Over the past month, the dark corners of the internet have been mobilized to action over "Pizzagate," a conspiracy theory alleging that Hillary Clinton and other Washington elites are involved in a pedophilia ring operating out of a Washington, DC pizza shop. No, it isn't true. But that hasn't stopped self-styled citizen journalists from "investigating" the case, including the North Carolina man who showed up at the shop armed with an AR-15.
Bob speaks with Kim LaCapria, Content Manager at Snopes.com, about debunking the conspiracy. Then, Brooke speaks with Richard Beck, author of We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s, about how Pizzagate resonates with pedophilia scares in the past.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. Last weekend, a North Carolina man showed up at Comet Ping Pong, a Washington DC pizza shop, armed with an AR-15.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Edgar Welch drove from his home in North Carolina apparently to investigate an online conspiracy theory known as “Pizzagate.”
BOB GARFIELD: Pizzagate, the gate connoting scandal and the pizza, as Edgar Welch discovered, to his surprise, connoting – pizza. As he told The New York Times, quote, “The intel on this wasn't 100 percent,” which is strange because over the past few months some of the nation’s leading crackpots have used subreddits, 4Chan, YouTube and other dark corners of the Web to unequivocally implicate Hillary Clinton and various Washington elites in a literal underground pedophilia market in the basement of Comet Ping Pong. And did I mention Satan?
DAVID SEAMAN: I’m not excited to confirm this but my research is correct. There is a satanic pedophile cult operating in DC, and pretty much under most of our noses, up until the WikiLeaks emails came out.
BOB GARFIELD: That's from so-called “citizen journalist” David Seaman who, like other sleuths exposed to the grand conspiracy with clues from the hacked John Podesta emails made public by WikiLeaks, ambiguous contemporary art, ancient passageways beneath Connecticut Avenue and, dare I say it, Italian food! The the pizza shop owner was a fundraiser for Clinton. Come on [LAUGHS], do the math.
Uhh, like many conspiracy theories, it involved cherry picking unrelated facts, and not-facts, to construct a narrative supporting a preexisting worldview. But don’t worry. The notion that Hillary Clinton was linked to serial sex crimes was embraced only by - tens of thousands of Web denizens - and Donald Trump's national security advisor. If ever there were a case for Snopes.com, the rumor verification website, this was it. The focus of the suspicion, says Snopes’ Content Manager Kim LaCapria, is Clinton's erstwhile campaign chairman, John Podesta.
KIM LaCAPRIA: One of the threads was that John Podesta and his brother were in Portugal at the time that Madeleine McCann was abducted and that became a big threat in the Pizzagate conspiracy.
BOB GARFIELD: This is the young English child who, a decade ago, went missing while her parents were out to dinner in a Portuguese resort.
KIM LaCAPRIA: Yes, and I’ve had people send me the drawings that people do of potential suspects. They said, like, oh, this is obviously John Podesta, how can you not see it?
So and that type of thing gets pretty expansive.
BOB GARFIELD: You know, it's just hard for me to understand how even the most disordered mind would make the leap between a pizza shop whose owner is a Hillary Clinton supporter [LAUGHS] to a pedophilia ring, which supposedly involves a host of DC elites, including, apparently, the President himself.
MAN: Obama has been photographed there playing ping-pong with a boy.
KIM LaCAPRIA: Once you start slipping down this slope of believing, then everything looks like a part of it. You may see a picture of President Obama playing ping-pong with a child and think that it's a photo opportunity, but if somebody is mired in this in this way of thinking or they've been spending a lot of time reading about it, they may see that and see something completely else, like a Rorschach type thing.
BOB GARFIELD: You mentioned that because the accusation of Pizzagate was so wild, it was actually hard to categorically disprove it, and you originally characterized your assessment as unproven. You have since switched to false. How did you get from unproven to false?
