Pizzagate, the Scalise Shooting, and Fake News: How To Know What To Believe
Seaborn Hall, 6/26/17
In the immediate wake of the recent Congressional shooting Pizzagate reared its head again on random websites (for example, here, here, and here) as possible motivation. Pizzagate was the code name for the theory that Hilary and her campaign manager, John Podesta, were at the center of a secret global pedophile ring. Most serious news sources ignored the theory or rated it as false. The websites theorized that it was Congressman Scalise’s support of an anti-pedophile bill that led to the attempt on his life. Surveys show that many Americans still buy into these dubious theories.
The 1997 film, Conspiracy Theory, starred Mel Gibson as taxi driver, Jerry Fletcher, and was about a man who believed that many world events were triggered by government conspiracies. He becomes obsessed with a woman he believes holds the key and she and most of his and her friends and associates consider him to be crazy. But there is a twist at the end that causes the woman – and the viewer – to appreciate his insight.
Though largely debunked and like Mel’s character thought to be crazy by many, Pizzagate is still making the rounds via websites and email, and as of December 2016 was still believed by nearly half of Republicans (though the polling source appears to be an online polling company with a liberal bias, so this estimate is probably high). As of March 2017 true believers were still attending protests. Though few may remember the incident, Pizzagate led to shots fired when an armed man showed up at Comet Ping Pong Pizza in the nation’s capitol. D.C. Police described his motivation as a “fictitious online conspiracy theory.” The man, Welch, was just sentenced to 4 years prison.
The U.S. Government brought down the twin towers on 9/11; either Hilary or Trump is a Manchurian Candidate; the whole system is rigged. Conspiracy theories abound, even today. Fake news websites and news that travels quickly via social media are just one reason. We need more than just simple discernment to know the real from the counterfeit.
How A Conspiracy Theory Begins: Pizzagate
Wikipedia lists over fifty fake news websites in the United States alone. They help give life to conspiracy theories. Even good friends of mine that I consider quite smart have, from my perspective, surprisingly, bought in to some of the recent fake news and conspiracies.
How do conspiracy theories begin? They usually start with passionate believers in a cause and the illusion of truth. A questionable but believable item is spread on social media and picked up and embellished by fake news websites who carry it to the general public where emails and social media cause it to go viral. According to one researcher, there is “a complex network of bots, individuals and domains that birth, orchestrate and promote conspiracy theories that undermine online readers’ trust in information.” Pizzagate may have begun and spread this way.
Exactly how Pizzagate began varies slightly depending on the article or publication sourced. What is known for sure is that about a month prior to the Presidential election Wikileaks released emails sent to and from Hilary’s private server that included emails of various people related to the Clinton campaign, including Hilary and her campaign manager, John Podesta. Immediately, a small cadre of overzealous Trump supporters began poring through them looking for bad information on Hilary’s campaign. At some point in this process – the exact point difficult to determine – inferences from the emails were made regarding a possible child sex ring.
A December 2, 2016 BBC report puts the start of the conspiracy to the same initial activity – anti-Hilary zealots looking for nefarious connections in the Wikileaks emails and then spreading their dubious conclusions to message boards. According to Time Magazine on December 5, 2016, the conspiracy began when investigation of the Wikileaks emails turned up a link between Alefantis, the owner of Comet Ping Pong, and Podesta. Users of message boards then claimed that phrases like “cheese pizza” were code for “child porn.” A December 5, 2016 article in Spin also corroborates the above beginnings. Fox News corroborates more recently.
But other sources that pre-date the above reports, like a November 4, 2016 BuzzFeed article (see below), suggest that a tweet came first. A December 5, 2016 Politifact article reports both beginnings – but since it also reports that Alefantis noted an uptick in his social media weeks before the election it seems more likely that the inferences from the emails came first. These spread to message boards and then to the tweet. A December 7th Forbes article puts the beginning in late October on 4Chan message boards (that would have come from inferences made about the Wikileaks emails) that were picked up by InfoWars and spread elsewhere – they point to a November 30th tweet (which Forbes misprints as October 30) confirming the sequence.
