What can we learn from PizzaGate?

The subject of fake and hoax news stories, including Russian disinformation (what they refer to as dezinformatsiya) has done a great deal to change the way modern society works. Conspiracy theorists are now more trusted than actual news sources and more and more, people can’t tell the difference between total bullshit, biased reporting, or a fair news report that just happens to disagree with their point of view. This has led to a massive shift in public opinion and likely had a significant effect on the election of Donald Trump.

One incident that serves as a perfect example, is “PizzaGate.” One of the most sensational fake news stories that was spread virally through social media was the claim that a child sex ring was ran by Hillary Clinton and/or her campaign manager John Podesta out of a Washington D.C. pizzeria named Comet Ping Pong. The story was absorbed into the anti-Hillary fervor during the 2016 Presidential election. The conspiracy theory has its origins in leaked Podesta emails about food, including an email regarding the restaurant itself. The hashtag #PizzaGate spread the rumor, alleging the pizzeria’s menu had secret codes that were used by pedophiles to order sex. Conspiracy theorists quickly linked Podesta and Comet Ping Pong to the belief in a group of elite pedophile occultists secretly ruling the world (this is a recurring theme in Illuminati conspiracy theories).

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One of many #pizzagate memes spread amongst believers on Facebook.

The story leapt from Internet crazy to real-life danger when one man, inspired by word-of-mouth retellings of the PizzaGate rumors decided to drive six hours to Comet Ping Pong to investigate. The man, 28 year old Edgar Madison Welch of Salisbury, NC drove from his home to Washington D.C. with a handgun and semi-automatic rifle. Once in D.C., Welch says he abruptly shifted his plans. Instead of “investigating,” Welch decided to come armed with his semi-automatic to “rescue the children.” There were no children held in the pizzeria and Welch surrendered peacefully. Though Welch now feels he acted in haste, he does not believe that the accusations of a pedophile ring in a pizza place were wrong, but that the child sex slaves must be elsewhere.

“The intel on this wasn’t 100 percent”

– Edgar Madison Welch

This story is not new. Mass media being used to spread rumors and innuendo leading to acts of violence now even has its own specific term, stochastic terrorism. The problem is, this is likely to prove a very simplistic and skewed understanding of this new world of digital misinformation, the way this relates to the culture wars, and their potential for inspiring political violence.

It wasn’t just that a massive wave of new internet and social media users that changed the impact of social media in the political discourse, but increasing numbers of rural residents and the elderly are logging on to social media. The YouTube video above illustrates another aspect of this is also a chance for religious extremists to spread their worldview; promoting their belief in a Satanic conspiracy in the highest levels of government (always surrounding Democrats for some reason).

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It isn’t just Russian hackers and hucksters spreading leaked and potentially doctored emails alongside fake news stories, dezinformatsiya, and sensational clickbait. Certainly Russians were heavily involved in the 2016 US Election, as well as the Brexit vote, and helped promote and fund various European Far-Right movements but there is still quite a bit of confusion (and denial on the part of the incoming President) as to the level of the Russian interference, the intent, and the actual Russian entity or entities doing the meddling. State actor or bored Runet users, the goal of destroying the “Western Empire” has long been the stated objective of Eurasianists and the election of Donald Trump is only one step in a process of destabilizing their ideological rivals.

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There is a cultural legacy of placing special relevance given to word-of-mouth information and advice. People share rumors, opinions and what news they feel is important whether other options exist or not. It is a folkway, a traditional mode of doing information spreading. The fact that you can now do it online has made for an interesting parallel to word-0f-mouth communication. Now people can spread news stories (with or without fact checking) which people either read in full or just check the headline. The town gossip of old is now the Facebook conspiracy theory super-spreader and the Internet, as the story of Pizzagate can attest, has the potential to become a pernicious rumor mill. Only now, with social media, the power to spread rumors has much greater arsenal than the town gossip; YouTube videos, memes, and private Facebook groups make the production of a one-sided conspiracy worldview both easy and potent.

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A tweet mocking the PizzaGate controversy.

Social theory in the Twentieth Century noted an increase in secularization due presumably to modernity. The term disenchantment of the world coined by Max Weber became an important aspect of conceptualizing the modern world. Now, with social media, the return to the old folkways of social information spreading and fewer barriers between conspiracy theory and millions of people ideologically primed to believe; we are seeing what can only be described as a re-enchantment. The technology this time has led to greater potential for the spread of supernatural claims. The hypothetical has replaced the demonstrable as the most revered level of information. The post-fact era, as it has been called, may also be the era of multiple mass-hysterias, new witch hunts, and a new technological dark age.

Related story from Right Wing Watch: Alex Jones: ‘Hillary Clinton Has Personally Murdered And Chopped Up And Raped’ Children.

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