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Using Social Research to Understand Conspiracy Legends

It is tempting to dismiss events such as last year’s “Pizzagate” shooting as the work of disturbed or unintelligent people, but social research provides an opportunity to explain this and other seemingly absurd episodes and perhaps help avert future tragedies.

IT HAPPENED less than a year ago. On December 4, 2016, customers were sitting down for a Sunday afternoon meal in the Washington, D.C., pizzeria Comet Ping Pong. Known locally for its quirky atmosphere, live music, and of course its ping pong, on this day the restaurant would make national headlines. Shortly before 3 pm, a man walked in bearing an assault rifle.1 The man took aim in the direction of one employee, who quickly fled, before discharging his firearm. Law enforcement promptly responded to calls, and officers were able to take the man into custody without further incident. They found two firearms on the suspect and another in his vehicle. Fortunately no one was hurt, but the event has left many people shaken and not only for the obvious reasons. The accused had apparently not intended to commit a mass shooting, nor had he intended to rob the restaurant. The truth, such as it is, turned out to be quite strange nonetheless.

The accused shooter was twenty-eight-year-old Edgar Maddison Welch, a father of two daughters and resident of Salisbury, North Carolina. After his arrest, he told police that he had made the 350-mile drive up to the capital to investigate claims regarding a conspiracy theory, circulating online, that quickly came to be called “Pizzagate” (Metropolitan Police Department 2016). According to this outlandish set of claims, leaked emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta, contained coded signs and messages revealing that Comet Ping Pong was actually a front for an occult, child sex slave ring involving the owner of the restaurant, James Alefantis, Podesta, and Clinton herself. For several days before the presidential election, claims of this sort proliferated across the Internet. Alefantis and his employees began receiving menacing messages via social media, including overt death threats (Kang 2016). The events seemed to reach a climax with Welch’s misadventure. He subsequently told police that his intention was to investigate these claims in person and, if he found them to be true, rescue the children held captive there.

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Pizzagate and Beyond: Using Social Research to Understand Conspiracy Legends Becoming Fantastic Why Some People Embellish Their Already Accomplished Lives with Incredible Tales Is Eating Vegetables Truly Safe? An Examination into Contemporary Anti-Vaccination Arguments