CRF Blog

What’s New About Conspiracy Theories?

by Bill Hayes

In What’s New About Conspiracy Theories? for the New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert looks at how strong the appeal of these theories can be.

On the morning of December 4, 2016, Edgar Maddison Welch, a warehouse worker and a father of two from Salisbury, North Carolina, told his family that he had a few things to do; loaded an AR-15, a .38-calibre revolver, and a folding knife into his car; and headed for Washington, D.C. Welch’s intention, he later told police, was to “self-investigate” a plot featuring — in no particular order — Hillary Clinton, sex trafficking, satanic rituals, and pizza.

At around 3 P.M., Welch arrived at Comet Ping Pong, a restaurant in Chevy Chase, where, he believed, children were being held in a network of tunnels. He made his way to the kitchen, shot open a locked door, and discovered cooking utensils. In an interview from jail, a few days later, he acknowledged to the Times, “The intel on this wasn’t a hundred percent.” He’d found no captive children in the restaurant’s basement; in fact, as many accounts of the incident noted, Comet Ping Pong doesn’t even have a basement.

Far from being dissuaded by the new “intel,” believers in what had become known as Pizzagate dug in. Welch had dabbled in acting — he’d appeared as a victim in a low-budget slasher movie — thus, it followed, his raid on the restaurant had been staged. That the plotters had gone to such lengths to cover their tracks showed just how much evil there was to hide. “This … runs very deep,” a contributor to the subreddit thread r/Conspiracy wrote. All the while, the restaurant’s owner was receiving death threats.

Some ten months after the incident at Comet Ping Pong, a prediction surfaced on the Web that Clinton would soon be arrested. “Expect massive riots organized in defiance,” an anonymous poster, Q, warned on the message board 4chan. Other prophecies followed: Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, would also be arrested; members of the media would be “jailed as deep cover agents”; there would be a Twitter blackout heralding a government purge.

As Q’s prophecies failed, more converts were won over. [more]