Good Riddance, Conspiracy Nuts: Why You Won’t Hear Me Talk about “Pizzagate” and Other Bullshit Conspiracies Anymore
What if you peer behind the curtain, and all you find is a mirror?
For nearly three decades I have spent time among conspiracy theorists, both online and off. In the world before the Internet, I used to pick up print magazines like Paranoia and Steamshovel Press and regularly scoured bookstores to get the latest works on the Kennedy assassination, UFO coverups, and alphabet agency malfeasance. When I got my first 14.4K modem I became a regular on Usenet’s alt.conspiracy and similarly focused groups on Compuserve and AOL. As the internet matured and the web decimated newsgroups, I migrated to forums like the excellent Rigorous Intuition message board, run by author Jeff Wells, where a number of very smart people shared information about 9/11 inconsistencies, human trafficking rings, and government experiments with mind control. There was a lot of nonsense, of course, but that comes with the territory.
Writing under my nom de plume, Professor Pan, I obsessively covered the unfolding Hosanna Church criminal case in Ponchatoula, Louisiana—what seemed like a bona fide, clearcut example of Satanic ritual abuse at a church preschool, complete with written confessions of the perpetrators and abundant physical evidence (including videotapes and a storage shed full of masks and costumes like something straight out of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut). I also wrote about nefarious goings-on at Abu Ghraib prison (Sex, Drugs, Mind Control, and Torture) and an exposé of notorious Nazi apologist Jeff Rense (Jeff Rense is a Nazi Scumbag).
But then discrepancies started making the Hosanna Church case seem less like a homerun and more like yet another example of religious nuttery and overzealous prosecution run amuck.
And then planes flew into towers in New York City and the Pentagon and the conspiracy world fell into a yawning abyss and has never been able to climb out.
Let me be clear about something before proceeding: conspiracies absolutely exist. JFK was not the victim of a lone assassin’s magic bullet; a House committee came to the conclusion that he, MLK, and RFK were likely the victims of larger conspiracies. UFO activity has been covered up by US military and intelligence agencies for decades (as shown in abundant declassified documents), MKULTRA and other deep-black programs subjected unwitting soldiers and citizens to horrific mental and physical torture, and two Gulf wars led by separate Bushes were ginned up with manufactured atrocities and foisted upon the public by PR agencies and a complicit news media.
So yeah, conspiracies are real—and if you don’t believe that, you’re not paying attention.
But something has changed with the emergence of social media and the associated rise of the mediated reality tunnels it creates, exacerbated by the adoption of conspiracy narratives by mainstream, one-party media (i.e., Fox News) and an explosion of “alternative” news websites peddling what some call “fake news,” but what I prefer to simply call “bullshit.”
And that bullshit is what finally broke me.
During the 2016 election, conspiracy communities began discussing “pizzagate,” a belief that an occult pedophile ring linked to Hillary Clinton and John Podesta was operating out of a popular pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C. The theory emerged from the cesspools of 4chan and Reddit Trumper groups after John Podesta’s emails were hacked and exposed by Wikileaks—emails with odd, seemingly coded language frequently mentioning pizza.
Immediately, armchair sleuths began poring over the emails and grasping for dots to connect. Mentions of “spirit cooking,” a provocative, pseudo-occult art project by performance artist Marina Abramovich, became evidence of cannibalism and occult rituals among Clinton’s advisors. Comet Ping Pong, a popular family dining spot with ping pong tables, was allegedly the nexus of the pedophile ring, with rumors of murder chambers in its (nonexistent) basement and tunnels for hiding child captives. Hordes of online witch hunters scoured the owner’s Instagram account and posted photos of his alleged perpetrators and “victims” (actually friends, children of friends, family members, and patrons of the restaurant).
Noxious blowhard Alex Jones (of Infowars infamy) was an early pizzagate bandwagon-hopper, of course, and many people first became aware of the sordid saga when now-disgraced National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s son, Michael Flynn, Jr., was fired from the Trump transition team after he tweeted about the conspiracy. An idiot with a gun, fueled by the increasingly vicious accusations, showed up at the restaurant and shot up the place while seeking the rumored underground tunnels and torture chambers. (Surprise: He didn’t find any.)
