There is a limit to free speech, and free Tweets — spreading rumors and fake news can hurt real people, and could be a crime

Down the block from the pizza place assault weapon incident, kids were cramming into the National Zoo for Zoo Lights. Wish we were just talking about that (Bob Sullivan photo)  google-site-verification: googlef6d4feef63e1b5fc.html
Down the block from the pizza place assault weapon incident, kids were cramming into the National Zoo for Zoo Lights. Wish we were just talking about that (Bob Sullivan photo)

Fake news can have real consequences.  A man with an assault rifle just walked into a busy pizza place a few blocks from me in Washington D.C., apparently inspired by an Internet conspiracy about a child pedophile ring connected to the Democratic Party.

I’m writing this story not as politics reporter — I don’t write about politics and I don’t care for either political party — but as a technology reporter who has seen what happens when the virtual world has messy real-world consequences. I’ve sen the things that anonymous Internet groups like 4Chan can do when they “doxx” people; or how fake Tweets during Hurricane Sandy made the disaster look even worse than it was. And here’s my reminder at this critical time in our history, and in the history of fake news and propaganda:  Free speech is not limitless. Threatening someone online is a crime. Even inciting violence can be a crime.  Yelling “fire” in a crowded theater is a crime. Tweeting the NYSE is flooded or the governor is trapped when you know that isn’t true might even be a crime, and it will likely get you fired, as it got @ComfortablySmug fired in 2012.

So if you are peddling in rumors just to get a bunch of retweets, be very careful you stay on the right side of the law.  And if you love a good conspiracy theory and can’t wait to pass it along, please at least consider the real people you might be hurting on the other and of the keyboard.

A few minutes ago, a flurry of police cars whizzed by me … in fact, they are still whizzing by as I type this … to surround the restaurant and get the suspect to leave the place. He’s been arrested, and no one was hurt, thankfully.

But only an hour or so ago, families having a Sunday dinner and employees hustling for tips had to race out of Comet Ping Pong, a small but cute pizza place in Northwest D.C., near the Maryland border.

Unless you spend time reading Internet conspiracies, you probably don’t know that Comet Ping Pong is the subject of a set of accusations that’s I’d rather not repeat here, but you can read them for yourself at this New York Times story.  In short, the rumor links the restaurant’s owner to Hillary Clinton Campaign Manager John Podesta, and claims the two are involved in a secret child pedophilia ring.

Fans of this claim have coalesced around the hashtag #pizzagate, which has spread far and wide, with thousands of followers.

Such conspiracy theories have found a home on the Internet since the first bulletin board set up shop. Today, this one spilled into the real world.

There’s still much we don’t know about today’s incident. I’ll be anxious to hear what the gunman has to say. D.C. police said he has an assault rifle.  I’d like to know if it was even loaded, for example. But already, #pizzagate traders are claiming that he was just a plant put there as a distraction from the real story. Those who question the conspiracy are accused of supporting pedophilia.

If evidence of children being harmed is available, I certainly hope it has been carefully logged and presented in the most constructive way.  But as I sit writing this not far from the crime scene, across the street from the National Zoo, which is abuzz with children here because of the Zoo Light festival, I can’t help but think about the children who ran out of Comet Pizza tonight when a crazy man with a gun walked into the place. I’ll bet many of them were on their way to Zoo Lights.

In Germany, criminal code includes the concept of Volksverhetzung. Fallout from the Nazi era led to criminal statutes that make generic “incitement to hatred” illegal, for obvious reasons. Our free speech laws don’t go so far, and I’m glad they don’t, of course.  American law tilts heavily in favor of allowing just about any kind of speech, which means just about any kind of Tweet.

But, as I said above, free Tweeting has its limits.

Tweet a specific threat, and you can be arrested.

(It’s true — here’s 10 Tweets that got someone arrested.)

Direct someone else to commit violence, and you can be arrested. (Last year, after the Paris attacks, a Michigan woman was investigated by federal authorities after writing “Dearborn, MI, has the highest Muslim population in the United States. Let’s (expletive) that place up and send a message to ISIS.”)

Generally, there’s a high bar for actually arresting … and prosecuting … someone for making an online threat.  It’s a higher bar than in-person threats, naturally. But that is changing. Cyberbullying laws in many states now give prosecutors a crime to hang on those who menace others from behind a keyboard.

So choose your words carefully, purveyors of fake news.  Investigate your conspiracies — after all, once in a while, conspiracies turn into real news.  But virtual words, like virtual crimes, have real consequences. Thank goodness no one was hurt today in Comet Pizza. I fear that won’t be true the next time.

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About Bob Sullivan 1318 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

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