Conspiracy theories involving outlandish fantasies of “elite” pedophile rings may have gained modern day prominence in the disorienting frenzy that characterized the lead-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, but they are nothing new. They also don’t show any signs of going away.

The current crop, at least, took root with what became known as “Pizzagate.” Promoters of that conspiracy theory in 2016 used social media platforms to make unfounded but viral allegations that Hillary Clinton and other prominent Democrats were running a pedophile ring out of the basement of a Washington, D.C., pizzeria — even though that restaurant had no basement.

Since then, the dark theme of Pizzagate has found new life with permutations forming part of the Qanon conspiracy theory, incorporated under the umbrella term “pedogate.” The gist of the pedogate conspiracy theory is that global elites — politicians, celebrities, and wealthy businesspersons — are covertly involved in a far-reaching ring that trafficks young children for sexual purposes.

“What most of these conspiracy theories involve in one way or another is laying accusations of pedophilia or involvement in pedophile rings at the feet of people that they despise or hate, and Clinton being the ultimate example of that,” said Mark Pitcavage, senior research fellow for the Center on Extremism at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). “The idea is if you hurt the enemy, then what you like will benefit, and with Pizzagate it would have been [Clinton’s 2016 rival] Trump.”

Pizzagate originated with an Internet-based crowd the ADL has termed “alt right” and “alt lite,” far right extremists who range from outright white supremacists to those who publicly shun racists but otherwise fall in step with their belief systems. Pizzagate jumped from the fringes to the mainstream because as it denigrated Hillary Clinton, it sucked in supporters of then-candidate Donald Trump.

While junk news sites have kept a steady drip of pedophile-oriented stories pulsing through the Internet’s blood stream since then, the conspiracy theories jumped from cyberspace into the real world in the summer of 2018.

In June, a group calling itself “Veterans on Patrol” stumbled into an apparent homeless encampment in Tucson, Arizona. Helped along by social media and with signal boosts from junk sites such as BigLeaguePolitics.com and conspiratorial sites like TheFreeThoughtProject.com, the group claimed they had in fact found a site used by child sex traffickers. Before long, Cemex, the Mexican-owned cement company whose property the camp happened to be on, was accused of being involved in the non-existent pedophile ring at the site. Police found no evidence that the location was used for any nefarious activity.

Most recently in August 2018, Portland’s Voodoo Doughnuts and Toronto’s Sweet Jesus ice cream shop were targeted by Internet instigators who accused the businesses of housing pedophile rings. Again, police found no evidence of any such thing taking place at those locations.

These stories may be new (if lacking in creativity), and the digital platform for their delivery may be new as well, but they employ a centuries-old tactic: playing on deep-seated human anxieties by conjuring images of imperiled children, said University of Alabama historian Margaret Peacock.

The most recent example in the modern era of a phenomenon with a similar theme was the satanic panic of the 1980s, in which a wave of hysteria over alleged child molestation at daycare centers swept the nation. But while that phenomenon was a moral panic attributable, at least in part, to social anxiety over white middle class women entering the work force en masse for the first time and entrusting their children to others, the current conspiracy theories about pedophile rings equate to propaganda, Peacock said. They carry a danger for stirring up violence.

“If you want to elicit violent action the way to do it is through hate and fear,” Peacock told us. “Once you target and label a population as pedophiles, you can do anything you like to that population.”

That’s not to say fears of child abuse or sex trafficking are unfounded. Peacock told us plenty of terrifying real-world examples are out there to draw from:

It’s Important to remember that conspiracy theories like this are expressing the fundamental currents of a society. Conspiracy theories and myths never work unless you’ve got existing material in society to use. You have real, terrifying revelations that thousands of children were being abused in the Catholic church for decades. These were in fact terrifying child sex rings organized by the very population that we are most inclined the trust — the priests.

The International Labor Organization reports that 25 percent of the world’s 40.3 million victims of human trafficking are children. The most vulnerable, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, are migrants, runaways, the homeless, and youngsters who have been victims of violence.

Despite their obsession over the topic, conspiracy followers aren’t worked up about those children who are in true harm’s way. “In the world of propaganda, it’s never about real children. Instead, it’s about what children represent.” The children imperiled by conspiracy theories, in other words, are only metaphors, Peacock said:

Children carry a vast amount of weight in any society, but especially modern ones when they’re expected to survive past the age of five. It wasn’t as intense before the 18th century when child mortality rates were really high. They represent the future, and all that is beautiful and decent and honest in a society, because they are innocent. For the vast majority of people also, the meaning of their existence is rooted in their children.

Children are eschatological, they represent death for us, and what is coming behind us after we are gone. They also represent the threat of loss — if they disappear, if they die, that is the death of society. That’s why they became so crucial and central to Cold War propaganda. The real terror of the nuclear holocaust would be the death of the children, because that’s the death of everyone.

