Why Do People Buy #Pizzagate?

7 December 2016, 0814 EST

Pizzagate, the conspiracy theory started by alt-right Twitter which alleged that John Podesta‘s emails exposed some members of the Democratic party as being part of a DC pizzeria-based child-sex ring, has made its way into Russian social networks. Now some people are convinced of the existence of pedophile lobby that ‘rules’ the US, and believe that both ‘lamestream’ media and elites are trying to hush it up. As one Russian LiveJournal user puts it: its’ ‘American internet community versus pedophiles in politics’. Why do people believe that debunked conspiracy theory? Two reasons: the blood libel trope and a pattern of misinformation.

As children are viewed as a universal symbol of the future, the attack on them can be viewed as an existential threat to a nation. This is the way homophobic fears are stocked as well: in the US and most recently in Russia homosexuality was constantly discursively linked to pedophilia. This is the mechanism borne out of ‘blood libel’ cases, which were pretexts for organizing Jewish pogroms: the ‘killing of babies’ and the ‘use of their blood’ during Passover is a perfect way to incite hatred. Hillary ‘nasty woman’ Clinton is also present in the blood libel narrative.

A ‘mauvaise femme’ (wicked woman) trope came out of the theatrical performances blood libel stories with a female Christian maid who worked for the Jews and was seen as a co-conspirator in ritual murder. The wicked woman (never a man) was supposed to be equally guilty of ‘ritual murder’, not only because she worked for Jews, but also because she failed to report suspicious activity. Trump’s constant engagement with anti-Semitism, where he or his surrogates implied that Hillary Clinton had some mysterious ties with ‘Jewish capital’, such as the poster ‘History made’ with money and star of David, or his last campaign ad that was universally condemned as anti-Semitic sustained this incredibly old anti-feminist trope with its anti-Semitic tinge.

The second main reason is the post-truth economics that blossoms on social media. For instance, Walter Quattrociocchi’s lab has published numerous studies that show how easy it is for misinformation to spread online. Specifically, social networks are prone to spreading conspiracy theories. Thus, fake news, doctored photos, rumors about cough-preventing machines and the like found their perfect breeding space in echo chambers that boost the ‘validity’ of the fake pieces of news for people who are already getting their information predominantly on social media. In other words, people are looking for information that would support their existing beliefs. Confirmation bias FTW.

Anybody who has ever tried to convert pizzagaters or any another conspiracy theory proponents online would know how futile those efforts are (speaking from experience). Calls for facts, sources, and evidence usually ricochet back with claims that Clinton’s ‘long hands’ would not let this kind of information be exposed and even Reddit gave in to the pressure from the American political elite. After all, what can the word ‘pizza’ possibly mean in Podesta’s emails?! Only intercourse with minors!

What to do? For now, it seems like we need to stick to ‘Pics or it didn’t happen’ strategy.