Wikileaks even endorsed the conspiracy.
What disturbed me the most, however, was seeing several of my friends, fellow writers, and even an academic I respected (and who now continues to deny a conspiracy unraveling in real-time) falling for what was so obviously a politically motivated and transparently preposterous hit job on the Clinton team. As if the real news during the primary wasn’t horrible enough, pizzagate destroyed a number of friendships and threw a number of alt-left/conspiracy-oriented groups into chaos.
After a Twitter discussion with podcaster Greg Carlwood of The Higherside Chats, I decided to look at all the “best” arguments of pizzagate to see if they had any merit. I asked Greg for his best evidence and he pointed me to a collection of information on Voat (here), that promised a “fully sourced, simply organized, summary and history of main findings.” The Voat article claims:
“…Overwhelming evidence that pedophilia rings are within the government as a means of blackmailing people as an initiation tool to preserve power, control, and wealth under the guise of satanic rituals/black magic into their secret cabal. Pizzagate is NOT simply about a pizzashop. It’s about a mass network of child trafficking through possible means of the Clinton Foundation involving many people regardless of political party association.”
It was an arduous, painful nightmare, but I scrutinized each of the dozens of pieces of “evidence” as objectively as possible, and the result was this refutation, which I published on Medium.
I tweeted it to Greg. And waited. Surely, he would consider that some of the allegations were baseless.
He didn’t reply, despite my repeated attempts to get him to acknowledge my response to his proferred “evidence.”
Since then, he has continued to pimp the conspiracy, uncritically, on his podcast.
On May 16th, I was an invited guest on the Skeptiko podcast, hosted by Alex Tsakiris. I had commented about my pizzagate skepticism on Alex’s Facebook page, which led to the offer to discuss it with him on the podcast. I spent several hours before the interview going over my article, reading updates from the conspiracy promoters, and double-checking my facts.
Skeptiko’s agenda is defined on the website as:
Follow the data… wherever it leads. Explore the possibility that science-as-we-know-it might be at a tipping point. Engage the top thinkers in pointed discussions about the questions that matter most. Treat all guests with respect.
On May 16th, Tsakiris interviewed me for nearly two hours, although “interview” is a polite way of describing what transpired. After a brief introduction, Tsakiris began hectoring me, yelling at full volume, and it soon became obvious he had invited me onto the show not for a respectful discussion, but to propagate his deeply-held belief that pizzagate was just the tip of the iceberg of a global, occult pedophile conspiracy. And to use me as a whipping boy for what he saw as a denial of the massive crime ring.
In fact, it became clear rather quickly that he didn’t know much about the actual pizzagate allegations at all, and I repeatedly (when I could get a word in) pointed out his factual errors. He ranted in vague generalities about the evils of occultism, and laughed off my main assertions: that the evidence for “pizzagate” came down to oddly phrased emails, out-of-context Instagram photos, Tony Podesta’s preference for weird, disturbing art, and a whole pile of disconnected, illogical, guilt-by-association nonsense. For that, I explained to Tsakiris, he and others were willing to slander people with the most vile accusations: that of being pedophiles, human traffickers, and murderers.
And thanks to those spreading those slanderous lies, real people’s lives were turned upside-down. They were subject to death threats, stalking, harassment, and parents had to endure seeing photos of their children spread across the internet as “victims” of the nonexistent crime ring.
Tsakiris wouldn’t budge, and for nearly two hours I struggled to stick to the evidence (or lack thereof) while he shouted and harangued me. As we neared the two-hour mark, he asked me about climate change (he’s a denier), and again, he chided me as deluded for supporting the overwhelming scientific consensus. At the end of the show he regained some civility, asked me about my books, and said he was glad we had the conversation despite our disagreements. I thanked him for the opportunity and told him I had always enjoyed his program (which is true—his interviews with consciousness researchers were always interesting).
I looked forward to hearing the show. Despite my inability to say much between Tsakiris’s yelling, I thought what I managed to say was important—especially for those who might still believe the reality of pizzagate (and there are still lots of them).
