By G. Gans
In 2016, U.S. intelligence agencies confirmed that the Russian hacking group Fancy Bear hacked John Podesta’s email and leaked the message. At the time, Podesta was presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager. One email was between Podesta and James Alefantis, the owner of D.C. pizza parlor Comet Ping Pong. The email discussed the restaurant as a possible host for a Clinton campaign fundraiser. Some 4chan users intensively analyzed these emails, imagining a more complex connection between Comet Ping Pong and Clinton. One of the most absurd and popular claims on the website was that Clinton and Podesta were running a child trafficking ring headquartered in Comet Ping Pong.
This was, in fact, fake news. The New York Times explains that the theory had no foundation or evidence behind it. Yet, it was still picked up, tweeted about more than 120,000 times, and caused personal threats to many associated with the restaurant.
On December 4, 2016, however, 29 year old Edgar Welch wanted to be a good Samaritan. He drove from his North Carolina home to Comet Ping Pong with three guns. He had seen the conspiracy theory about Clinton’s affiliation to Alefantis and went to the restaurant to investigate the claims. Determined to save children from the sex trafficking ring, he walked into the restaurant and fired. There were, however, no children to be saved, and he only managed to frighten the occupants of the pizzeria. Though the incident ended with no injuries and Welch’s arrest, it could have been much worse.
To both sides (proponents of Clinton and those not so much in favor) the Pizzagate theory may seem ridiculous. However, Nadia M. Brasher, a cognitive scientist at Harvard University, and Elizabeth Marsh, a cognitive psychologist at Duke University, co-published a report on how people judge information as truth. They identified three important elements in deciding truth: base rates, emotional feelings, and consistency. When considering all the factors, it is not so hard to believe that someone might interpret the theory as true.
“Base rates” refers to the idea that humans believe that what they encounter is the truth. Brasher and Marsh explain that people are naturally trustful rather than distrustful. When people read the Pizzagate theory, they will be more likely to think that (at least some part of) it is true than they will be to discredit the whole theory immediately. Additionally, they found that associating positive feelings with something will make it appear to be true, and negative feelings will do the opposite. So, if negative information about Hillary Clinton appears as beneficial to someone, they will think that the conspiracy theory is more true than if they held a more positive view about her. Finally, they argue that claims are more likely to be perceived as true when they are encountered multiple times. The more often someone hears about Pizzagate, and the more information they see about it, the more likely they will be to take it as true. Furthermore, As PBS NewsHour reported, people derive massive pleasure from being part of a political “tribe.” All of these components come together to create a more reasonable explanation of someone’s belief.
However, while someone’s belief in it may not be totally unfounded, Pizzagate and other similar conspiracy theories have the ability to affect the political climate and change lives. In an article from Mother Jones, reporter Ali Breland examines the real fear at the foundation of conspiracies like Pizzagate: a changing social order. He explains that after surfacing, the theory inspired a more intense series of conspiracy theories, from the source “QAnon.” QAnon, a pseudonym for an anonymous 4chan poster, alleges that powerful Democrats’ associations with pedophilia do not stop at Pizzagate; they are much more common, and Trump is on a mission to defeat them. Conspiracy theories often target some powerful being which is said to have devised a massive cover-up. They appeal to the “common man.” The Democrats are in favor of social change, which is what QAnon and Pizzagate backers are really afraid of. QAnon believers are so fearful of such a progressive agenda that they will believe that one of the most influential figures in the Democratic party at the time is doing one of the most disgusting things someone can do (hurt children). The idea that their hero is going to swoop in and “fix” the problem soothes their anxieties.
Oftentimes, examining fun conspiracy theories like the Mandela effect seem to be just a fun hobby, as can be seen by the abundance and popularity of them in popular culture. This idea that toying with all conspiracies is an enjoyable activity may then be transferred over to the more serious side of harmful conspiracy theories like Pizzagate. In Pizzagate, 4chan users undermined the trustworthiness of politicians, compromised a man’s business reputation, and inspired death threats.
With an infinite possibility of new theories to surface, there is also an infinite possibility of unfortunate results. An indifferent attitude from consumers toward information in the twenty-first century and its post-truth nature will form a breeding ground for more conspiracy theories to come to life. Conspiracy theories will persist and dominate culture, and no one can say exactly what the consequences of that will be.