KIM LaCAPRIA: You know, the scope of the claims being made, it would involve the Clinton campaign, the whole network of Podesta and his campaign people, all these businesses in the area of the pizzeria. The police would have to be keeping quiet about it, the families of the children affected would have to be keeping quiet. There was just no way that all of these people involved wouldn't produce a shred of evidence, even accidentally, that there was some kind of cover-up going on. You know, people can't just disappear into a vast conspiracy without somebody noticing. You know, one person would be extraordinary; dozens of people would be even more extraordinary. And there wasn't any evidence. You know, people presented what they believed constituted evidence. I got a lot of pictures of shirtless men tweeted to me, you know, like, well, don’t you see what’s going on here? I’m like, it looks like two guys who are at a club. I don’t think there’s anything really compelling about that as evidence. But that would be what we saw presented - or artwork that people thought was strange, which didn’t look very strange. It just looked like artwork. So there was absolutely no evidence that we could find, whatsoever.
And, you know, people always think that we have an interest in proving things false, but if we could prove this true it would be way better for the site. It would be considered some kind of journalistic coup to unravel this conspiracy. So we didn’t have any specific interest in marking it false, it just came down to the fact we didn't have any evidence to prove that there is even a possibility that any part of it could be true.
BOB GARFIELD: A-ha, well that’s because you focused on the pizza.
Did it occur to you, did it even occur to you to look at the stromboli?
KIM LaCAPRIA: [LAUGHS] No, I have to say we did not take notice of the stromboli or other menu items.
BOB GARFIELD: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm! That's what I thought.
Kim, thank you very much.
KIM LaCAPRIA: Oh, thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Kim LaCapria is content manager at Snopes.com.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The specifics of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory bubbling up through Twitter and 4Chan seemed very au courant, but the central myth that members of a reviled group partake in child sex abuse has a long history.
Richard Beck is author of We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s. He described in Slate this week how Pizzagate resonates with pedophilia scares in decades past.
RICHARD BECK: The thing that reminded me of the 1980s was the idea that it was this vast conspiracy, international in scope. I mean, there was a case in the 1980s in Los Angeles involving a place called the McMartin Preschool. The teachers there were thought to have abused something like 400 children who attended the school. They had detectives and FBI agents looking around the country for where they may have hidden away child pornography the teachers were suspected of making, you know, for sale on the international market. McMartin wound up being one of, if not the longest, and most expensive criminal trials in American history. The investigation started in 1983 and the trial didn't end for good until 1990 or 1991.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: People went to jail?
RICHARD BECK: At the end of McMartin, there were no convictions, although the primary defendant spent five years in jail while the trial was going on because the judge refused to grant him bail.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Were you able to discern a set of conditions that makes the emergence of these baseless conspiracies more likely?
RICHARD BECK: Not particularly, aside from, in the most general sense, social instability or social unrest. The reason that the daycare ritual abuse panic emerged in the 1980s had a lot to do with the really dramatically changing role of women in the workforce.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
RICHARD BECK: Daycare was an important institution because that's where you send your kids if you're a mother who wants to get a full-time job. And there was a lot of anxiety. Even mundane things like - will my child learn to read more slowly if he's at daycare and not being read to by his mother every day at home, and if you take that to its logical extreme, you know, what bad thing might happen to my child if I leave him at daycare? Well, the worst possible thing would be that an international conspiracy of satanists would molest him. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s quite the anxiety leap, but I, I see where you're going. Another occasion that you mentioned in your Slate article that resonated with Pizzagate was Omaha, Nebraska in 1989.
