This article is written by Amulya Bhatia, currently pursuing BBA.LL.B from Symbiosis Law School, NOIDA. This article discussed the legal implications of the pizzagate conspiracy theory.
This article was published by Diva Rai.
Some call it the anatomy of a fake news scandal while some say it is the revelation of the truth of a child trafficking ring, the pizzagate conspiracy which first went viral in 2016 took over the internet yet again in 2020. In June 2020, the famous singer, Justin Bieber went live on his Instagram. One of the viewers asked this singer to touch his hat if he had ever been a part of a child trafficking ring through the comments. A few moments later, Bieber adjusted his beanie, which was assumed as a consequence of the comment, even though it is highly likely that he never really saw the comment and this is merely a coincidence. What followed was the believers of the pizzagate theory concluding that Beiber was a victim of this ring. Moreover, the song, ‘Yummy’ by Justin Beiber was also assumed to be evidence of the same.
The pizzagate theory is nothing but a debunked conspiracy that has failed to attain any credit over the years, yet is continued to be talked about. According to this conspiracy which erupted in November 2016, prominent members of the Democrats led by Hilary Clinton and John Podesta are somehow involved in a global child trafficking ring, the headquarters of which are based in Comet Ping Pong, a pizzeria in Washington D.C. Irrespective of lack of any evidence, the pizzagate has gained popularity over various social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and mostly TikTok where posts with #Pizzagate was viewed over 82 million times in the month of June 2020. The upsurge wasn’t limited to just social media and led to violence in the US. How did a conspiracy with no basis create such a hue and cry?
What is the Pizzagate conspiracy
In the final stage of the U.S. elections, early November 2016, the email of John Podesta, who was Hilary Clinton’s campaign manager, was hacked. According to the New York Times, one of these emails was between John Podesta and James Alefantis, the owner of Comet Ping Pong, the pizzeria in Washington D.C. regarding hosting a possible fundraiser for Clinton. Later that year, these emails were posted in Wikileak, due to which the link between the pizzeria and the Democratic Party was up for speculation. It was not long after that conspiracy theorists came up with a vile connection that the pizzeria is the headquarters for a child trafficking ring led by Clinton and Podesta, and that the emails contained coded messages concerning the same.
Comet Ping Pong
Comet Ping Pong is a 120-seater restaurant located in Washington D.C which opened in 2006. The owner of this child-friendly place, James Alefantis was a Clinton supporter and was close friends with multiple Democrat leaders. When in 2016, the emails between John Podesta and James Alefantis were released, the pizzagate theory came into being, with claims that Comet Ping Pong was the headquarters for a child trafficking ring. This fake news scandal had a bearing on not just the reputation but resulted in the employees receiving threats. The Instagram feed of the restaurant was flooded with comments like, ‘I will kill you and ‘We are on to you’. Comet Ping Pong faced the consequences of the promotion of fake news which had no backing.
The upsurge of this conspiracy theory has a lot to do with its promotion on social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok. One influential website which also posted about the pizzagate is Infowars which also has more than 1.8 million subscribers on youtube. InfoWars is known to be an American far-right conspiracy theory and news website owned by Alex Jones. It was founded in 1999 and has been in the news multiple times for promoting fake news, the result of which is harassment of people. Alex Jones, according to many, is considered to be more responsible than any other person for the spread of the pizzagate theory, without the backing of any evidence or basis, hurting the reputation of both Hillary Clinton as well as the family restaurant, Comet Ping Pong. While defending the theory, Jones claimed in one of his youtube videos that “Hillary Clinton has murdered and chopped up and raped children”, yet again a claim with no evidence.
One major consequence of Alex Jones promoting this baseless theory was a man entering the pizzeria with a rifle, wanting to investigate this theory himself. This man was a diligent follower and fan of Alex Jones. Eventually, soon after the threat of a potential lawsuit and the lack of proof of the existence of this child trafficking ring, Jones had no option but to apologize to James Alefantis, the owner of the Comet Ping Pong, along with all the employees of the pizzeria who also faced threats because of the promotion of this fake scandal. Alex Jones made an apology to all the viewers and followers as well who may have had any negative impact in their lives because of this incident. However, an apology is not enough to make up for the damage this fake news has caused.
Manipulation of facts
The believers of pizzagate had no backing or evidence to support this conspiracy theory which led to them manipulating and testing the facts at hand to somehow prove that this absurd idea of a child trafficking ring run by members of democrats in a pizzeria has some truth to it. According to those who believe in this theory, Comet Ping Pong is the headquarters of a while trafficking ring, and all the operations for the same are located in the basement of this restaurant. Funnily enough, there is no basement in the pizzeria which makes this entire conspiracy fall flat in one go. What is more hilarious is that according to the believers, the menu for this pizza was code language to talk about anything related to the child trafficking ring.
For example, the word ‘pizza’ was a sign for child porn and illegal child trafficking, and the word ‘cheese pizza’ i.e. C.P. meant ‘child pornography’. Additionally, the underground refrigerator in the pizzeria was a kill room where cannibalism was practiced. John Podesta and his brother were also linked to the kidnapping of a child in 2007, all as a part of this ring. If putting the word pizza in a pizzeria, or installing a refrigerator in a restaurant is conclusive of running a child trafficking establishment, then it would be safe to assume that almost all restaurants in the world are running a child trafficking ring. Facts that point to nothing but James Alefantis running a restaurant honestly are manipulated by the believers of the pizzagate conspiracy as per their convenience, to fit their idea of the truth.
