I’m very open to a bit of conspiracy theorising. Yes, I know my MKUltra from my COINTELPRO. I still doubt that Megrahi did the Lockerbie bombings. World Trade Center 7 did look weird as it came down. I even suspect there are more paedophiles among political, financial and cultural elites than most suppose. (Hell, I think there are an awful lot in Hollywood alone.) But Pizzagate – the theory that a child abuse ring, built around Democratic Party high-ups, operates out of a pizza joint is Washington DC – is trash. Perhaps there is a grain of truth somewhere amid it but the grain, even if it exists, is buried amid chaff.
Granted, I was a bit wrong about “Pizzagate”. I thought it was a cynical pre-election play to associate Clinton with paedophilia. While I still think many of its backers are mere opportunists others really believe it. So, this is a good time to delineate seven signs of bad conspiracies.
1. The shapeless narrative.
Conspiracy theories tend to be built on consilience, or a convergence of evidence, with numerous data points leading towards a conclusion. This tends to mean the “theory” is stretched untidily around different claims and questions. Such is the case here, where the surreal pizza and paedophilia narrative is draped about a melange of disparate insinuations.
Still, if claims and questions are troubling enough we can forgive conspiracy theorists for a few leaps of logic. Which leads us to…
2. The factoids.
Bad conspiracy theorists repeat false claims often enough that even sensible people assume that they are true. Where to begin with Pizzagate? How about the claim that Conservative media mogul Andrew Breibart was onto the crimes? He wrote that Democrat bigwig John Podesta was an “underage sex slave op cover-upperer”. But this was clearly, explicitly about the ACORN and Planned Parenthood scandals. How about the claim that Podesta’s lobbyist brother Tony owns a sculpture based on Jeffrey Dahmer’s victims? It wasn’t. It was based on the female patients of an old French neurologist. How about the claim that restaurateur James Aleftanis took a name that sounds like “j’aime les enfants”? He didn’t. It came from his mum.
Are you getting a bit confused? That is understandable.
3. The tenuous connections.
Bad conspiracy theories thrust onlookers into a rainforest of references, so dense, evocative and mysterious that one became disoriented and concludes that, yes, everything is connected. Take this paragraph from the “DC Pizzagate” site. It claims that: (1) a mural at the pizza restaurant featured a man wearing antlers, (2) one of the Rothschilds once wore antlers and (3) antlers are a pagan symbol of fertility. Rothschilds! Pagans! Antlers! But this is meaningless. Lots of people use deer symbolism. It’s notoriously common among hipsters. And what if it does symbolise fertility? What does fertility have to do with child abuse?
But this all sounds weird, I must admit. Which leads me onto…
4. The presumption of malice.
People are weird, and the universe is doubly so. Bad conspiracy theorists cannot accept that something is weird. It must be evil. Now this pizza restaurant is weird: run by gay hipsters with a gruesome sense of entertainment. But this does not mean they are gang of child abusers. The owner used Antinous as a profile picture, theorists claim, and Antinous is a symbol of pederasty. Well, yes, but he is also a gay icon. That might raise questions about gay culture but it doesn’t mean the man is a paedophile.
Let’s take another example. This all started because of strange references to “pizza” in leaked emails among Democrats, which conspiracy theorists decided was a code. Now, we don’t know that it was. It might have been that they were talking about pizza in a way that was conventional for them but seems peculiar to us. But let’s say there was a code.Why must it be about child abuse? Why not about something that many, many people talk about private languages, i.e. the procurement of illegal drugs? I’m not saying this happened. But it’s likelier than their idea.
5. The rhetorical questions.
Conspiracy theorists often claim to be “asking questions” and, indeed, this can be a rational thing to do. Bad conspiracy theorists act like state prosecutors: asking questions not because they are confused or interested but because they want to insinuate wrongdoing. I would find examples of this but it is ubiquitous.
6. The false precedent.
“Pizzagate” theorists have seized upon the news that Norwegian police have arrested 51 people involved in a grotesque child abuse ring. Some of them were middle class. Two were elected officials. See, the implication goes. It can happen. Well, yes, paedophile rings exist. Paedophiles can be powerful. But this case does seem similar to that which they envisage. These monsters do not appear to have met, still less at a very public location. They talked on the dark web and not on Instagram or email. They were exposed and arrested, with, apparently, the help of the FBI. If anything that is evidence against Pizzagate.
7. That stupid Ghandi quote.
You know the one. “First they laugh at you” et cetera. Well, sometimes you don’t win, and sometimes you don’t deserve to, and sometimes playing the victim is pathetic. But bad conspiracy theorists, like bad political activists, assume that opposition ennobles them. “Pizzagate” activists point to all the rich and powerful people who oppose them and suggest that this implies that they are onto something. One need not think much of the Democrats or the mainstream media to suggest that they would be alarmed by widespread rumours that their friends and colleagues were abusing children – yes, even if those rumours were not credible. Because if this was true the rational response would be civil disobedience, and arguably insurrection. Can you not see why powerful people would oppose this?
These, then, are seven signs of bad conspiracy theories, which we’ll doubtless see again throughout these strange, conflicted times. Are you a believer in Pizzagate? Well, I can’t tell you not to take an interest. But for God’s sake don’t accuse private citizens of being paedophiles until you have a damn good reason to do it.