Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The "Pizzagate." Or Down The Rabbit Hole of Fake News.

1.  We have fallen through the rabbit hole, my sweet and erudite readers.  That makes Lewis Carroll a useful guide on our trip.  His poem about the walrus and the carpenter who took a nice walk on the beach and then invited lots of tiny oysters to keep them company is a useful guide to the world of the Pizzagate:

O Oysters, come and walk with us!'
      The Walrus did beseech.
A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,
      Along the briny beach:
We cannot do with more than four,
      To give a hand to each.'

The eldest Oyster looked at him,
      But never a word he said:
The eldest Oyster winked his eye,
      And shook his heavy head —
Meaning to say he did not choose
      To leave the oyster-bed.

But four young Oysters hurried up,
      All eager for the treat:
Their coats were brushed, their faces washed,
      Their shoes were clean and neat —
And this was odd, because, you know,
      They hadn't any feet.

You can imagine what happened later.  It involved bread, butter and oysters:

It seems a shame,' the Walrus said,
      To play them such a trick,
After we've brought them out so far,
      And made them trot so quick!'
The Carpenter said nothing but
      The butter's spread too thick!'

I weep for you,' the Walrus said:
      I deeply sympathize.'
With sobs and tears he sorted out
      Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
      Before his streaming eyes.

O Oysters,' said the Carpenter,
      You've had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?'
      But answer came there none —
And this was scarcely odd, because
      They'd eaten every one."

So.  In the tale I shall tell you you should see yourselves as the oysters (I hope as the old and experienced ones) and the Walrus and the Carpenter as the manufacturers of false news, of conspiracy theories and of made-up lies created and disseminated for political purposes, such as the tarring and feathering of one Hillary Clinton with the rumors that she traffics in pedophilia, even kills children.

2.  There.  And now the so-called Pizzagate:

The time has come,' the Walrus said,
      To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —
      Of cabbages — and kings —
And why the sea is boiling hot —
      And whether pigs have wings.'
 And whether a vast pedophile ring is run from a family-style pizzeria in Washington, DC, by important Democratic politicians close to Hillary Clinton, including his campaign manager John Podesta.

Many different walruses and carpenters spread the online theory that one family-oriented pizzeria (with ping pong tables in the back room), the Comet Ping Pong, is  a center for a pedophilia ring of powerful Democratic politicians. But at least one site keeping the rumors going is a white supremacist one, and Trump's Best Friend Forever, Alex Jones, the fabricator of a vast number of conspiracy theories, has also played a decisive role in the story.

The basic facts are these:

On Oct. 28, FBI Director James B. Comey told Congress that he was reopening the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was secretary of state. New emails had been found on a computer belonging to disgraced former New York congressman Anthony Weiner, the estranged husband of top Clinton aide Huma Abedin. Two days later, someone tweeting under the ­handle ­@DavidGoldbergNY cited ­rumors that the new emails “point to a pedophilia ring and ­@HillaryClinton is at the center.” The rumor was retweeted more than 6,000 times.
The notion quickly moved to other social-media platforms, including 4chan and Reddit, mostly through anonymous or pseudonymous posts. On the far-right site Infowars, talk-show host Alex Jones repeatedly suggested that Clinton was involved in a child sex ring and that her campaign chairman, John Podesta, indulged in satanic rituals.
“When I think about all the children Hillary Clinton has personally murdered and chopped up and raped, I have zero fear standing up against her,” Jones said in a YouTube video posted on Nov. 4. “Yeah, you heard me right. Hillary Clinton has personally murdered children. I just can’t hold back the truth anymore.” Jones eventually tied his comments about Clinton to U.S. policy in Syria.
Did John Podesta's emails contain references to Satanic rituals?  You decide, as the conspiracy folks would say, but the offending emails seem to have been about food.  One conspiracy site ( gives us examples and then the explanation!

To recap, the initial "evidence" for the pizzagate consisted of these types of emails (the two above are regarded as the worst of all), and the emails were interpreted with the code in the above tweet.

That people might write about food as, you know, food, seems to be ruled out.

