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How fake news led Dylann Roof to murder nine people

Misinformation, lies and propaganda on the internet have taken hate speech to a whole new level

Have you heard the story about the Democratic National Committee hiring actors to disrupt Donald Trump’s rallies? What about President Barack Obama pulling $2.6 billion in funding for veterans to reallocate to Syrian refugees?

No? Well, I’m sure you heard about the Colorado Rockies planning to sell pot brownies at Coors Field, right?

These stories are fake, you say? No way. I read them on the internet.

When white supremacistno “alt-right” designation here — Dylann Roof walked into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, last summer, the then-21-year-old had already made up his mind. Despite not knowing any of the 12 people participating in Bible study that evening, Roof wanted them all dead. He wanted to send a message that African-Americans would no longer be a threat to American (read: white) society if he had anything to do with it. So he took out his Glock .45 handgun and shot 77 times at the worshipers, killing nine and leaving the rest to tell his story.

He’d never met any of his victims. None of them had ever wronged Roof. He didn’t suffer from economic anxiety. He was a just a Hitler-loving, white-nationalist-promoting, Confederate-flag-waving racist who set out to rid the world of its “negroes” problem.

A year and a half later, as Roof’s federal death penalty trial moves to its sixth day, and more and more information about the deranged young man comes to light, it’s become clear that — outside of his simple hatred for blacks, Jews and homosexuals — what led Roof to this disgusting act was fake news.

Fake news, propaganda-laden content created specifically to mislead and deceive its heavily social media audience and emphasize revenue over accuracy, has been a constant part of American reality over the past 18 months. What had long been a niche market of tabloid magazines and a small pocket of the internet has morphed into a meteor-sized juggernaut. It’s baffled tech giants Facebook and Google. It’s rocked the DNC at its core. The CIA believes it was used to influence the election. It even got a Colorado state senator to introduce a bill to prevent food stamps from being used to buy marijuana.

The list goes on.

Fake news has the next president of the United States falsely claiming that millions of people voted illegally in last month’s election. Fake news has his supporters believing him because “you could find it on Facebook.”

It’s what brought a North Carolina man to Washington, D.C., on Dec. 4 with an assault rifle to investigate an alleged child-sex ring at a pizzeria. It’s what has Fox News’ Sean Hannity and The Blaze’s Tomi Lahren comparing the Black Lives Matter movement to the Ku Klux Klan, the terrorist group responsible for the lynching, assault, rape and death of thousands of blacks since the late 19th century. Fake news can be attributed to the sudden change in Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton’s demeanor toward race.

And the fake news business is incredibly profitable, as it always has been. It’s why a gimmick like The Colbert Report was so popular and why The Late Show with Stephen Colbert is not. It’s why one of the top podcasts in the country is co-hosted by a man running the same schtick. Fake news creators can make anywhere from a couple of bucks to $30,000 a month exclusively from website ad sales.

While proprietors of fake news feign ignorance about the impact of their deception, including one man who believes “Trump is in the White House because of me,” their work has real-world effects.

The myth of the dangerous, hypersexualized black man has roots in chattel slavery, Reconstruction, the civil rights movement and the brutal murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955. This, no doubt, influenced the crater-sized difference in opinion between blacks and whites during the O.J. Simpson trial. It got a Waco, Texas, man ripped apart, limb-by-limb more than a century ago.

With irony so rich it could be taxed 39 percent, Roof wrote in his released manifesto that the murder of black teenager Trayvon Martin “awakened” him to white supremacy and race in America. In a case that revolved around racial profiling, gun rights and “benefit of the doubt,” Roof’s sole takeaway was the fabricated perception of “brutal, disgusting black-on-white murders.”

Roof followed the teachings of the Council of Conservative Citizens — a direct descendant of the segregationist White Citizens’ Councils — whose website is littered with racially charged articles, such as one purporting that “blacks commit sexual assault against almost as many whites as blacks” and that “white on black sexual assault is an extreme rarity.” The website also has RSS feeds set up for far-right conspiracy sites American Renaissance, Infowars, and DailyKenn.com, which most recently made the case that calling someone a white supremacist is “derogatory.”

Sites like these were the basis of Roof’s three-year descent into white supremacy and neo-Nazism. Through this infinite thread of misinformation about the inherent violence and danger of blacks, Roof created a vision of African-Americans that he deemed a threat to his livelihood. Blacks, in his eyes, were “viewed as lower beings by white people” because the history of slavery and racism were “based on historical lies, exagerations (sic), and myths.”

But let’s check the receipts.

Roof said “Black people are killing white people every day on the street.” According to FBI data, blacks accounted for just 15 percent of white murders in 2015, compared with white-on-white murder sitting at 81 percent.

He said “they are raping white women.” Of the over 17,000 people arrested for rape last year, approximately 97 percent were men. Of those same 17,000-plus arrests, 67 percent were categorized as white. A misinterpretation of federal data has led to a conservative websites falsely touting eye-catching numbers about black men and sexual assault. The most infamous instance of interracial sexual assault, though, involved the third president of the United States and an African-American slave.

He said white people “invented a lot more things” than other races. A sentiment shared by a U.S. congressman. Washington Post reporter Philip Bump already handled this:

“For the record, there have been a great number of non-white contributions to human civilization. Civilization first arose in cities in Mesopotamia, in what is now Iraq and Syria. Arabic and Middle Eastern inventors and scientists brought astronomy to the world, which in turn aided innovations in navigation. Critical innovations in mathematics and architecture originated in the same area. The Chinese contributed philosophical precepts and early monetary systems, among other things. The specific inventions that were created outside of the Western world are too many to list: the seismograph, the umbrella, gunpowder, stirrups, the compass.”

He said black people saw life solely through a racial lens. Keep in mind, Roof grew up in the first state to secede from the Union ahead of the Civil War, the state that was the precursor to Brown v. Board of Education, and the state that was the home of Strom Thurmond, whose record for longest filibuster was against civil rights for African-Americans. Roof’s also a supporter of Adolf Hitler and apartheid, and prefers to be referred to as a white nationalist rather than a white supremacist. A spade is a spade, of course.

Less than 24 hours after he killed the nine parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church back in 2015, Roof sat at a table with federal agents, talking through every gruesome detail of his violent attack. He sat calmly, spoke respectfully, and at times appeared jovial despite the piles of bodies that lay in his wake. The agents asked him who encouraged him to carry out the massacre, who filled him with such hate. He calmly responded.

“It’s pretty much the internet. All the information is there for you.”

Martenzie Johnson is a senior writer for Andscape. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said, "Y'all want to see somethin?"