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How (Actual) Fake News Is the (Actual) Enemy of the People

The police officer who wrote on Facebook that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez needs to be shot has been fired. The comment was posted in response to a fake news story

US President Donald Trump (L) greets Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan at the White House in Washington, DC, on July 22, 2019. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP)        (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

US President Donald Trump (L) greets Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan at the White House in Washington, DC, on July 22, 2019.

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

President Trump lashed out at the media Monday over a Washington Post story about how the White House responded to his racist attacks against four congresswomen of color. “The Mainstream Media is out of control,” he tweeted. “They constantly lie and cheat in order to get their Radical Left Democrat views out their for all to see. It has never been this bad. They have gone bonkers, & no longer care what is right or wrong. This large scale false reporting is sick!”

The president concluded his rant with a familiar refrain: “Fake News Equals the Enemy of the People!”

Indeed, the potential of fake news to hurt real people was demonstrated on Monday, but not at all in the way Trump meant.

Though the president’s definition of fake news is anything that paints him in an unflattering light, actual fake news reports — intentional falsehoods and other inventions disguised as reporting — are resulting in threats to the American people. In the wake of his attacks last week against Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), a police officer from Grenta, Louisiana, wrote on Facebook that Ocasio-Cortez needs to be shot.

He was responding to a web item claiming Ocasio-Cortez said “we pay soldiers too much,” in reference to the budget. (Ocasio-Cortez said no such thing. The site responsible repeatedly publishes unsupported or outright false stories, sometimes as news reports and sometimes under the guise of “satire.”)

But Charlie Rispoli, who had served on the Grenta police force for 14 years, cited the cite when he suggested shooting Ocasio-Cortez: “This vile idiot needs a round……..and I don’t mean the kind she used to serve,” he wrote. (Nola.com obtained a screenshot of Rispoli’s post.)

On Monday, Rispoli was fired, along Angelo Varisco, another officer who liked the post. “This incident, we feel, has been an embarrassment to our department,” Gretna Police Chief Arthur Lawson said at a news conference. “These officers have certainly acted in a manner which was unprofessional, alluding to a violent act to be conducted against a sitting U.S. congressman, a member of our government. We’re not going to tolerate that.”

Earlier on Monday, Ocasio-Cortez referenced the threat in calling out the president for inciting violence. “This is Trump’s goal when he uses targeted language & threatens elected officials who don’t agree w/ his political agenda,” she tweeted. “It’s authoritarian behavior. The President is sowing violence. He’s creating an environment where people can get hurt & he claims plausible deniability.”

During his campaign and into his presidency, Trump has tacitly if not explicitly endorsed violence on several occasions — from reminiscing about the good old days when a protester would be “carried out on a stretcher,” to suggesting the “Second Amendment people” could do something to stop Hillary Clinton, to praising Montana congressman Greg Gianforte for assaulting a journalist, to saying there are “very fine people on both sides” of the Charlottesville protests where a white supremacist murdered Heather Heyer, and beyond. Whenever actual violence appears to have been inspired by Trump’s rhetoric, the White House “claims plausible deniability,” as Ocasio-Cortez put it, vehemently denying the president would ever think of inciting violence.

It goes without saying that Trump has also endorsed the propagation of disinformation, most recently through a string of accusations against Ocasio-Cortez,  Omar, Tlaib, and Pressley. Pushing false narratives about how his opponents are evil, or how they hate America, or how they support al-Qaeda is tantamount to throwing a can of gasoline onto the implicit calls for violence that have been smoldering beneath his time in the political spotlight. It’s a dangerous combination, and Fox News has willingly followed the president’s lead in demonizing his opponents, as have countless sites like the one with the fake quote that prompted Rispoli to write that Ocasio-Cortez “needs a round.”

The most terrifying real-life manifestation of the “environment” the president helped create may be Cesar Sayoc, the Trump superfan who in March pleaded guilty to 65 felony counts, including using a weapon of mass destruction, for sending pipe bombs to President Obama, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, Joe Biden, George Soros, Tom Steyer, CNN, and other critics of the president. Sayoc had attended several Trump rallies and was obsessed with Fox News, and his van was covered in incendiary propaganda, including several pictures of critics of the president in crosshairs.

On Monday, Sayoc filed a request for leniency ahead of his sentencing in September. “He conflated his personal situation with the perceived struggles of Trump supporters across the country, and even the President himself,” the filing reads. “His paranoia bled into delusion and Mr. Sayoc came to believe that prominent Democrats were actively working to hurt him, other Trump supporters, and the country as a whole.”

The plea was prefaced with a bleak account of Sayoc’s life prior to the 2018 attack, detailing his struggles growing up, his dependence on drugs, how he lost everything in the recession, and the fact that he lived in a van. “In this darkness, Mr. Sayoc found the light of Donald J. Trump,” the filing read.

When Sayoc’s plot to assassinate several of Trump’s opponents was exposed last year, Trump did all he could to distance himself from his creation. “We must never allow political violence to take root in America,” he said. “I’m committed to doing everything in my power as president to stop it.”

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