The next step in the saga achieved the required link of an actual pizzeria to Podesta's emails:

The misinformation campaign began when John Podesta’s email account was hacked and his emails were published by WikiLeaks during the presidential campaign. Days before the election, users on the online message board 4Chan noticed that one of Mr. Podesta’s leaked emails contained communications with Mr. Alefantis discussing a fund-raiser for Mrs. Clinton.
The 4Chan users immediately speculated about the links between Comet Ping Pong and the Democratic Party.
Some posited the restaurant was part of a larger Democratic child trafficking ring, which was a theory long held by some conservative blogs. That idea jumped to other social media services such as Twitter and Reddit, where it gained momentum on the page “The_Donald.” A new Reddit discussion thread called “Pizzagate” quickly attracted 20,000 subscribers.

Bolds are mine.

It's crucial to note that none of the above is evidence of anything*, and that Hillary Clinton isn't connected to any of the speculations of the walruses and carpenters.

The third step, eagerly pursued by hundreds, if not thousands, eager "researchers" in social media, was a thorough "study" of everything Comet Ping Pong's owner had ever posted, a search for photographs of Comet Ping Pongs' employees' children, as possible victims of the pedophilia ring**, and the construction of further "evidence."

This evidence consisted of arguments that Black Masses were carried out in the pizzeria***, and that vast underground tunnels led from it to other nearby businesses.  Those underground tunnels were speculated to be the places where child rape took place.

We have now arrived at almost the present state of the "Pizzagate" as weirdos call it:  Out of cabbages, kings, ships and sealing wax a theory was created: The sea indeed IS boiling hot and pigs can fly.

If you have read Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, you might feel some deja vu.  The manner of building irrational chains of evidence is the same in that book as in the "Pizzagate."

The final step of the chain, the one that takes us to those imaginary underground tunnels and the possible complicity of nearby businesses, was based on one picture of an empty storage room, possibly posted by James Alefantis, the owner of Comet Ping Pong.  Somehow that room morphed into underground tunnels, connecting many neighborhood businesses, all purportedly in the pedophilia business.  To support that assertion, the conspiracy theory creators argued that some business logos of those firms contained symbols which resembled what is supposed to be pedophile code:

Thus, anything with a heart became suspicious, anything with a butterfly or a triangle became suspicious!****

3.  What happened next?   Real consequences of false news and conspiracy theories happened, and real people got hurt.  Many of those who read and believed in the Hillary-Kills-Children stories may have participated in the online harassment of local business owners and their employees because they wanted to save children from the horrors of pedophilia.

But those who created the stories of "Pizzagate" have no such excuse:  They were out to finally destroy Hillary Clinton, they didn't care about the damage their lies caused, they didn't care about the death threats and pedophile accusations the owner of Comet Ping Pong and other local business owners received, they didn't care that pictures of totally unrelated children were posted in social media as possible victims of pedophilia, and neither did they care about the loss of local business or the expenses some owners incurred by having their "offending" logos removed.

And they didn't care when one "Pizzagate researcher" tried to force his way into a children's birthday party in the backroom of the pizzeria, to video it and to prove for himself that no child rape took place.  Imagine how frightening that would be to the children:  A strange man forcing his way in.

The real world events culminated when a man called Edgar Welch decided to go and rescue all those abused children.  He entered Comet Ping Pong armed with a Colt AR-15 assault rifle, a .38-caliber Colt revolver and a folding knife, and he fired several shots, luckily not killing or hurting anyone.  Had he killed someone, the moral guilt would have been shared by all those walruses and carpenters who worked to create this story about poor little oysters, only to eat them up.

Other conspiracy theories have equally frightening real world consequences.  A recent example:

A woman has been charged with making death threats against the parent of a child who died in the Sandy Hook school shooting massacre, authorities say.
Lucy Richards made the threats in January this year because she thought the attack was a hoax, officials say.
The 57-year-old, of Tampa, Florida, allegedly wrote in messages, "you gonna die, death is coming to you real soon".
She was arrested on Monday on four felony counts of transmitting threats, the US Justice Department said.

4.  Finally, people believing in conspiracy theories have always existed.  Some believe that the 911 atrocities were manufactured by the US government or Israel, some believe that humans never walked on the moon and so on.

What is different about the "Pizzagate" is its clear political motivation.  In that it belongs to the new trend of fake news whose only purpose is to take down some politician or party.  Collateral damage is irrelevant in that context.

