These new details may be unconfirmed,” wrote Atlantic Wire reporter Alexander Abad-Santos, “but they are the leads that the mainstream outlets who are headed for Ohio will be following.” The CNN show Anderson Cooper 360° also ran a segment on the allegations, featuring an interview with one of the masked cyber-vigilantes, “KYAnonymous.”
In fact, the horrific “new details” were not only unconfirmed but wholly fabricated—as actual evidence at the two young men’s trial showed a few months later.
Much like “Pizzagate,” the “Steubenville Rape Crew” conspiracy theory harmed actual innocent people. Numerous Steubenville residents including Hanlin were targeted for threats, harassment and cyberattacks because Anonymous and LocalLeaks portrayed them as accomplices to rape. Hanlin and her family had to leave town for the duration of the trial. Yet all this abuse received little attention from the media, and sympathy for those affected was scarce. Atlantic Wire at least deleted the names of alleged co-conspirators when it published excerpts from the LocalLeaks narrative—but included links to the original website where the names were available. When Steubenville mom Jill Watkins went on the Dr. Phil show to talk about how the town was being terrorized due to the media frenzy and spoke emotionally about children hiding under the desks, “puking [and] peeing their pants” after the school received a bomb threat, the feminist blog Jezebel ridiculed her as “unhinged.”
On the other hand, when one of the Anonymous hackers involved in the Steubenville crusade—KYAnonymous, or Dennis Lostutter in real life—disclosed that the FBI was treating him as a hacking suspect in relation to the case, the media’s response was generally sympathetic. Lostutter was treated as a heroic crusader by Slate and Rolling Stone. Atlantic Wire’s Abad-Santos (who has since moved on to Vox) praised him as “the Steubenville hacker who helped the victim,” despite acknowledging that the hackers’ intervention may have actually hurt the case. Abad-Santos also conceded that Anonymous had made outrageous and unsubstantiated accusations against Parks, the football team fan site webmaster whose email Lostutter was suspected of hacking, portraying him as an accomplice to serial rapists and a child porn trafficker. Yet these claims were rather charitably described as “unconfirmed, intriguing, and seemingly slanderous.”
The claims peddled by Anonymous were not a complete hoax like PizzaGate. But they were a fabrication that spun off a real crime and did real damage. And the media, caught up in their own feeding frenzy and in the narrative of a “rape culture” in the football-loving small town, often acted as enablers to this fabrication.
No wonder many Americans—like the people in Jefferson County, which includes Steubenville and which voted for Barack Obama in 2008 but went 2 to 1 for Donald Trump this year—don’t trust the mainstream media to be an unbiased arbiter of fake news.