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Pizzagate and Beyond: Using Social Research to Understand Conspiracy Legends

Conspiracy Theories and Incredible Tales

Jeffrey S. Debies-Carl

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 41.6, November/December 2017

IT HAPPENED less than a year ago. On December 4, 2016, customers were sitting down for a Sunday afternoon meal in the Washington, D.C., pizzeria Comet Ping Pong. Known locally for its quirky atmosphere, live music, and of course its ping pong, on this day the restaurant would make national headlines. Shortly before 3 PM, a man walked in bearing an assault rifle. The man took aim in the direction of one employee, who quickly fled, before discharging his firearm. Law enforcement promptly responded to calls, and officers were able to take the man into custody without further incident. They found two firearms on the suspect and another in his vehicle. Fortunately no one was hurt, but the event has left many people shaken, and not only for the obvious reasons. The accused had apparently not intended to commit a mass shooting, nor had he intended to rob the restaurant. The truth, such as it is, turned out to be quite strange nonetheless.

The accused shooter was twenty-eight-year-old Edgar Maddison Welch, a father of two daughters and resident of Salisbury, North Carolina. After his arrest, he told police that he had made the 350-mile drive up to the capital to investigate claims regarding a conspiracy theory, circulating online, that quickly came to be called “Pizzagate” (Metropolitan Police Department 2016). According to this outlandish set of claims, leaked emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta, contained coded signs and messages revealing that Comet Ping Pong was actually a front for an occult, child sex slave ring involving the owner of the restaurant, James Alefantis, Podesta, and Clinton herself. For several days before the presidential election, claims of this sort proliferated across the Internet. Alefantis and his employees began receiving menacing messages via social media, including overt death threats (Kang 2016). The events seemed to reach a climax with Welch’s misadventure. He subsequently told police that his intention was to investigate these claims in person and, if he found them to be true, rescue the children held captive there.

This story is admittedly bizarre in many ways, and learning more about the shooter’s motivations does not seem to shed much light on it. Likewise, while others have documented the origins and spread of the groundless Pizzagate conspiracy theory (e.g., Kang 2016), neither does this mapping necessarily help us understand how something so ludicrous found traction in a surprisingly wide audience, nor why it would motivate anyone to investigate in person. These events—preposterous as they are—can be understood by applying well-established lessons from social research.

First, there is the peculiar nature of the conspiracy theory itself. Unlike many of the stories one might encounter in everyday life, stories of this sort can be understood as legends. According to folklorists, a legend is a type of story about supposed past events told as though it might be real: a “legend is a legend once it entertains debate about belief” (Dégh 2001, 97). Unlike a fable or literature, the events described are presented as possible, even if they are bizarre and not necessarily plausible. For example, one legend theme that used to be told frequently involves encounters with an exotic and dangerous animal in a typically safe and familiar place. People telling the legend usually claim that a friend-of-a-friend, or some other indirect acquaintance, had gone shopping for a carpet at a local department store (Brunvand 1981). He or she put their hand inside a rolled-up rug and felt a sudden, sharp pain. They had been bitten by a snake hiding in the carpet, an exotic species that had apparently been imported, by accident, along with the carpet from some far off, foreign land.

Two characteristics of the story indicate its status as a legend with little or no factual basis. First, no firsthand witnesses can ever be found by researchers. Second, multiple versions of it can be found with varying details. This is because legends constantly change to suit the narrator and the locale in which they are told—the type of shop, the animal, the protagonist—and they can circulate over the years, becoming associated with different people and places (e.g., Radford 2016). Both characteristics apply to the claims about Comet Ping Pong. No witnesses, victims, or perpetrators have come forward, and similar stories have been told about other places at other times. Similar allegations and threats occurred in 2015 in regard to a day care center in Salt Lake City (Peterson 2016), for example. Going further back into history, unfounded panic over alleged occult sexual abuse of children ran rampant during the 1980s and 1990s, and many places and people became the target of groundless accusations (Victor 1993). It appears that the pizzeria was just the latest target of a perennial fear.

