Peddlers of fake news can wreak havoc in the real world

St. Louis Post-Dispatch Editorial Board (TNS)
Supporters of US President Donald Trump clash with the US Capitol police during a riot at the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C. The Gateway Pundit blog advanced the Trumpian big lie that the 2020 presidential election was rife with fraud.

Normally, the St. Louis-based website The Gateway Pundit can and should be laughed off as right-wing, fake-news nonsense. But as Reuters recently reported, the site’s false allegations of election fraud in jurisdictions around the country have stoked harassment and death threats against two dozen election officials.

The reason toxic platforms like this exist is because there is a market for them. Only when the news-consuming public learns to be more discerning in where it looks for information will those platforms loosen their damaging grip on political discourse.

The Gateway Pundit is a popular blog among America’s far-right political fringes, trafficking in the kind of half-truths and whole-cloth lies that fuel so much of that end of the political spectrum these days.

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After a right-wing fanatic killed a counterprotester with a car during the white nationalist demonstration in 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, The Gateway Pundit falsely attributed the attack to an “Anti-Trump protester.” After the Las Vegas mass shooting that year, it wrongly accused “a Democrat who liked Rachel Maddow.”

The site was a prominent purveyor of the racist lie that former President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States. And, more recently, it advanced the Trumpian big lie that the 2020 presidential election was rife with fraud.

A mother and daughter who together counted ballots in Fulton County, Georgia, sued the website and its founder, St. Louisan Jim Hoft, after the site promoted false allegations by Trump surrogates that the pair counted “suitcases” full of fake Biden ballots after hours. That August post drew a comment on Hoft’s site alleging the two women “are traitors to the country and should be hung by the neck until dead.”

The site also promoted the falsehood about “fake” ballots in Madison, Wisconsin, which led one commenter to specify the kind of bullet recommended for killing the city clerk there. Other public officials in Wisconsin, Georgia and Arizona were inundated with racist or misogynistic hate email, allegations of “treason” and calls for their imprisonment after The Gateway Pundit lobbed baseless allegations of fraud at them.

Mainstream media outlets today are routinely accused by both the right and left of ideologically tilting their reporting, and it’s not difficult to find anecdotal evidence to back up such criticism. But those mainstream sources, including this newspaper, at least attempt to present factual coverage, because their business models rely on long-term credibility. The Gateway Pundits of the world and fellow travelers, like One America News Network and Breitbart News, rely instead on shock, outrage and an appeal to consumers’ worst instincts. Facts seldom come into it.

It’s easy to research assertions made on these platforms. Often, they’ve already been debunked by reputable sources such as FactCheck.org and PolitiFact. Such double-checking by consumers shouldn’t be necessary, but in a media universe polluted by such fake-news waste dumps as The Gateway Pundit, it is.

— St. Louis Post-Dispatch Editorial Board (TNS).