The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What the Pizzagate conspiracy theory borrows from a bogus satanic sex panic of the 1980s

Americans are more paranoid and easily misled than ever. And that's dangerous.

Comet Ping Pong customers came out to support the restaurant after a gunman entered it with an assault rifle, firing it at least once. (Video: Whitney Shefte/The Washington Post, Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Responding to incendiary, unfounded online rumors from paranoid corners of the Internet that Washington pizzeria Comet Ping Pong was the center of a child sex-trafficking ring led by Hillary Clinton and her confidants, Edgar Welch drove six hours from North Carolina to the city to investigate. After allegedly firing a rifle into the floor of the restaurant in pursuit of evidence of these nonexistent crimes, Welch was arrested and faces four felony charges, including felony assault with a deadly weapon.

The restaurant’s owner and employees had been subjected to escalating harassment and threats over several weeks leading up to this event. Nearby restaurants — said by online conspiracy theorists to be linked by underground tunnels to Comet Ping Pong — were also dragged into social media attacks and were harassed and threatened by anonymous callers. The tunnels, of course, do not exist. And there is no child sex-trafficking ring run by Clinton campaign officials out of a pizza parlor. The entire scenario is a fantasy dreamed up by feverish minds. And it is not the first time.

Pizzagate traveled from one platform to another along the ultrarapid circuits of social media. But if there is something striking about the speed with which the story spread, there is nothing new about its essential form.

Pizzagate shares much of its content with an outbreak of collective hysteria over imaginary occult pedophile rings three decades ago, which can now summed up in three words: satanic-ritual abuse. At the beginning of the 1980s, it seemed eminently plausible to many people that an extensive underground network of sadistic devil worshipers was sexually torturing large numbers of children in preschools and day-care centers across the country — and that these activities had somehow gone undetected for years, if not decades.

Accusations erupted in Kern County, Calif., (in 1982) spread to McMartin Preschool in a Los Angeles suburb (1983) and then quickly went national. Hundreds (mostly day-care workers) were falsely accused. More than 70 people were convicted and later exonerated on horrific criminal charges. As late as 1997, near the end of a long wave of panics, four Texas lesbians were convicted in San Antonio. Released from prison in 2012 and 2013, they were exonerated only this year.

Satanic-ritual abuse has been thoroughly debunked by Debbie Nathan and Mike Snedeker, whose “Satan’s Silence” remains the best book on the subject. But the psychodrama of the satanic-ritual-abuse panic can help us understand — and challenge — the strange, fevered imaginings that now assert themselves again.

First, the panics of the 1980s were fanned by flawed psychological models (“repressed memories”) and professional malpractice (suggestive interviewing techniques). Cadres of social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists were involved in the production of the witch hunt. Pizzagate has no such professional support, but it did draw on institutional support to produce its mythology: a far-flung network of right-wing websites and alt-right social media networks. In those networks, it would appear that no scenario that incriminated liberal Democrats was sufficiently outlandish to draw normal incredulity. Inventive readings of campaign chair John Podesta’s emails were sufficient to count as evidence of, among other things, “spirit cooking” and other ritual and satanic forms of abuse.

Second, in both cases, social movements were involved in the weaponization of suspicion, although the political center of gravity has shifted from one episode to the next. In the late 1970s, social workers and feminist activists had focused on combating child sexual abuse; they sometimes developed extremely broad definitions of abuse or floated exaggerated estimates of its occurrence in this quest. Such efforts have left deep cultural residues, and these include the acceptance of exaggerated claims about the number of child trafficking victims, and the incidence and forms of organized child sexual abuse. Pizzagate relies on these inflated fears to seem plausible, and it similarly relies on a viewpoint marked by extreme suspicion (of the media, Washington “elites,” politicians and the Clinton camp specifically) to decode ordinary events and statements into extraordinary claims.

Third, both episodes were media phenomena. In the 1980s, mainstream print and broadcast media uncritically purveyed stories about ritual abuse as news. Today, by contrast, most mainstream reportage about Pizzagate comes with taglines such as “unsubstantiated,” “no evidence,” or even “false” — but to little avail. Because Pizzagate was born and propagated inside right-wing networks online and on the airwaves that explicitly reject mainstream media sources as corrupt and complicit, the mainstream media’s refutations serve only to convince conspiracy theorists that they are onto an even bigger conspiracy. In other words, as long as the media continue to deny the phenomenon, the alternative media outlets of the conspirators will continue to feverishly push the theory in tweets, talk radio and Web forums.

Fake news stories are dangerous, as anyone can see — and not only for the pernicious effects they have on public opinion. Fabrications about the plotting of secretive evildoers have an inciting effect and have often been linked to outbursts of violence. Witch hunts, pogroms, lynchings and other forms of communal violence invariably start in fakery and rumor.

We have good reason to think that the role of fakery is expanding in the public sphere. Part of this expansion has to do with the speeding-up of communication, its dissemination through networks that lack protocols or fact-checking. This is part of the long story of modernity. Fear and confusion propagate faster through radio and television than by way of mass-produced broadsides or fliers; the Internet is a more efficient means of converting anecdote into evidence and rumor into “fact” than was the Hearst newspaper chain of yesteryear.

Part of this also has to do with the toxic stew of Trump’s campaign rhetoric, which intensified what historian Richard Hofstadter dubbed a “paranoid style” of American politics. Almost everything about the Trump campaign involved assertions of secrecy, conspiracy and corruption on the part of his opponents, but he won nonetheless. These are dangerous times. As Americans become more accustomed to the paranoid style of politics and find themselves encouraged by their leaders to seek out secret, shadowy meanings in everything, frustration and animosity will continue to feed unsubstantiated panics, and the specter of real violence for imagined wrongs will draw nearer.