Role of social media and echo chambers
Social media as we all know holds immense power over our lives in today’s time, to the extent that it has the innate ability to make or break one’s life. In the case of the pizzagate conspiracy theory, social media did more harm than good. When this conspiracy erupted, posts with #pizzagate took over, multiple videos were made on this, and this theory which has no evidence, or no victims had come forward took over the world, all because of its promotion on social media. This had real-life consequences as a result of which, social media platforms took multiple steps to boil down the effect of this theory. Whenever one would search about this theory on youtube, a label would come up explaining that this is a false conspiracy, Twitter also made attempts to stop #pizzagate from trending and Facebook made it impossible to trend hashtags about this conspiracy.
However, the Pizzagate conspiracy re-emerged in 2020. A documentary on this conspiracy called, ‘Out of Shadows’ was put up on Youtube which gained over 15 million views, following which the absurd idea that Justin Bieber was a victim of this conspiracy was flooded yet again on social media. Soon after, Rachel Mcnear came across this documentary which developed her interest in this theory. After some rudimentary research on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, she created a small description of this theory and posted it on TikTok. It only took a few days for young adults, who are slowly gaining interest in politics to start looking this up, which resulted in searches for ‘Hillary’, ‘pedophile’ and ‘child trafficking’ going from nil to 100 which is the highest mark on the scale of trending searches. Social media then claimed that they had done their bit to delegitimize the upsurge of pizzagate related information by eliminating hashtags on Twitter, videos on Youtube, and have even updated their child sexual assault policies to prevent harm from this conspiracy.
But the question is, why does it take pressure from journalists or society at large for these social media platforms to start acting responsibly and take accountability for what is being promoted through their platforms?
Shooting at Comet Ping Pong
The news about the pizzagate conspiracy might have been fake, but it most certainly had real-world consequences, with a barring impact on the lives of many. Things got out of hand when a man decided to take matters in his control and enter Comet Ping Pong with a gun, to investigate this entire scandal himself. Edgar Maddison Welch, a man from North Carolina fired an AR-15 rifle inside the pizzeria claiming to “investigate’ this baseless theory based on the information that he was able to collect online. Nobody was hurt through the firing as the shots were fired at the walls and other things kept inside the pizzeria. In 2017, the man pleaded guilty, admitting to him wanting to investigate a bogus theory that he read on the internet and was punished for his actions. It is so bizarre to imagine that some baseless theories off the internet could lead to potential damage to the lives and reputation of so many. The pizzagate theory was nothing but political propaganda to bring down Clinton without even realizing the cost of promoting fake news, and those who promoted it only resulted in the further incitement of violence.
Nuisance in the name of free speech
Legal implications of spreading fake news in the United States
Free speech is considered to be integral in the United States. The first amendment of the constitution guarantees one the freedom of speech. But limits to free speech have been in question time and again when this freedom has led to public nuisance. Fake news currently still falls under the ambit of free speech. However, this cannot mean that the implications and dangers of fake news should be ignored. Now, freedom of speech includes the right to impart and receive information. But when fake news is spread, it takes away from the integrity of such information. Conspiracy theories have become a prominent part of the political system and appear to be nothing but an attempt to discuss unusual and baseless ideas under the caveat of free speech. The only legal recourse available against spreading fake news is filing a suit for defamation.
However, there is a two-fold reason as to why conspiracies must not be protected under the ambit of free speech, especially when they are just ideas and not facts. First, it is important to have informed voters which is the essence of democracy. Because of the promotion of false news, voters are misled, as was seen in the pizzagate theory when the image of the democrats went down the drain and is still being pulled through the mud. Moreover, when these theories find their way into the political system, radicals and extremists may want to take matters into their own hands and things can turn violent which has been discussed in this article before. Therefore, it is quite evident, at least in the case of the pizzagate conspiracy theory, that fake news in the name of free speech only created violence and public nuisance, causing harm to those who were innocent.
Legal implications of spreading fake news in India
India on the other hand, recognising the importance that the internet holds in our lives in today’s time, has implemented certain laws to prevent the spread of fake news. Fake news has existed since time immemorial, but its effects are getting to the human race due to the evolution of technology. These laws have especially been implemented due to the emergency that Covid-19 has posed before us to avert anxiety among people due to the spread of fake news. In status quo, Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005 has also been used in order to prevent the spread of false information amid a pandemic.
Other than this, Information Technology Rules, 2021, were imposed in the month of February and put several obligations and responsibilities on online entities which include the obligation to take down content that may be false. These new rules require social media apps to file daily compliance reports and a common chief is also to be appointed who shall serve as a point of contact between online entities and law enforcement agencies.
Soon after, there were talks about these laws being unconstitutional following which a petition was also filed. The Centre has defended the legality of the new Information Technology (IT) Rules before the Delhi High Court, saying that the rules shall prevent the misuse of the freedom of the press and will protect citizens from the repercussions of spreading fake news in the digital media space. The centre has stated that they are simply providing to the citizens a grievance mechanism through which the spread of fake news can be contained.
Conspiracy theories are simply assumptions. This is not to say that some of these theories may not be true. However, conspiracies are still assumptions, or stories till the time they have been verified through proper fact-checking. Unfortunately, they are continued to be discussed as nothing but the ultimate truth even with the lack of any concrete evidence. Moreover, in cases where the conspiracy theory has been debunked after verification, some people continue to promote it in the name of free speech, which is not good for the larger public interest. The legal system, at some point, will have to take recognition of fake news and conspiracies resulting in nuisance and as factors inciting violence.
The pizzagate theory was unnecessarily stretched and could be settled in a much simpler manner by checking the facts and proving that the assumptions were false. However, many social media platforms kept discussing it, not realizing the impact it would have on the careers and lives of many. This callousness makes it even more important to address the issues of spread of fake news from a legal lens.
- Online Calls for Violence Are Increasing Due to Conspiracy Theories (insider.com)
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