Given the ambiguous nature of such stories, people rarely find it easy to determine their credibility. Rather, they must invest a degree of thought and emotional engagement into the narrative while they appraise its merits. One legend, for example, suggests that Martha Washington accidentally invented ice cream when she “left a bowl of cream outside one cold night for a neighborhood kitty and found it frozen solid in the morning” (Ellis 2009, 59). Is this legend true? No, but it sounds like it could be, and the central claim is compelling. Consequently, if listeners are engaged with the story, they will frequently seek out further information and participate in intense discussions with others over the legend and its claims. This was certainly the case with the Pizzagate theorizing and, as is the case with conspiracy theories, further information and discourse is likely to be found online and from sources as dubious as the original story. However, the abundance of sympathetic websites and the sheer number of credulous user posts dealing with the topic may appear to be, themselves, evidence that a credible claim has been made. As social psychological research has illustrated, “we determine what is correct by finding out what other people think is correct” (Cialdini 2009, 99).

Participation in legends is not necessarily limited to discussion alone. Sometimes the action they provoke manifests in a form called “legend-tripping” (Hall 1973). Inspired by a legend, a person may travel to the alleged site of the story to investigate its validity directly. In doing so, participants enter into the legend itself, acting out a part of it as one of its characters, and thereby “telling” its narrative through the process of ostension—through their behaviors rather than through words (Dégh and Vázsonyi 1983). This usually takes on a fairly innocuous form, such as when adolescents visit a reputedly haunted graveyard and reenact certain behaviors that legend claims will invoke the spirit, such as calling its name at midnight. However, this sort of legend-tripping is precisely what the shooter did as well, albeit much less innocently. Welch saw himself as the potential hero of the story—a rescuer of children. Instead, he put them at risk, since the only danger present was the danger that he brought with him. As one news headline correctly pointed out, “Fake News Brought Real Guns” (Kang and Goldman 2016). Similarly, legends are not simply stories about events that supposedly occurred in the past. They also serve as “maps for action” (Ellis 2003, 325). As such, they can tell more about the future than the past. Perhaps it should have been expected that the Internet threats against the pizzeria would eventually escalate into something much more serious once sufficient and sustained interest was aroused. The peak in Internet chatter before the election, in hindsight, was a likely warning.

Given the level of absurdity involved in this episode and the lack of anything approaching evidence to corroborate the claims made (LaCapria 2016), it might be reasonably expected that most people would soon realize there was never any truth to the story and move on after its exposure in the media. This, however, is not the nature of the legend process nor was it what happened in this case. Conspiracy theories in particular are notoriously resilient to criticism (Goertzel 2011). Many people remained convinced of Pizzagate and—as is typical with conspiracy theories—public disconfirmation only served to convince diehards of a cover-up in the works. To believers, it seems the media doth protest too much.

As frustrating as this stance may be to those wishing to falsify absurd theories, such a mindset is far from abnormal. Psychological research illustrates how it is difficult for most people to admit they were wrong when they have committed strongly to a belief or course of action. Leon Festinger and colleagues (1956) famously documented how members of a UFO cult doubled down on their belief system after their predicted apocalypse failed to show up on December 21, 1954. The group was saved the trouble (and the cognitive dissonance) of having to admit they were wrong when their prophet conveniently received a last-minute revelation from God via automatic writing. It turned out that the Almighty decided to postpone Armageddon thanks to the cult’s faith and devotion. Alex Jones, the extreme right-wing radio show host and conspiracy theorist well-known for promoting claims that the September 11 attacks were hoaxed, inadvertently offered an example of this sort of revisionist postscript shortly after the media storm that followed Edgar Welch’s misguided adventure into the pizzeria. In a video posted to the website, Jones conceded that the story about a sex ring in the basement was “absurd” without going so far as to disavow it, then promptly suggested that it was a smoke screen used by the media to cover up the “real” revelations found within the Podesta Wikileaks (Jones 2016). By planting and subsequently debunking an absurd story, Jones claimed, the media makes all of the “real” and damning content of the emails seem false by association. This allows him and his devotees to step away from a debunked claim and simultaneously not have to admit they were wrong. All this, despite the fact that the allegedly “real” information in the email is no less absurd and no more substantiated than the sex ring claim (e.g., high level involvement in secret cults, black magic rituals, and so forth). Jones also conveniently overlooked the fact that he himself was one of the primary disseminators of the claims against Comet Ping Pong in the first place. According to his own logic, this must mean that he is actually part of the conspiracy he claims to oppose.