RICHARD BECK: This outbreak of allegations centering around a little credit union, a prominent Republican fundraiser in charge of the credit union who was illegally misusing funds to sort of fund a lavish lifestyle for himself and then an orphanage called Boys Town. And what started as just an investigation into the mishandling of funds at this credit union exploded into - and this sounds a little bit more like the Pizzagate allegations - you know, wild political parties where orphaned boys from Boys Town are being flown into Washington, DC so that closeted politicians can have their way with them. Even George H.W. Bush himself was implicated because two, quote, unquote “male call boys” were supposed to have been given a midnight tour of the White House.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A federal grand jury determined that the allegations were a hoax and indicted one of the alleged victims for perjury, but –
RICHARD BECK: Conspiracy theory websites still refer to this case from Omaha as, you know, a cover-up. They think it still really happened.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You wrote that moral panics function somewhat like parables. They validate a group’s anxiety. They exonerate the anxious from culpability and they assign blame. So how would you compare the object of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, the Clintons and members of the Democratic elite, to the objective similar conspiracy theories in the past?
RICHARD BECK: In the case of the daycare hysteria, the people accused of doing these horrible things, they're not prominent figures. They live in the same towns as the kids and parents. This is a panic about how the textures of domestic life are changing. Do mothers stay at home to go to work? This is a panic over the fact that what people felt like the normal rhythms of daily life were, were changing and that maybe that was destructive.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about 2016?
RICHARD BECK: This panic is just about Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party. And, in fact, it’s interesting; obviously, on the surface, this sounds very, very different from the whole non-scandal over her emails, but it's actually very similar because both stories are stories about Hillary getting away with something. The Pizzagate conspiracy is just an exaggeration of a dynamic that already served as the foundation of Trump's campaign, which is that Hillary Clinton is a detached elitist and she only cares about fulfilling her own desires.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, it's kind of interesting, as you mentioned earlier, the anxiety in the ‘80s that maybe putting your kid in a daycare center could delay his reading skills and the exaggeration of that panic into the worst possible thing –
RICHARD BECK: Mm-hmm –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - which is that they could be sexually molested. And here you've got the same thing. You start with her putting email on a server that could be vulnerable and then that gets exaggerated into child sex abuse on a grand scale.
RICHARD BECK: The only reason that Pizzagate is about child sex abuse is because Americans think the child sex abuse is the worst thing you can do. If America's bogeyman today were the arsonist, then Pizzagate would be about a bunch of unsolved house fires.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How do you deflate conspiracies, especially when there are real and widely reported examples of child abuse, you know, British TV presenter Jimmy Savile, Penn State's Jerry Sandusky, not to mention the Catholic Church? It seems that pointing out the implausibility doesn't really work I think that pointing out the implausibility doesn’t really work.
RICHARD BECK: I think that pointing out the implausibility
on a case-by-case basis for journalists is about all that you can do. There was a comment or two on my Slate piece, although you’re never supposed to read the comments –
- where someone was saying, God, just don't write about this. You know, you write about this and then the people who believe it just get angrier. So don't even bother trying to debunk it. Just ignore it and it will go away, essentially.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
RICHARD BECK: I don't think “just ignore it and it will go away” is an effective strategy for dealing with this kind of thing. You have to look at the evidence and that if you look at the evidence against someone like Jerry Sandusky, it's incredibly strong. If you look at the evidence supporting the allegations made by the Pizzagaters –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s nonexistent. [LAUGHS]
RICHARD BECK: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, you do suggest that Pizzagate is just the latest manifestation of an anti-Washington sentiment, so do you think that we’ll be seeing more of these?
RICHARD BECK: I would not be surprised if a similar kind of hoax pops up over the course of the next few years, so long as this fever pitch of anti-Washington sentiment persists, and I certainly don't think that Donald Trump’s administration is going to wind up doing anything to lessen that sentiment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Richard, thank you very much.
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RICHARD BECK: Thank you so much for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Richard Beck is author of We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s.
WOMAN: Also, who does pasta? Do you know what pasta you’re doing? You can’t do pasta – or can you?
BOB GARFIELD: That’s it for this week show. On The Media is produced by Meara Sharma, Alana Casanova-Burgess, Jesse Brenneman and Paige Cowett. We had more help from Micah Loewinger, Sara Qari and Leah Feder. And our show was edited - by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Casey Holford.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.