The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How conspiracy theorists taint the justice they seek

Jeffrey Epstein, center, in court in West Palm Beach, Fla., in 2008, pleaded not guilty in federal court in New York on Monday to sex trafficking charges following his arrest over the weekend. (Uma Sanghvi/Palm Beach Post/AP)

Editor’s Note: Travis View, co-host of the QAnon Anonymous podcast, is a pseudonym. His real name is Logan Strain.

Announcing charges against Jeffrey Epstein at a Monday morning news conference, U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman credited the help of reporters.

“We were assisted by some excellent investigative journalism,” he said.

William Sweeney, assistant director-in-charge of the FBI’s New York office, added: “We work with facts. When the facts presented themselves, as Mr. Berman hinted at, through investigative journalists’ work, we moved on it.”

They were likely referring to the Miami Herald’s three-part series “Perversion of Justice,” which sparked renewed scrutiny and public interest in the Epstein case by shedding light on a secret deal that allowed him to avoid serious charges in 2008. The investigative series identified about 80 women who say they were sexually abused by Epstein from 2001 to 2006 and quoted four of his alleged victims on the record for the first time. Julie K. Brown, who received a George Polk Award for justice reporting for the series, said on Twitter that “the REAL HEROES HERE were the courageous victims that faced their fears and told their stories.”

But while the people who actually helped bring Epstein closer to justice were quick to credit others, another community baselessly claimed the credit for themselves. Since Epstein has long been accused of serial abuse of minors, he has been featured in the online conspiracy theories Pizzagate and QAnon. But when online conspiracy theorists aren’t rehashing old reporting about Epstein, they’re promoting some of the most absurd claims ever posted on social media. QAnon followers of various stripes believe that military intelligence officials post coded messages on the imageboard 8chan, John F. Kennedy Jr. faked his death in 1999, and Hillary Clinton has been secretly arrested.

It would be comforting to believe the warped, reality-defying worldview of online conspiracy theorists is so quarantined from mainstream political discourse that it’s unworthy of rebuke. But that’s not the case. President Trump has promoted several QAnon accounts on Twitter. Celebrities who have promoted QAnon include Roseanne Barr, Curt Schilling and Stacey Dash. Elected officials who have promoted QAnon include a city council member and a state lawmaker. Matthew Lusk, a congressional candidate for Florida’s 5th district, is the first QAnon follower to run for federal office.

How conspiracy theories spread from the Internet's darkest corners

The anonymous 8chan poster known as “Q” capitalized on the news of Epstein’s arrest by referencing it in several new posts. Popular QAnon promoter Joe M felt vindicated: “The arrest and soon conviction of child sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein” he said, “reflects all that Q observers have been howling about.” Tweeting to his nearly 100,000 Twitter followers, QAnon promoter Jordan Sather absurdly credited Epstein’s arrest to 4chan and 8chan.

“Some blue check marks,” he said, in reference to verified users on Twitter, “are trying to take credit for Epstein’s arrest, but I think we all know where the real investigations are coming from . . . The chans are incredible!”

In reality, it should surprise no one to learn that none of the actual investigative reporting nor the indictment itself references “the chans.” Somehow, the real investigations were successful without the help of anonymous users of primitive message boards.

Far from clarifying the serious allegations against Epstein and advocating for his alleged victims, the wild stories that online conspiracy theorists spin instead serve to distract from actual crimes. For example, people in the QAnon community believe that Epstein’s private island contains secret tunnels where children were sacrificed in occult rituals. There is obviously no evidence for this, and it seems like it would be a glaring omission from the indictment if it were true. The story about children being abused in secret underground is a callback to the “satanic Panic” of the 1980s, in which preschools were baselessly accused of having secret labyrinthine tunnels.

Coupling serious allegations of child abuse with unserious fabulism about the occult helps no one. In Epstein’s case, the credible charges are outrageous enough without indulging in conspiratorial fantasies. But attempting to weave his alleged actions into more fantastical narratives may make it easier to dismiss them.

Five myths about conspiracy theories

Online conspiracy theorists also make innocent people vulnerable to harassment campaigns instead of actually helping the innocent. For example, QAnon followers baselessly speculate that a woman living in New York is connected to Epstein simply because she was photographed with former president Bill Clinton. They erroneously claim that the photograph was taken aboard Epstein’s plane, but the individual who leaked the photo claimed it was actually taken on a plane belonging to Democratic donor Ron Burkle.

For more than a year, QAnon followers have perversely leveled baseless allegations against a civilian who has no known connection to any crime while imagining themselves heroic for doing so. This is what their fruitless “investigations” — the ones that they think took down Epstein — really entail.

Though online conspiracy theorists operate outside of the realm of verifiable facts, there is merit to some of their broadest grievances. Powerful people can and do flout the law. Innocent and vulnerable people are victimized without due recourse. But as the recent indictment of Epstein illustrates, self-satisfied posting and memeing about outlandish conspiracy theories doesn’t help right these wrongs. Even when online conspiracy theorists do fixate on abusers and criminals who exist in the real world, they narcissistically steal valor from those who actually expose and prosecute the guilty, while also accusing innocent people of being connected to the guilty without evidence, and spin dramatic tales about imagined victims instead of promoting the testimony of real victims.

Just as they poison our political discourse, online conspiracy theorists poison the pursuit of justice. Sadly, there’s little reason to hope they’ll ever care more about fidelity to the facts than the wild narratives that keep them at the center of the story.