Either shortly after the email inferences, or around the same time, the main tweet appeared. On October 30, 2016, David Goldberg, purportedly an avatar for a white supremacist twitter account, tweeted about an ‘inside source’ to the NYPD investigation of Huma Abedin’s emails on Anthony Weiner’s computer. The source seemed to confirm that Hilary Clinton was at the center of a pedophilia ring. Websites and social media picked up the tweet and embellished and spread the rumor as fact. Then the general public spread the ‘fake news’ even more via email and social media.
Why is how ‘Pizzagate’ begins important? Some people seem to believe that if they can place the beginnings with the Wikileak emails rather than with the white supremacist tweet that it gives the conspiracy legitimacy. But, this is not true.
The Structure of A Conspiracy Theory: Pizzagate
One 2016 New York Times article sketched out the timeline for the Pizzagate scenario, slightly modified here:
- Wikileaks released John Podesta’s emails in early October 2016
- Trump supporters on Reddit searched the emails for evidence of wrongdoing
- Someone made a dubious connection of the phrase “cheese pizza” to “child porn”
- “Pizza” and a fundraiser connection led the ‘investigators’ to the D.C. Pizza restaurant Comet Ping Pong
- The theory got embellished and snowballed, appearing on fake news websites and multiplied through email and social media
- An armed man showed up at Comet Ping Pong, fired shots, and searched for children held prisoner – he found none and was arrested
- Believers continued to allege there was a cover-up of a global child sex ring
The only essential information The NY Times timeline leaves out is the Tweets, which occurred in late October and late November, around bullet point 5 on the above timeline. Wikipedia ties the beginnings of the Pizzagate conspiracy all together, saying,
“This conspiracy theory emerged near the end of the 2016 United States presidential election cycle. On October 30, 2016, a white supremacist Twitter account claimed the New York City Police Department, which was searching emails found on Anthony Weiner‘s laptop as part of an investigation into his sexting scandals, had discovered the existence of a pedophilia ring linked to members of the Democratic Party. Internet users reading John Podesta’s emails released by Wikileaks in early November 2016 speculated that some words in Podesta’s emails were code words for pedophilia and human trafficking. The theory also proposed that the ring was a meeting ground for satanic ritual abuse.”
Note that Wikipedia uses the word, “speculated,” and elsewhere also describes Pizzagate as a “debunked conspiracy theory.” The New York Times article also does a good job of debunking conspiracies surrounding different posted Pizzagate photos.
A contemporaneous BuzzFeed Article completely obliterates doubt (The Atlantic calls it an “excellent forensic tracing”) for any reasonable mind wanting to know the false nature behind this conspiracy theory. That article notes that the rumor grew first through a Godlike Productions message board and then through a next day – October 31 – article on YourNewsWire.com. Note that the Godlike Productions message occurred the same day as the Goldberg tweet. Godlike quotes “inside sources” while Yournewswire quotes an “FBI insider.” Further research reveals this “insider” to be an anonymous user on a message board months prior!
According to BuzzFeed, “Where did this this new FBI source come from? Adl-Tabatabai [Yournewswire Editor] cited a thread on a 4chan message board from back in July.” The same user also reported that Bill Clinton will die this year and that most blacks are violent, but they’re not all bad. BuzzFeed tried to reach both authors of the reports for comment – but, of course, they were unavailable (both too busy on online message boards getting juicy information from other anonymous “insiders”, no doubt).
According to BuzzFeed, it was the Yournewswire article that lit the flame of the conspiracy going viral. Right-wing and fringe websites picked up the story and aggregated it and it spread to other sites and social media. Several Macedonian sites – yes, that’s the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – that pick up mostly fake American stories simply to surge web traffic and raise ad revenue, helped it spread further. Some sites just repeated the information; other sites added other false stories that embellished the tale.
For example, a site named SubjectPolitics.com claimed the NYPD had just raided Hilary’s property. True Pundit then published a story the same day quoting its own anonymous sources. Other sites like Patriotcrier.com, Info Wars, and Reddit also got involved. True Pundit has only been around since March 2016, but is identified as a fake news website (also see here) by some. According to BuzzFeed, True Pundit has published many false stories since its inception.
To top off this massive conspiracy gamesmanship and bring the whole thing around full circle: On November 2nd, the author of the original tweet which may have started it all – or at least fanned the flame – tweeted the True Pundit article as “proof” that his tweet was correct! As I said in my opening, this conspiracy – though debunked by multiple major media sources – is still making the rounds and many people still swear by it.
