Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press)

Welcome to the latest edition of What Was Fake on the Internet this Election, a frequently recurring column where we round up the fake and misleading stories on the Internet about the 2016 presidential campaign. Instead of the usual list of a handful of hoaxes, we are devoting this entire edition to a conspiracy theory claiming that John Podesta is a Satanist. Buckle up.

A WikiLeaks-released email in which Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s brother invites him to dinner at the house of a well-known performance artist has prompted more than 400,000 tweets of a trending Twitter hashtag, a huge Drudge Report headline and a ton of right-wing news items, all claiming that the email proves a secret link between the Clinton campaign and Satan worship (which, just to be clear right here, it does not).

For example, here is the Drudge Report’s homepage from Friday:


Screenshot of the Drudge Report’s homepage/The Washington Post

How did we get here? It’ll take a bit of explaining.

In June 2015, John Podesta’s brother, Tony, forwarded an email from Marina Abramović that read, “Dear Tony, I am so looking forward to the Spirit Cooking dinner at my place. Do you think you will be able to let me know if your brother is joining? All my love, Marina.” The email was one of many dumped on the Internet by WikiLeaks recently. The WikiLeaks Twitter account tweeted about the email early Friday:

Abramović’s mention of “Spirit Cooking” appears to refer to her 1996 artwork that consists of a book with recipes “that serve as evocative instructions for actions or thoughts,” according to the Museum of Modern Art’s gallery label describing it. The recipes range from the implausible to the impossible. One calls for “13,000 grams of jealousy.” Another instructs you to stand “on top of a volcano” and open your mouth “until your tongue becomes flame.” Another — the one that seems to be generating the most interest among conspiracy theorists — says to “mix fresh breast milk with fresh sperm milk.”


Screenshot of #SpiritCooking trending, earlier on Friday

Again, this isn’t an actual recipe book for eating dinner, and there’s no evidence that the recipes were served at the 2015 dinner at the artist’s house.

Abramović, known for her often controversial and dangerous performances, has done a “Spirit Cooking” installation where the recipes were written on walls in blood, accompanied by a video projection and a participatory piece where viewers could press their heads against a stone installed on a wall. It might not be everyone’s taste in art, and the footage documenting that 1997 installation is potentially disturbing, but it’s still art.

In the email exchange in question, Tony asked his brother if he’d be able to go to the dinner. According to the archive, John Podesta never responded — although another email exchange between the Podesta brothers on the day after the dinner makes it pretty clear that he did not attend. 

“Don’t worry Marina missed you,” Tony wrote his brother. Shockingly, that second email debunking the very idea that Podesta even attended a dinner at a famous artist’s house hasn’t gone nearly as viral.

We also reached out to Abramović about all this. Through a spokesperson, Abramović said she was “astonished and appalled that references to my work are being misrepresented in this way to use for political capital.”

“Tony Podesta is a long-standing friend of mine,” the artist said. “These comments relating to his brother John are absurd. I had a dinner, which Tony Podesta attended and which John was invited to but could not attend.”

In an interview with Art News, Abramovic said that the dinner was “just a normal menu, which I call spirit cooking. There was no blood, no anything else. We just call things funny names, that’s all,” and that the dinner was a reward for donors to a recent Kickstarter campaign.

Here is how the dinner event — a reward for people who pledged $10,000 to her campaign — was described on her Kickstarter page:

A dinner night with Marina during which she will teach you and other backers at this level how to cook a series of traditional soups, which you will all enjoy together. The night will end with the making of a golden ball, a recipe given to Marina in a Tibetan monastery. Marina will bring to this dinner a Spirit Cooking memento for each backer to keep.

So Trump Twitter is being very reasonable about all this, right? Well:

https://twitter.com/JackPosobiec/status/794566579153502208

https://twitter.com/Lauren_Southern/status/794590051128791041

No. In fact, it’s only getting worse. As anger about this imaginary bombshell grows, so does the list of targets:

Abramović’s work as an artist can be disturbing. It’s the sort of work that certain parts of conservatism have a long history of opposing, protesting and censoring. But an email from her inviting Clinton’s campaign chair to dinner — a dinner he didn’t even attend — is not proof of any of the things that the Trump Internet is claiming about it right now.

And if you’re wondering, from outside of those circles, why this theory is so hot right now despite any evidence to support it, well, it fits into the broader conspiracy theory that Clinton herself has some link to Satan. A Catholic church in California published a flier making that claim just this week, telling its readers that it’s a “mortal sin” to vote for Democrats. In August, Trump himself called his opponent “the devil.”

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