Enlarge /. Researchers created a graphical representation of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory narrative with levels for key subplots of each story and lines connecting the key people, locations, and institutions within and between those levels.
There is rarely time to write about every cool science story that comes in our way. So this year we're again hosting a special series of Twelve Days of Christmas posts highlighting a science story that fell through the cracks every day from December 25th to January 5th in 2020. Today: The structure of folklore can help explain how unrelated facts and false information combine into a compelling narrative framework that can then go viral as a conspiracy theory.
Mark Twain is often credited with the saying, "A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still on." Twain never said it; It seems to be a mutated version of something essayist Jonathan Swift once wrote – a misapplication that aptly illustrates the point. The same is true of a good conspiracy theory made up of disjointed facts and false information somehow tied into a loose narrative framework that then quickly spreads as perceived "truth". According to a June article published in PLOS ONE, the structure of folklore can provide insights into the precise making of these connections and thus into the origins of conspiracy theories.
"We are constantly telling stories and using them to explain and signal our various cultural ideologies, norms, beliefs, and values," said co-author Timothy Tangherlini, a self-described computer folklorist at the University of California at Berkeley. said Ars, "We're trying to get people to either acknowledge them or join them." In the case of conspiracy theories, these stories can have dire consequences in the real world. "Stories have mattered in all of human history," he said. "People take action in the real world. Many genocides can be traced back to specific stories and 'rumors' and conspiracy theories."
Tangherlini and his co-authors at the University of California at Los Angeles combined their knowledge of folklore with machine learning to analyze around 18,000 Reddit and Voat panel discussion posts between April 2016 and February 2018 that focused on the thoroughly debunked conspiracy theory Respectively. Pizzagate. "They then used this data to create a graphical representation of the emerging narratives, with multiple layers representing the various subplots. Relationships between key people (" actors "), places, things, organizations, and other elements were created by connecting lines within and between these layers displayed.
Granted, there is a lot of noise on social media forums with a lot of irrelevant pieces. But the AI made Tangherlini et al. filter out the hidden narratives that went into Pizzagate's conspiracy theory and determine the difference between the narrative elements of an exposed conspiracy and a fact-based conspiracy in the real world.
Enlarge /. The exterior of the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington, DC, which was at the center of the "Pizzagate" conspiracy theory – a thoroughly debunked joke.
Matt McClain / Washington Post / Getty Images
They found that conspiracy theories tend to form around specific narrative threads that connect different characters, places, and things across discrete areas of interaction that are otherwise not aligned. It's a fragile construct: cut off one of these crucial threads and the story will lose cohesion and thus its viral power. This does not apply to a factual conspiracy, which can usually continue even if certain elements of the story are removed.
Pizzagate, for example, surfaced during the 2016 presidential election after the spear phishing hack into the personal emails of then-Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton's campaign manager, John Podesta, in March. Wikileaks released the emails in November 2016 and false rumors (or "creative interpretations" if you are benevolent) swirled that the Podesta emails contained encrypted messages about alleged human trafficking and child sex ring. (Meanwhile, mainstream liberals were obsessed with Podesta's apparently controversial recipe for risotto.)
The rumors soon developed into a comprehensive conspiracy theory that linked high-ranking Democratic Party officials and several US restaurants, notably Comet Ping Pong Pizzeria in Washington, DC. The hoax spread like wildfire to 4chan, 8chan, Reddit subgroups (/ r / TheDonald and / r / pizzagate), Twitter, and various alt-right and conservative media outlets, including InfoWars. (InfoWars host Alex Jones would finally apologize to James Alefantis, the owner of Comet Ping Pong, in February 2017 for spreading the conspiracy theory under threat of defamation lawsuit.)
Alefantis and several employee affairs received multiple death threats from true believers as the conspiracy fraud spread far and wide. The mania culminated on December 4, 2016 when 28-year-old Edgar Maddison Welch came to DC from North Carolina and fired three shots from an AR-15 rifle into the pizzeria – convinced he would be a hero for saving the alleged sex slaves for children would be held in the restaurant's nonexistent basement. Fortunately, no one was injured and Welch surrendered to the police. He was convicted of assault and firearms and sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison. He apologized for his "stupid and reckless" behavior during the sentencing.