On May 25th, I got the following email:
Hey Michael… finally getting around to editing. it’s pretty rough… just two guys yelling at each other :) I kinda feel like I shoulda asked you about Climate Change at the beginning :) maybe too big of a worldview gap to bridge.
I gonna try and approach this topic with Conner Habib and maybe Gordon White. I may use some of our interview as part of a larger story about Pizzagate and the occult, or may scrap the whole thing.
Thx again for doing the interview.
That’s a bummer. I think people should hear the whole thing. Otherwise it was a complete waste of time. Conner and Gordon will probably have a much different perspective, one I likely don’t agree with, so selectively editing my interview doesn’t allow me to make the important points I tried to make. Why not just let it air as-is?
When Tsakiris didn’t respond, I emailed him again:
Thinking more about this. So you had me on the show (for which I took the day off work), interviewed me for nearly two hours (after I had spent hours reviewing the minutiae of the story to prepare), and now you’re not going to air it, or only air selected portions while having two other guests on who will probably be more in sync with your beliefs?
Does that seem professional or fair? Or in line with your show’s mission? In light of this, I can’t help but feel like you invited me on not to have a discussion, or hear my point of view, but to deride me or use me as a target. I might expect this from other interviewers, but I did not expect such poor treatment from you.
And got the following reply:
I do get yr point about “selected clips” and will only do that after running them past you first.
I don’t expect to hear any of those clips.
The episode was the final push I needed to say goodbye to the subject, and to the larger culture that produces such vicious lunacy.
Several years ago, I was at a Fortean conference giving a talk on UFOs. Afterward, I became engaged in a discussion with the guy in charge of recording the talks. He turned the discussion to the recent tragedy at Sandy Hook.
“Those parents are actors,” he explained to me.
I stood, stunned. A friend of mine was a grief counselor to a number of the parents who lost their children in that horrific massacre (including her good friend), but here was a guy who had never set foot in Newtown telling me it was all a hoax. Because of shit he read on the internet.
Although I’m a proponent of nonviolence, I barely contained the urge to punch the bastard in his smug face. He wouldn’t relent—it was all a hoax, he insisted. A government psyop designed to take away guns. No children died, he explained, as I fought the urge to knock out his teeth.
And unfortunately, this idiot is not alone. Just this morning, in fact, I unfriended and blocked a woman on Facebook who posted a meme about the Sandy Hook “crisis actors.”
One can choose to live in a world in which the most outlandish, bizarre conspiracies are supported and reinforced, while skeptical rebuttals are verboten, and anyone challenging the narrative is banned.
I’m done with all of them.
Conspiracy culture has always had its noxious elements: anti-Semitism, for example, is never far below the surface (nor has it been since the historical accusations of blood libel), and in light of the Trump presidency and the ascendancy of nativist/authoritarian movements around the globe, it is once again rearing its ugly head in a number of groups I frequent. And although the political left is no stranger to conspiracies, in recent years the far-right has propelled the narrative, and with pizzagate we see its full-on weaponization as a partisan tool.
I understand the attraction of conspiracies, and of the psychological reward that comes when you feel like you are exposing something evil. Armchair sleuthing is addictive and energizing—I know. I’ve been there.
But what armchair sleuths don’t understand is that online witch hunts have very real consequences. For real people. For the grieving parents who are called out as “crisis actors.” For business owners afraid for themselves, their families, and the safety of their employees. For terrified families whose afternoon out for pizza is disrupted by a lunatic with a rifle.
So I’m done with it. I will no longer engage with the deluded, the hopelessly broken, and the lost. It has taken much too long, and I’ve wasted way too many words and keystrokes over the years, but I’ve finally realized it’s no use in debating people who willingly inhabit nonsensical reality tunnels. They choose to live in darkness, and they don’t want to come out.
Many of them even prefer it in the shadows.
So—good riddance, Newtown “truthers” and pizzagate pimps, moon landing hoaxers, and climate change deniers. I hope you someday crawl out of the festering cesspools in which you’re currently swimming.
But don’t ask me for a hand. Sink or swim, suckers. You’re on your own.