What is also different about the "Pizzagate" is the impact of easy communication through the Internet and the construction of vast conspiracy theory communities where individuals never hear opposing evidence or see anyone analyze evidence with a critical eye.

Calling yourself "a Pizzagate researcher" doesn't make you a researcher (5).  Learning to interrogate data and evidence takes years of thorough education and practice, and even then the skills may only apply to an individual's own specialty.

Still, we can all be careful with data and evidence, we can all approach news with a critical eye, an open but skeptical mind and some level of intellectual humility.  Whatever we do, we should NOT imitate another character created by Lewis Carroll, The White Queen:

"I'm just one hundred and one, five months and a day."
"I can't believe that!" said Alice.
"Can't you?" the Queen said in a pitying tone. "Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes."
Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said: "one can't believe impossible things."
"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."


(1) John Podesta and his acquaintances write emails about pizza, risotto and handkerchiefs, an odd leap through fund-raising plans links that to a Washington DC pizzeria, the owner's sense of humor is deemed to be evidence of pedophilia, and off we go.

Can you spot what is missing in the theory altogether? Any evidence that this "pedophile" ring has had victims.  No, the pictures of customers' or employees' children are not evidence for that, because the pizzeria advertises itself as a family-friendly restaurant.

This is the obvious place to point out that it's impossible to prove the absence of a pedophile ring at Comet Ping Pong, just as it is impossible to prove its absence wherever you or I happen to be right now.  Yet many conspiracy theorists want such a proof.  What would satisfy them?

This is also the obvious place to point out that, yes, pedophilia is present in all sorts of high places, from the Catholic Church to powerful political circles in several countries.  That presence doesn't convey any kind of proof about Comet Ping Pong.

Finally, as I already mentioned, it is impossible for me to prove that Comet Ping Pong is not in the pedophilia business.  There are police officers who are trained to work to catch pedophiles and the required research belongs to them, not lots of people playing detective online.

(2) This is the point where I saw red.

(3)  As far as I can tell, the "evidence" for this consists of blurry images in a video which seems to be about an avant-garde musical performance, but I can't even verify if that performance took place at Comet Ping Pong.  Other similar "evidence" has to do with the paintings on the walls of John Podesta's home etcetera which are argued to have violent motifs.

(4)  This is how the stuff works in that alternative reality:

In a small city north of Tel Aviv, in the small hours of the night, Avrahaum Segol, a New Yorker who emigrated to Israel 15 years ago, makes call after call back to Washington. He says he has never been to Comet Ping Pong, but he is burning with a need to know. He found the elderly woman whose family once owned the colorful neon sign that sits over Comet’s front door. Alefantis bought the sign from a defunct liquor store in Adams Morgan.
Segol called the woman and spelled out his baroque story. He quoted from an H.G. Wells story called “In the Days of the Comet,” and he wondered whether the symbols on the sign — crescents and stars — might reveal a message about sexual misdeeds or satanic rituals.

The woman listened to some of this, then told Segol, “You’re an idiot.” She hung up on him.

(5)  As one "researcher" tells it:
MacWilliams calls herself a journalist, but she does not try to be “100 percent accurate,” either. She believes the beauty of the Internet is that people can crowdsource the truth. Eventually, what is real will emerge, she said.
Pizzagate, she said, is “two worlds clashing. People don’t trust the mainstream media anymore, but it’s true that people shouldn’t take the alternative media as truth, either.” The lack of stories about Pizzagate in the mainstream press meant that the back channels of the Internet would step into the breach.
But how does this end? What could constitute proof that there is no conspiracy? Some Pizzagate buffs want a video tour showing that there are no secret rooms or tunnels. Others say they would need more.
MacWilliams remains caught up in the thrill of the chase. “There is a camaraderie to it,” she said. “It is like sitting around with your friends saying, ‘What really happened to JFK?’ It is like a giant game, especially nowadays when you can crowdsource thousands of emails and figure out what’s going on. It’s like a real-life Kennedy assassination where all the stuff is at your fingertips, and it’s happening today.”

A 24-year-old, blogging from her home, is not a researcher in the same way as someone with decades of training and experience is. Or if she qualifies as a researcher, then I qualify as a mezzo soprano.