At first blush, the Pizzagate drama seemed so bizarre that it was beyond the bounds of comprehension. It is easy to discount those involved as mentally ill, unintelligent, or perhaps bright but manipulative hucksters. While tempting, doing so would misdiagnose conspiracy theorists, most of whom are mentally healthy individuals (Bost 2015). Moreover, this would result in a missed opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the situation and others like it. After all, this story is far from unique in its outlandish claims. Whatever the truth may be about the person or persons who initiated the legend, the fact that they took root at all in a wider audience reveals something about them that may help us understand those who entertained the possibility of a Clinton-linked sex slave ring. Legends are generally false in a literal sense, but they also reveal deeper truths about those who tell them, reflecting their “hopes, fears, and anxieties” (Brunvand 1981, 2). Legends about finding a mouse’s tail in a soda bottle may not be literally true, but they reveal real concerns about health and safety in industry. People who rank highly in conspiracy ideation also report high levels of support for democratic values and strongly negative attitudes toward authority (Swami et al. 2011). Pizzagate, as a conspiracy legend, reflected these concerns: fears over the trustworthiness of big government, big media, and elites that represent excessive authority and seem to threaten democratic values.

There is a less savory side of the concerns involved as well. A Slate article correctly suggested that the very characteristics of Comet Ping Pong that make local leftists love it are what made it a focus for the fears and concerns of the far Right. The place is a haven for artists, punks, gays, and other marginal groups: a tangible emblem of inclusivity, tolerance, and other progressive values that are threatening to the conspiracy-prone alt-Right (Cauterucci and Fischer 2016). Tellingly, the physical signs of these competing values are read differently by those who do not share them. For example, in a “mural of people and faces by an artist who’s played the Comet stage, conspiracy theorists see a depiction of a child being strangled. In run-of-the-mill bathroom graffiti, they see secret sexual messages. In the lack of labeling for the gender-neutral bathrooms, haters with a political agenda see ‘secret rooms’” (Cauterucci and Fischer 2016). In a previous era, ice cream parlors evoked a similar fear in some Anglo-Americans (Ellis 2009). Distrustful of the foreign, Italian immigrants who frequently owned the parlors, legend had it that young women risked a morally and physically dangerous slippery slope into drugs and forced prostitution if they visited them. The parallels are striking and troubling. A legend such as Pizzagate can only spread if the regressive values it reflects—nativism, racism, and xenophobia—are alive and well and resonate with a sympathetic audience. Strangely, it also indicates that these values may paradoxically be expressed by the same people who support democracy and anti-authoritarianism, odd bedfellows that may find common cause in populism (Panizza 2005).

Legends, just like fake news, can lead to real-world consequences. In addition, these outcomes can themselves reinvigorate the original legend and encourage its further transmission. Discussion of the Pizzagate claims led to action: online threats and an active shooter. These in turn sparked further debate on social media and in the mainstream media. Whether intentionally or not, this continued discussion may encourage further exploits. Hopefully lessons can be learned from all this. While reputations have been damaged, fortunately no one was physically harmed this time. But rumors continued to circulate over online blogs and videos, threatening comments continued to be posted to the Comet Ping Pong Facebook page, and the possibility for further disturbances inspired by dubious legends remains strong. Within days of the shooting, a fifty-seven-year-old woman named Lucy Richards was arrested for texting death threats to another woman who had lost a child in the Sandy Hook School shootings of 2012. According to the Department of Justice, Richards was convinced by conspiracy claims that the shootings were a hoax and, presumably, that the unnamed victim was somehow in on it (Boxley 2016). With an understanding of the social processes at work in these matters, it can be hoped that we will be better-prepared for the next outbreak of conspiracy-inspired legend-tripping.