The Problem With Proving A Conspiracy: The Standard Of Proof
By definition, a conspiracy is “a secret plan by a group to do something unlawful or harmful,” like a conspiracy to destroy the government, or as many believe in, a Deep State conspiracy to bring down the Trump Presidency. Some conspiracies may be true; some are definitively false. By their nature, conspiracies are criminal.
What is the standard of proof for criminality? According to one Legal Zoom article, the standard of proof in criminal trials is evidence that shows guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” There are primarily two kinds of evidence in proof. According to Wikipedia, “Circumstantial evidence is evidence that relies on an inference to connect it to a conclusion of fact—like a fingerprint at the scene of a crime. By contrast, direct evidence supports the truth of an assertion directly—i.e., without need for any additional evidence or inference.”
Scott Peterson’s 2004 murder trial was a high profile case largely based on circumstantial evidence, with a guilty verdict. O.J. Simpson’s 1995 murder trial was a circumstantial evidence case with a not guilty verdict. Civil and criminal cases may rely solely on circumstantial evidence, solely on direct evidence, or a combination of both to convict.
According to Ted Yeshion, Ph.D., “Classic examples of direct evidence are eyewitness testimony, photographs or video of the defendant in the act of committing a crime, and incriminating statements made by the defendant, victim, or witness.” Direct evidence: I see you murder the woman and I testify in court to that fact. The strongest circumstantial evidence: physical evidence, like blood, DNA, or fingerprints is collected on the scene of the woman’s murder and introduced by a witness to it in court. Weaker circumstantial evidence: having just seen her alive, I see you enter the woman’s apartment and I testify to that fact in court.
Note that above, circumstantial evidence is “evidence that relies on inference to connect it to a conclusion of fact.” Therefore, the evidence is only as strong as the inference. There are several kinds of inference: deduction, induction, and abduction. Deduction depends on premises known to be true; induction is inference to universal conclusions; abduction is inference to the best explanation.
According to Legal Zoom, juries are allowed to draw inferences from evidence, but those inferences must be logical and reasonable – not speculation. The common metaphor for the strongest circumstantial evidence in any case is the “smoking gun.”
Here is the primary problem with Pizzagate: Even if we concede that Wikileaks is the beginning of the conspiracy, are the emails from the Clinton emails evidence of child sex abuse? They are not direct evidence because there was not a witness, recording, or photograph of a crime. Whether they are circumstantial evidence depends on whether they speak of a crime or suggest one (Many of the so-called photographic “proofs” were stolen from other sites, photoshopped, or can be explained away). In this case, they do not – it is the anti-Hilary investigators that speculate – that is right, speculate – that phrases like “cheese pizza” really mean “child porn.” It is also speculation to relate known symbols for child sex on file with the FBI to restaurant icons.
Circumstantial evidence cases by their very nature allow for the possibility that other alternatives might explain the existing set of circumstances. According to Wikipedia, “if the circumstantial evidence suggests a possibility of innocence, the prosecution has the burden of disproving that possibility.”
For example, in Pizzagate, could there be another reason for the use of the word “pizza” in Podesta’s emails? Maybe John Podesta likes to eat pizza a lot, for instance? As it turns out he is well known for his culinary parties and all of the emails came in the time context of a major fundraising culinary event.
So, to prove that “pizza” and its variations are a code for sex with minors, one has to prove first that Podesta does not like pizza and rarely eats or entertains in that context. Even if it can be shown that the artwork on some of the fake news sites is really his then one has to show that said artwork was not bought for its intrinsic value or its worth as an investment. If one can show its potential future value as an investment than its value as evidence of an interest in child pornography could be debunked. And were the graphic artists hired to create the restaurant icons all instructed what to draw?
But all of this is moot anyway. Why? Because translating “cheese pizza” into “child porn” from emails talking about food in the timing and context of a culinary fundraiser, when Podesta was known for holding culinary fundraisers, goes beyond abductive inference – the best explanation – the weakest form of inference. Remember the words from your favorite crime show? “Objection, Your Honor, calls for speculation.” And speculation is not evidence.
Wikileaks itself notes that the investigation into the Clinton emails is a “speculative investigation which lacks clear and provable evidence.” This by itself should be enough to dissuade any Pizzagate conspiracy theorist. Not only is there no smoking gun – the smoke is a fiction!
