While it's easy to think of fake news stories in the abstract as tabloid garbage unwittingly shared from one racist uncle to another, there can be threatening and perhaps even deadly consequences when real people are caught up in fake stories.
The New York Times shares the story of a local pizzeria in Washington D.C. where the owner and employees have faced death threats because they were named in one of the infamous fake news stories circulated on social media platforms like Facebook.
The Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant was flagged in a fake news story as the headquarters of a child sex-trafficking ring run by Hillary Clinton and John Podesta, which is obviously ridiculous and obviously fake, but the consequences of that story have been very real for the people who work and eat there.
“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.
Mr. Alefantis suspects those relationships may have helped to make him a target. “I’ve done nothing for days but try to clean this up and protect my staff and friends from being terrorized,” he said. [...]
For more than two weeks, they have struggled to deal with the abusive social media comments and to protect photos of their own children, which were used in the false articles as evidence that the pizza restaurant was running a pedophilia ring. One person even visited Comet Ping Pong to investigate the allegations for himself.
This fake news story was apparently cooked up after trolls scrolling through John Podesta's personal emails found an exchange with Alefantis, the owner of Comet Ping Pong.
That exchange released by Russian hackers and WikiLeaks had nothing to do with sex-trafficking, but that's how the creators of the fake news story chose their target.
Bands that have performed at Comet Ping Pong have also faced harassment for their association with the pizzeria and photos of anonymous children have been presented as evidence that children are being abused there. The parents of those children have hired lawyers to have the images removed from the web according to the New York Times.
I don't believe it would be a stretch to say this is cyber terrorism. The restaurant, the owner, employees, and even patrons have come under attack because the owner is a loosely associated acquaintance of a former campaign chairman. The persons responsible for creating and sharing this fake story may have done so for juvenile, sociopathic or even financial reasons (or all of the above), but the original exchange between Podesta and Alefantis was stolen and released by hackers who operated with political motives.
Stealing and releasing Podesta's personal communication did not serve the public interest and did not expose any illegal activity or wrongdoing, but that clearly wasn't the point. The point was to intimidate, embarrass, and terrorize Podesta and anyone even remotely close to him.
Even searching for a publicly available image of Comet Ping Pong to place at the top of this post led me to fake stories about the establishment. The above photo is from the restaurant's website.