On November 2, less than a week before the election, retired Lt. General Michael Flynn, the man since chosen as national security adviser by President-elect Donald Trump, sent out the following tweet:
U decide – NYPD Blows Whistle on New Hillary Emails: Money Laundering, Sex Crimes w Children, etc…MUST READ! https://t.co/O0bVJT3QDr
— General Flynn (@GenFlynn) November 3, 2016
Sunday night, December 4, a man armed with an assault rifle and said to be acting on the allegations inherent in this tweet sent by Michael Flynn—which itself is based on a lie that had been circulating on the internet for weeks—walked into a family restaurant. Thankfully, he was apprehended before he could harm anyone.
In short, Michael Flynn, who is nominated to be the national security adviser to the next president of the United States, spread a rumor so potent that it might have resulted in the injury or death of families out to dinner.
What is this all about?
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The tweet includes a link to True Pundit, which Media Matters identifies as a fringe conspiracy website. True Pundit is one of many similar sites that publishes “stories” in the most basic sense of the term: articles that are anything but credible and certainly do not rely on facts. During the election, sites like True Pundit, State of the Nation, and the New Nationalist were responsible for creating vicious conspiracy theories, and releasing them to be picked up and amplified on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and other channels by the countless followers of these and other shadowy sites.
The subject of Flynn’s tweet was one of the most malicious rumors spread by True Pundit and other similar sites during the 2016 election, falsely claiming that former secretary of state and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was under investigation for a range of crimes, including “child exploitation and child trafficking.” None of this was remotely true. Yet it spread and the charges were repeated in different form in another hoax, referred to as “Pizzagate,” True Pundit and others claimed that Clinton and her 2016 presidential campaign chair, John Podesta, were engaged in a child abuse ring run out of the basement of a D.C. pizza restaurant, Comet Ping Pong. They further claimed that Clinton was under investigation by the FBI and the New York Police Department (NYPD) for these very charges.
The purveyors of these allegations claim they found the “truth” by decoding secret messages contained in emails released by WikiLeaks and by sub rosa signals relayed by the sign that hangs outside Comet Ping Pong. It must be repeated that there is and never was any evidence for this claim, and neither the NYPD nor the FBI were investigating Clinton for any such charges. But in the alternate universe of conspiracy theorists, that did not and does not matter. The story and allegations of trafficking and exploitation spread like wildfire. And, apparently, the fact that this was a lie did not matter to Flynn, either, because obviously he helped perpetuate it.
In the real world, however, not only did these rumors, however unfounded, affect the Clinton campaign, they also affected a beloved local family restaurant. As the New York Times reported on November 21, within hours of when the rumors first started circulating, James Alefantis, owner of Comet Ping Pong, began to get “menacing messages.”
In the ensuing days, hundreds of death threats—one read “I will kill you personally”—started arriving via texts, Facebook and Twitter. All of them alleged something that made Mr. Alefantis’s jaw drop: that Comet Ping Pong was the home base of a child abuse ring led by Hillary Clinton and her campaign chief, John D. Podesta.
When Mr. Alefantis discovered that his employees were getting similar abusive messages, he looked online to unravel the accusations. He found dozens of made-up articles about Mrs. Clinton kidnapping, molesting and trafficking children in the restaurant’s back rooms. The articles appeared on Facebook and on websites such as The New Nationalist and The Vigilant Citizen, with one headline blaring: “Pizzagate: How 4Chan Uncovered the Sick World of Washington’s Occult Elite.”
None of it was true. While Mr. Alefantis has some prominent Democratic friends in Washington and was a supporter of Mrs. Clinton, he has never met her, does not sell or abuse children, and is not being investigated by law enforcement for any of these claims. He and his 40 employees had unwittingly become real people caught in the middle of a storm of fake news.
“From this insane, fabricated conspiracy theory, we’ve come under constant assault,” said Mr. Alefantis, 42, who was once in a relationship with David Brock, a provocative former right-wing journalist who became an outspoken advocate for Mrs. Clinton.
The assault not only continued, but spread. Other businesses in the area, including Politics and Prose, a local independent bookstore to which I had been en route when this happened, started getting calls and threats. The owners of these and other businesses were to meet with D.C. police on Monday—until, that is, the man with the assault rifle arrived.
The Washington Post reported Sunday:
A North Carolina man was arrested Sunday after he walked into a popular pizza restaurant in Northwest Washington carrying an assault rifle and fired one or more shots, D.C. police said. The man told police he had come to the restaurant to “self-investigate” an election-related conspiracy theory involving Hillary Clinton that spread online during her presidential campaign.
The incident caused panic, with several businesses going into lockdown as police swarmed the neighborhood after receiving the call shortly before 3 p.m.
Police said 28-year-old Edgar Maddison Welch, of Salisbury, N.C., walked in the front door of Comet Ping Pong and pointed a firearm in the direction of a restaurant employee. The employee was able to flee and notify police. Police said Welch proceeded to discharge the rifle inside the restaurant.
He has been charged with assault with a dangerous weapon.
That fact that the man who has been nominated as national security adviser actively spreads conspiracy theories and chants “lock her up” at conventions is bad enough. It is even worse considering he is one of Trump’s growing list of selections for critical cabinet posts who appear to have no concern or sense of responsibility for the possible consequences of what they say or do. A national security adviser so willing to put people at risk by spreading lies is not likely to make sound judgments under pressure.
Donald Trump comes from the world of reality TV, and he is picking his acolytes from some of the foremost purveyors of lies such as Fox News and Breitbart News. But this is not a reality or game show. This is real life. And we are facing serious consequences.
So let me repeat: The man who has been chosen to be the national security adviser to the president—who will be in charge of advising and assisting the president on national security and foreign policy issues, including how to address threats—tweets dangerous, malicious, unproven conspiracy theories that have already led to worrisome outcomes.
And we haven’t even begun to discuss the tweeting habits of his boss.