The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Pizzagate’ rumors falsely link death of sex-worker advocate to nonexistent Clinton probe

Monica Petersen in a false Facebook image

“Monica Peterson went to the country of Haiti to investigate links between the Clinton Foundation and human trafficking. She is now dead. The website for human trafficking is down for maintenance. Pizzagate is real.”
–comment on Facebook, repeated in some variation thousands of times

The false election-related conspiracy theory involving Hillary Clinton known as “pizzagate” led a North Carolina man on Dec. 4 to walk into a Washington pizza shop and open fire. A central part of the conspiracy theory, spread across Facebook, Twitter and other social media, is that Hillary Clinton and her campaign chief were running a child sex-trafficking ring from the restaurant’s bathrooms.

The easy acceptance of the false claim underscores how bogus facts about sex trafficking – which The Fact Checker has examined extensively — are so easily spread. Now, in a tragic twist, an off-shoot of pizzagate has conspiracy theorists speculating that Monica Petersen, an activist for sex-worker rights, was killed because she was investigating links between the Clinton Foundation and sex trafficking in Haiti.

On Dec. 4, the website – run by Alex Jones, a big booster of President-elect Donald Trump – posted a YouTube video titled “Haiti PIZZAGATE: Death of Child Trafficking Investigator.” It falsely claimed “she had just begun investigating the correlation regarding the Clinton Foundation’s Caracol Industrial Park Complex and its connection to a human trafficking network when her life was cut short.”

“Monica spent her life challenging false narratives,” said Domina Elle, a Denver-based dominatrix who was a close friend. ”To have her death be the subject of a false narrative is very sad.”

The Facts

Petersen, 32, passed away on Nov. 13, in Haiti. Claude d’Estree, the executive director of the Human Trafficking Center at the University of Denver, had employed Petersen until June as a researcher and as his assistant, after which she moved to Haiti. He said she had been teaching at private pre-kindergarten-through-12 school, Union School Haiti, mainly to support herself, and had been exploring setting up a nongovernmental organization in Haiti. He said she committed suicide but the circumstances are not clear.

D’Estree said Petersen had gone to Haiti a number of times, but she was not there to research human trafficking and was not investigating the Clinton Foundation. He said she had been a “brilliant” research fellow, working the past two years to produce a still unpublished article that critiqued a controversial book on the business of sex trafficking by Siddharth Kara.

Indeed, Petersen was active in promoting sex-worker rights. Her last interview before her death was for a two-hour podcast, which aired in September, hosted by Chris Sowa titled “Fighting the Trafficking Narrative from Alaska to Rhode Island.”

Before going on a 2015 trip to Haiti, Petersen asked for help locating pro-sex worker organizations. “I am a social anthropologist who wants do solid research on HT, rescuing people is not in my agenda (this is a stupid & imperialist concept),” she posted on a Facebook message board.

“She was a sweetie, an amazing, wonderful girl,” said Elle, an activist in Colorado. “She really did care about sex-worker rights,” eager to do battle against anti-trafficking advocates such as Swanee Hunt, who want to end the sex trade entirely.

So how did her tragic death spawn a web of conspiracy theories that she was an anti-trafficking investigator?

An acquaintance named Bella Robinson, a sex worker and activist in Rhode Island, in January had posted a blog post that Petersen had shared on Facebook that had been critical of the Clinton Foundation’s work in Haiti. Shortly after Petersen’s death, the blog post appeared in a Reddit discussion thread. This then resulted in a flurry of “news stories” falsely claiming that Petersen had written the blog post and was killed for investigating the Clintons.

“Some guy from Reditt found an old Facebook post on the Clintons and screen shot it and tagged it in to this, and even after I confirmed that her death had nothing to do with the Clintons, he made up stories that the family couldn’t get answers,” Robinson wrote The Fact Checker in a Twitter message.

But others say Robinson, in some fashion, helped fan the flames. Elle said she was shocked to find private comments she had made in an email to Robinson on Nov. 15 about the death apparently cut and pasted into Twitter feeds a day later.

Robinson said her comments were taken out of context, and that she actually was trying to end the speculation. She said that more than 100 people contacted her looking for gossip on Petersen. “Dozens of people are putting this fake story on blogs and even making youtubes and they keep doing it even after I confirm her death had nothing to do with a conspiracy,” she wrote. “Monica Petersen’s death is a PRIVATE family matter and it had nothing to do with the Clinton scandal.”

In any case, what would have once been private gossip among friends was suddenly an international sensation, with increasing misinformation and misinterpretation. The blog post Petersen shared months ago with Robinson, for instance, morphed into a blog post she allegedly wrote herself about the Clintons. (Chantal Laurent, who writes “The Haitian Blogger,” confirmed Petersen never contributed to the blog. “I never heard of her until I read the Reddit article,” she said.)

Petersen’s grieving family was hounded as #MonicaPetersen started trending and her name was added to a list of people allegedly murdered by the Clintons over the years. A faux investigator showed up at the University of Denver memorial service, asking questions and taking photographs. A comment made by d’Estree at the memorial service – that Petersen “decided to take on one of the demagogues in the field of human trafficking” – was interpreted as referring to Clinton when in fact he was talking about Siddarth Kara. Suddenly, the non-existent investigation was supposedly confirmed. Efforts to correct the record often were dismissed.

“It is amazing that gossip that is false became viral,” Elle said. “It made me question some of the things I have read that I thought were true.”

The Pinocchio Test

An unexpected death is always heartbreaking. But to have a private matter become the subject of feverish speculation across the Internet is obscene.

Monica Petersen was an advocate for sex workers who disdained the rhetoric of people she considered anti-trafficking zealots. Yet some people are so quick to promote and share false narratives that they tragically turned her professional focus into the polar opposite – an investigator of a nonexistent sex trafficking ring involving Hillary Clinton in Haiti.

Please, quit sharing this nonsense on social media and let her family and friends have some peace.

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