To build a case, the unnamed witness needs to come forward. Or, the source material – the Abedin emails that purportedly put the Clintons at the center of a pedophile ring – need to be presented as evidence. Until one of these occurs there is reasonable doubt. There is no grounds for a court, or a public, case – which is why no major media outlet is reporting this story.
How Do You Discern The Truth?
I was at a small group recently when someone shared a recent news item of a family that survived when a trailer they were in was carried 130 miles in a tornado. The whole group temporarily bought in to the story – but when we learned that the trailer had landed in Kansas and the wife’s name was ‘Dorothy,’ our antennae went up. To our credit, we checked a site that identifies the truth and found the story was a fluke within about ten minutes. It had even appeared on a site that in its fine print identified itself as ‘news satire.’
There is no foolproof method for determining the truth of a story. But, there are several ways to protect yourself from fake news and false conspiracy theories. Here are ten suggestions:
- Be initially skeptical of reported stories, especially if the origin is social media, and even more if you are in a developing nation where the spread of news depends more on social media.
- Check the credentials of the website carrying the story – Is it reputable? Is it a well-known site? What does the site say about itself? In general, the less information on the site about the site itself or about the editors, the less information from that site should be believed and the more it should be questioned. Many websites are fronts for foreign sources. If you can’t find any information, like for instance, on The Daily Wire, a conservative, but reputable site, check Wikipedia for background.
- Find the initial Website or other source that reported the story and check its credentials and reputation.
- Survey several truth or fiction, or fake vs. true, news story websites for information, remembering that these sites can also reflect social and political bias and be purveyors of inaccurate information. See this link, Exposing the 9 Fakest Fake News Checkers. A site called TruthorFiction.com was begun by the late Christian radio host, Rich Buhler, and can be a good source, but does not always fact check current stories. Their Wikipedia page is here.
- Check Wikipedia for general information on the story, but always back-check facts and sources, especially in the early stages of a story; check Wikipedia’s list of fake news websites.
- Read and research multiple reliable news sources, and always stay aware of bias.
- Ask a lot of questions and keep in mind the two kinds of evidence: direct and circumstantial.
- Remember that a circumstantial case is built on inferences and that inferences have different levels of import – look for a ‘smoking gun.’ Speculation (‘pizza’ really means ‘child sex’) does not constitute evidence.
- Remember the US standard of proof: Beyond a reasonable doubt.
- Don’t be fooled. Don’t participate in spreading what is still just gossip or rumor. If you do you may be the one who ends up looking like a fool.
What If All The Conspiracies Are A Conspiracy?
What if all the conspiracy theories are just a Deep State or Russian conspiracy to get us so tired of conspiracy theories that we miss the few real ones? I am not anti- conspiracy. The Devil is a conspirator, so I am sure that he still inspires conspirators today.
The average American does not know how to evaluate information. We live in a dumbed-down culture in which a shipload of people might end up believing that a tornado carried a housewife named Dorothy and her family 130 miles and landed them safely in Kansas just as easily as they might believe that an alien invasion just started in Omaha.
One of my friends predicted that Trump would become President and early on, at least, I did not believe her. Should I now believe her passionately insistent cries that Pizzagate is real? It is true the rational mind has a limited capacity to discern truth, and intuition often picks up things beyond our “legal” limits. But, when does a failure of critical thinking allow intuition to go too far? The danger is where the belief in a lie corrupts intuition.
Buying into conspiracies is easy. All you have to do is log in to Facebook or Twitter or get on the web. Discerning the truth is much harder and much more time consuming. You have to understand how to think critically and apply critical thinking to the reading and research – and the ten suggestions above is a good place to begin. But then you have to synthesize, analyze, talk to your friends, pray and finally attempt to come up with the truth.
Even after all that you might ask, “What if all the conspiracies are a conspiracy?” Russian propaganda and Macedonian websites have been shown to be behind at least some of the fake news in the United States. And it may involve the Chinese, North Korea, and others. What if all the conspiracies are a conspiracy and your friend’s intuition is right? Sometimes there is just no way to know. What say you, Jerry?
Seaborn Hall has a degree in management from Georgia Tech, two masters degrees and has studied atthe doctoral level. Formerly he was a regional director at a national top-50 RIA; he currently manages a family investment company, writes, and publishes the Common Sense Group websites.