It’s been said before: just because a great many conspiracy theories are bunkum doesn’t mean that all of them are.
Many of us are old enough to remember, for instance, the Watergate scandal, a conspiracy which rocked the U.S. government to its foundations, and seriously damaged public trust in the presidency. There’s also evidence that the tobacco companies knew as early as the 1950s that cigarettes cause cancer, but chose to keep that information under wraps. It wasn’t until 1998, when the Master Settlement Agreement between the tobacco companies and the U.S. government was signed, that the conspiracy was acknowledged and payouts began to be made to victims.
So yes, conspiracies can and do happen.
We’ve been interested to note lately that some of the details behind the Pizzagate hoax are becoming public, and while Pizzagate itself is essentially a load of tosh, elements of its genesis may very well have been planned. Planned by whom, and for what purpose? That’s where things get sticky.
A recent investigation by Rolling Stone magazine, the Investigative Fund, and Reveal News from the Center for Investigative Reporting states that the first post online about Pizzagate originated on 29 October 2016, from a fake Facebook account belonging to a non-existent user named “Carmen Katz” from Joplin, Missouri:
The original Pizzagate Facebook post appeared on the evening of October 29th, 2016, a day after then-FBI Director James Comey announced that the bureau would be reopening its investigation into (Hillary) Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server while secretary of state. Data from the server had been found on electronics belonging to former Rep. Anthony Weiner (the husband of Clinton’s close aide Huma Abedin), who had been caught texting lewd messages to a 15-year-old. On Facebook, a user named Carmen Katz wrote, “My NYPD source said its much more vile and serious than classified material on Weiner’s device. The email DETAIL the trips made by Weiner, Bill and Hillary on their pedophile billionaire friend’s plane, the Lolita Express. Yup, Hillary has a well documented predilection for underage girls. . . . We’re talking an international child enslavement and sex ring.”
While reporters were unable to contact Ms Katz, they managed to link her Facebook account to a real person named Cynthia Campbell, also from Joplin, who would neither confirm nor deny knowledge of the post. However, shortly after reporters contacted Ms Campbell, the “Carmen Katz” account was deleted.
It seems very odd that “Carmen Katz”/Cynthia Campbell would have access to such specific information, but according to the Rolling Stone/Reveal article,
According to Clint Watts, a cyber and homeland-security expert at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Katz fits neatly into a well-worn blueprint for disinformation campaigns. For a story to gain traction, propagandists plant false information on anonymous chat boards, hoping real people will pick it up and add a “human touch” to acts of digital manipulation. “If you want to sow a conspiracy, you seed it someplace – 4chan or Reddit is a perfect vehicle,” he says, and wait for someone like Katz to take the bait. “Someone or some group,” Watts says, “possibly took this unwitting woman and made her the source that they need.”
The article traces the evolution of the “Hillary/child sex ring” message from an anonymous chat a year previously on 4Chan, where a person calling themselves a “high-level analyst and strategist” for the FBI hosted an “Ask Me Anything” session. This person seemed oddly fond of Russia for a federal agent, writing things like, “Russia is more a paragon of freedom and nationalism than any other country” and “We are the aggressors against Russia.” He also stated that “Bill and Hillary love foreign donors so much. They get paid in children as well as money”; he said that Hillary had sex with kidnapped girls.
And shortly before the “Carmen Katz” Facebook post, a message was posted on an anonymous message board where New York City cops congregate:
“Fatoldman” posted that he had a “hot rumor” about the FBI investigation.
“[T]he feds were forced to reopen the hillary email case [because] apparently the NYPD sex crimes unit was involved in the weiner case,” Fatoldman wrote. “On his laptop they saw emails. [T]hey notified the FBI. Feds were afraid that NYPD would go public so they had to reopen or be accused of a coverup.”
This message was reposted to a Facebook law enforcement group, and then to Twitter. The Twitter user, Eagle Wings (@NIVIsa4031), has a number of influential followers, including former deputy assistant to President Trump Sebastian Gorka and former national security adviser Gen. Michael Flynn. However, Eagle Wings isn’t any old Twitter user: she has tweeted more than 50,000 times since November 2015, to an unusually large number of followers (120,000 as of November 2017). To all appearances, Eagle Wings is a highly automated account, part of a network of bots which amplify certain messages on Twitter.
Whether Katz repeated something a herd of bots was bleating, or repackaged tidbits found on other parts of the Internet, her Facebook post was the “human touch” that helped the fake news story go viral. The “tell,” says Watts, was what happened next. Most of us post into Internet oblivion. But about 12 hours after Katz shared her story, a Twitter user named @DavidGoldbergNY tweeted a screenshot of her post, twice – adding in one version, “I have been hearing the same thing from my NYPD buddies too. Next couple days will be -interesting!”
As it happens, @DavidGoldbergNY appeared to be an automated account too. (It has now been deleted by Twitter for violating its terms of service.)
One of that account’s tweets about the Katz information was retweeted 6,369 times. The message spread—from Twitter it moved to the gutter of conspiracy theory message boards, “Godlike Productions“; then to fake news site YourNewsWire.
According to the Rolling Stone/Reveal News story, the Pizzagate hoax may have involved Russian-based as well as American bot networks. In a feat of investigative journalism (take note, Angie), the team pored over internet data to determine how the Pizzagate story had spread:
(W)e decided to cross-reference the most frequent Pizzagate tweeters with a list of 139 handles associated with Trump campaign staffers, advisers and surrogates. We also ran our entire sample against the list of accounts linked to Russia’s Internet Research Agency. We found that at least 14 Russia-linked accounts had tweeted about Pizzagate, including @Pamela_Moore13, whose avatar is, aptly, an anonymous figure wrapped in an American flag; that account has been retweeted by such prominent Trump supporters as Donald Trump Jr., Ann Coulter and Roger Stone, the political operative who recommended Paul Manafort as Trump’s campaign manager.
In addition to a number of Trump campaign figures and known bot networks, they also uncovered the involvement of fake news sites based in Macedonia, who earn a living creating sites to amplify messages from sites like Fox News,, , InfoWars, and Breitbart. The Macedonian sites don’t make things up; they just republish material that’s already online, and they work for whoever will pay them. At €100 a pop, such sites are a cheap and easy way to boost a story online.
What we found of particular interest in the Rolling Stone/Reveal article is that the humans involved in spreading and “researching” Pizzagate were not, in fact, the primary disseminators of the hoax. If anything, they were used as dupes: the various actors involved in building and spreading the hoax needed “useful idiots” to bring the thing to life, and that’s where the conspiracy community came in. Starting with “Carmen Katz”, U.S.-based conspiracy theorists latched onto the message behind Pizzagate and turned it from a sterile, bot-generated rumour into a gleeful communal witch-hunt. As we know, it culminated in the invasion of a Washington, D.C. pizza restaurant by an armed man who is now in prison.
Pizzagate is not the first time that child sex crime accusations and conspiracy theories about social-political elites running child sex and murder rings have been used as a political weapon. Conspiracy theorists who are obsessed with such things harbour the hope that this sort of allegation will incite a populist revolt which will wipe out the “elites” and the “establishment”, which they view as the root of all evil. Pizzagate contained all the elements of just such a “cleansing force”…except that it now appears that it emerged not from “the people”, but from a variety of sources, none of which had the interests of the populace at heart.
Finally, it seems, we have a conspiracy theory that’s actually believable.
Edited 5 December to add image of one of @DavidGoldbergNY’s original tweets.