That explains why recent police investigations into the conspiracy claims came up empty. (Portland police Sgt. Christopher Burley told us detectives attempted to contact the person accusing Voodoo Doughnuts on social media of running a pedophile ring. The accuser did not cooperate with investigators.)

The pendulum of conspiracy theories about systematic child abuse has swung back and forth for centuries. Peacock cited examples such as blood libel, when Jewish communities were attacked over false allegations of murdering and consuming Christian children in the Middle Ages. “During the Thirty Years War [in Europe in the 17th century], entire villages were put to the sword because it was believed they were abusing children of the other religion,” she said.

One characteristic that helps Pizzagate-style conspiracy theories gain popularity is that they function like a puzzle game, Pitcavage explained:

A lot of conspiracy theories are oracular, where the information comes form one source — an oracle. Then there are others where there are a few people who promote the notions, almost like gurus or a conspiracy priesthood. But Pizzagate, it’s more of what I would call a participatory conspiracy theory. Participatory conspiracy theories lay out a scenario or situation and then they ask their audience, ‘what more can you find out about this, what more can you add?’ It turns the audience into willing participants.

The thing about participatory conspiracy theories is it can really create a devoted following because it gives people something to do, it makes them feel they can solve the whole thing or uncover new aspects to it. Once you get that energy going it’s almost self-sustaining.

Followers of the Qanon conspiracy theory, for example, are called “bakers” because their protagonist “Q” pops up on Internet message boards and leaves “crumbs” or (i.e., clues), and they are tasked with picking up the crumbs in order to solve the puzzle. (“Q” is supposed to reference the character’s government security clearance level). Q followers believe an even more deranged version of Pizzagate, as RationalWiki describes it:

QAnon, also known as The Storm and Calm Before The Storm, is a conspiracy theory, popular meme, and right wing fantasy that originated in a series of incoherent posts on 4chan in 2017 by someone calling themselves QAnon. Following on the heels of similar bullshit such as Pizzagate, it advances a fantastic web of deceit that wraps up Trumpism, deep state fearmongering, evil, satanic pedophilia rings controlled by the Democratic Party, investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 US election, the Las Vegas shooting, and New World Order paranoia into a package easily and wholeheartedly promoted by internet cesspools and Alex Jones.

The Storm’s central premise is that President Trump is secretly working to take down a global ring of elite, cannibalistic, satanic pedophiles. And the investigation into Russian meddling into the 2016 election, led by former FBI director Robert Mueller, is actually an investigation into the so-called “deep state”, where a cabal of evil, money-grubbing globalists, including Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, are responsible for everything from a global pedophile ring to the mass shooting in Las Vegas in 2017.

According to the enlightened, when Trump awkwardly took a drink from a bottle of Fiji water at a press conference in November 2017, it wasn’t because he was thirsty; it was actually a secret signal to those in the know that the Storm of annihilation of deep state pedophiles had begun (or was about to begin). Because as everyone knows, Fiji is a hot spot for child trafficking.

So, while the shit was supposed to hit the fan in November 2017 with mass demonstrations and the suppression thereof, a military coup, the arrest of hundreds of public officials, and the fact that November came and went without any of these things happening does not appear to have had any effect on the theory’s overzealous supporters. On the contrary, it appears it has made it even more popular.

The role the Internet and social media play in helping to spread such unmitigated insanity can’t be underestimated. Just a few decades earlier, conspiracy theorists would identify each other using letters to the editor printed in newspapers and magazines, said Kathryn Olmsted, a historian at the University of California at Davis:

It was a lot harder to identify your fellow conspiracy theorists. You would have to physically meet to swap your stories, or send letters or call. They would set up these groups that would communicate by newsletter. They would meet in a physical space, like someone’s living room. Now obviously it can go much more quickly, because you can identity people immediately. You can quickly share ideas and the data you’ve collected.

The Internet allows such people to exist in bubbles where they rarely have their beliefs challenged, Pitcavage said. “The extraordinarily polarized society we’re in right now has made people less willing to seek out other view points,” he said. “Because of the Interest there’s less need to do so.”

And there’s very little incentive to look outside one’s own bubble once they have become invested in a conspiracy theory, Peacock said:

Once you start to act out on those behaviors you are forced to double down by repeating the act to prove it was a just act. Eventually you get caught up in a movement that totally defines your conscious and you can’t get out of it. The second you step out of that world view your actions go back to being reprehensible.

Sandy Hook hoaxers who believe the 2012 mass shooting at the eponymous elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, was faked by the government have stalked, harassed, threatened and generally tormented the parents of the children murdered in that tragedy.

Pitcavage said he knows of no historical precedent to which he can compare the current spate of conspiracy theories, which he called “nihilistic” and seeking only to tear down the notion of objective fact: “I just don’t know where it’s going to end. I see no signs of it slowing down or the country slapping itself awake and coming back to its senses. A substantial portion of the country is in sort of a fever dream of conspiracy theories, and I don’t know when we’ll come out of it.”

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