According to the analysis by Tangherlini et al. Pizzagate's conspiracy centered on Hillary Clinton, who clearly played an important role in democratic politics in 2016 – that would be a domain of interaction. As a mother, she could be part of a casual pizza / nightlife pizza domain that links her (according to conspiracy theorists) to Alefantis and Comet Ping Pong. John Podesta and his brother Tony are part of another domain (the Podesta family) and also like pizza, which they would associate with Alefantis and the casual dining domain. And of course, Podesta's affiliation with Clinton brings him into the realm of democratic politics.
"You have these three areas that wouldn't really interact, but they have similarities between them and those that mattered," Tangherlini said in the minds of conspiracy theorists. This then leads to encoded messages in Podesta's emails, child trafficking, etc., powered by the Wikileaks component. The narrative framework for conspiracy theories usually builds up relatively quickly and stabilizes in comparison to actual conspiracies, which, according to Tangherlini, often take years to develop. Pizzagate stabilized within a month of the Wikileaks dump and stayed relatively constant for the next three years.
Enlarge /. The New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge, which connects Fort Lee, NJ, and New York City. It was central to "Bridgegate" – a real factual conspiracy.
Andrew Burton / Getty Images
The good news is that, as quickly and easily as a conspiracy theory forms, it can also fall apart and break up into discrete, non-interacting areas. In the case of Pizzagate, remove the Wikileaks element and the other connections just won't stop. "It's a classic networking thing," said Tangherlini. "Which nodes and edges do I have to delete to make them fall apart? With this conspiracy, the Wikileaks email dump and how theorists creatively interpret the content of the emails is the only glue that holds the conspiracy together."
That said, it's also pretty easy for a conspiracy theory to gain a second life with new interconnected circles. "It's not that you need a lot of actors and relationships to put them back together," Tangherlini said. Last June, Pizzagate found popularity again with young people on TikTok, where the hashtag was viewed nearly 80 million times.
Tangherlini et al. tested all of this against a factual conspiracy: The 2013 Fort Lee lane closure scandal – also known as "Bridgegate" – helped the efforts of former New Jersey governor Chris Christie to help the president. On September 9, during the morning rush hour, there were unannounced closings of two of three toll lanes reserved for local traffic in Fort Lee, New Jersey. (The other lanes at this toll booth lead to the upper level of the George Washington Bridge that connects Fort Lee to New York City.) The resulting shutdown caused significant delays in school transportation and the ability of police, paramedics, and firefighters to respond to emergency calls. The problem was not resolved until Friday, September 13th, after direct intervening by Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye.
PA Assistant Executive Director Bill Baroni (a Christie-appointed employee) initially advised staff that this was part of a traffic flow study and that prior notice would have adversely affected the results. But eventually hundreds of emails and internal documents came to light suggesting the closings were orchestrated by Christie loyalists – Baroni; PA director of intergovernmental capital projects David Wildstein (a former pal of Christie High School); and Christie's deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly – apparently in political retaliation against Fort Lee's mayor, Democrat Mark Sokolich, after Sokolich refused to support Christie in the 2013 New Jersey gubernatorial election.
Wildstein, Baroni and Kelly were found guilty in November 2016. Christie himself denied any involvement in the closings and declared himself "embarrassed and humiliated" by the behavior of his employees at a press conference in January 2014. Official malpractice proceedings were filed against Christie, but prosecutors eventually dropped the complaint because they did not believe Christie's guilt could be beyond doubt. Kelly and Baroni's convictions were later overturned by the US Supreme Court. (Wildstein signed a consent form in exchange for testifying against Kelly and Baroni and received parole.)
"Bridgegate intrigued me because why should you do that?" Said Tangherlini. "The stakes are so small and the impact may be so high. People have been stuck in traffic for days." From a structural narrative perspective, is this factual conspiracy the same as a conspiracy theory? The answer is no. The team couldn't find a number of edge nodes on the network – not a key element of the story – to delete, causing the network to fall apart.
Tangherlini attributes this to the fact that while all the important figures in Bridgegate had multiple points of connection, they all belonged to the same area of interaction: politics in New Jersey. "We don't align different domains," he said. "The narrative framework is robust to erasure. This could actually be one of the traitors between an actual conspiracy and a conspiracy theory."
DOI: PLOS ONE, 2020. 10.1371 / journal.pone.0233879 (About DOIs).