One Slice of Pizzagate
How TikTok is influencing a new generation of conspiracy theorists.
By Andrew Broadley | Illustration by Yi Jong
Recently I read a Phoebe Bridgers interview. One of the standout takeaways for me (other than her new album being great, check it out) was how she talked about TikTok being the first thing she has felt disenfranchised from. It represents the first signs of her departure from youth culture. I am now 24, and I look at TikTok the same way all old people look at everything: angrily because we don’t get it. People say it’s the new Vine, but it doesn’t feel like it. So recently I got even more confused when all these memes and videos and articles started popping up surrounding Pizzagate, a now debunked conspiracy theory from Trump’s alt right back in 2016. What was it doing here now in 2020, and why are K-pop stans and TikTokers involved?
For those who don’t know, Pizzagate is essentially a conspiracy that Hillary Clinton and other high ranking Democratic officials were/are running a child sex trafficking ring out of a pizza shop in Washington D.C. Wild, I know. It all began when former Democratic member of the house Anthony Weiner was caught sexting underage girls. As part of this, his and his wife’s devices were seized and emails searched and then subsequently leaked onto WikiLeaks. Then a white supremacist Twitter account used this opportunity to say that the emails of Weiner's wife (Huma Abedin, a former top aide of Hillary Clinton) showed evidence of a sex trafficking ring and that Clinton herself was involved. Now to be very clear, there was no evidence of this. This was an unfounded claim. Now this obviously took off in the alt right blogosphere and cesspool of 4chan enthusiasts. Emails from the Democratic Podesta brothers were also leaked, and found to mention pizza and Italian food frequently which led to rumours that it was code for this sex ring. Podesta’s hankering for a cheese pizza (child porn) or some pasta (a young boy) took on new and sinister meanings. This continued to gain traction until a man drove to the pizza shop that supposedly housed the children in it's basement and fired off a few rounds in a Rambo inspired rescue mission, only to find the store didn’t have a basement, as claimed online. Now while this tarnished the reputation of Clinton, it was largely among a demographic that were never going to vote for her in the first place, but it was the original investigation into Anthony Weiner that led to the investigation into Clinton’s emails being reopened and ultimately cost her the election.
So here we are now, post apocalyptic 2020. It’s a new election cycle and among the fires and face masks and the continued systematic oppression of people of colour, we have Pizzagate 2.0. But hey, incels are hardly going to be Biden fans anyway right? True, but then again this time we aren’t dealing with incels (solely), because TikTok has turned into a home for conspiracy theories. The youth are here to save the children and somehow Justin Bieber is involved. The explosion of TikTok has been so big, and so rapid, that regulation hasn’t been able to keep up. So when dance crazes turned to conspiracies and ‘fake news’ nobody seemed to notice. And by the time they did it was too late. The Pizzagate hashtag amassed more than 82,000,000 views on TikTok before it was banned. To put that into perspective, the original Pizzagate movement in 2016 garnered only 93,000 views on Instagram before being banned. This has created a new generation of conspiracy theorists that have been exposed to these tidbits of information with no real foundation or context. Even those who haven’t been entirely aware of it have been impacted. When I was talking to my mum about this topic she even told me “Oh yes I remember reading something somewhere about Justin Bieber and Hillary Clinton and something to do with underage children. Well where there is smoke there is usually fire”. A prime example how even those who don’t buy into the culture of it are still impacted peripherally. Their opinion of these people is impacted, which has again the huge potential to spoil the election for the Democrats. Now I am not saying that these Democrats are a bunch of great people, but the smoke of one guy sexting a 15 year old is highly unlikely to be from the fire of Hillary’s child sex ring. Now this all went next level when Justin Bieber released his song ‘Yummy’. In the build up to the release he posted photos of children to Instagram with the caption ‘yummy.’ He also released a picture of the word yummy spelt with pizza. For many with an agenda, this - albeit slightly odd - promo was enough smoke for there to be flames. Justin Bieber was alluding to Pizzagate and the subsequential music video was hyper analysed to find meaning at every corner that supported this. The final straw came during a live stream in which a comment (flooding by in the sea of thousands of other comments) asked Justin to touch his hat if Pizzagate was real. Justin touched his hat (like he had done several times in the four minutes of livestream before then) and sent the TikTokosphere into overdrive. He had confirmed it.
So now we have this new wave of Pizzagate theorists: teenagers and young adults. Liberals and conservatives. Politically minded or not. They have taken these small amounts of information, coupled with fake news spread by their alternative news sites (such as the death of a sex worker in Haiti who was claimed to be investigating links between Hillary Clinton and sex trafficking. She was not there to investigate either of these things) and they have used TikTok and other social media sites aimed at young people to spread it like wildfire. And it’s not just Pizzagate. 5G theories, COVID theories, and many more are running rampant on the platform and infecting the minds of youth. The next generation are being exposed to a new era of wokeness that has out woked itself to the point they are so engaged, they aren’t engaged. In their rejection of the media, they are essentially disconnecting with real issues, but they do so with the belief that they are the ones that are engaging in real issues because they are the ones that have disengaged with the lies of the media. They believe they are so aware and involved to the point they have developed such a distrust of our societal structure that they disengage with it. Yeah, BBC news has a bias, but at least it’s news. The people chanting “Fake News” are the ones that are engaging only in fake news. I’m not saying trust the media, or trust the politicians. There is corruption and agenda and ulterior motives everywhere, but TikTok should never be a platform to form your opinions. Yes it can be used to draw attention to areas, but the idea is to then go on to do your research and understand the background. Because I am sure many of these theorists have no idea this whole thing began with a wild claim from a white supremacist Twitter account. They only know of what has happened recently, largely surrounding Justin Bieber.
This is a debunked theory. Plain and simple. There is no evidence to support it. That’s not to say that powerful people have not abused children. Epstein’s involvement with many high profile celebrities and politicians gives reason to suggest this may be the case. I am confident Hollywood is a place that is full of abuse. We have seen this in the case of Weinstein, and in allegations involving minors levelled against Kevin Spacey, Woody Allen, and the continued success of Roman Polanski despite him being charged with rape of a 13 year old. I am confident that many more people in Hollywood are bad people, and are predators. But Pizzagate itself is not real.
The next generation are being exposed to a new era of wokeness that has out woked itself to the point they are so engaged, they aren’t engaged.
Hillary Clinton has not been running a child sex ring from a pizza shop. And the continued pedalling of these conspiracies discredits the very real struggles and issues of paedophelia and sexual abuse. Because it is a very real issue. But reasoning with those who believe in these theories is near impossible. Any counter evidence has been supplied by the mainstream media who are not to be trusted. But they are willing to believe any wild claim from any person on TikTok. Recently a viral video on the platform from a man claiming to be a telecoms engineer erecting 5G masts during lockdown spread false information connecting 5G with COVID-19. In the video he shows what he claimed to be a 5G circuit board which when opened reveals to have COV19 engraved on it. Now let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. Let’s say he is who he says he is and the box is what he says it is (it’s not). Why would this intricate network of people who are clever enough to develop technology that causes flu-like systems through radiation (because the usual radiation symptoms are too obvious) be dumb enough to engrave the box with COV-19? That’s about as subtle as hiding porn on your laptop in a folder titled ‘Not Porn’. Yeah they could easily invent some random serial number or codeword but no, these geniuses put COVID smack bang on the inside of the box. But hey, benefit of the doubt aside, this video has been debunked. A company spokesman for Virgin Media confirmed: “That is a board from a very old set top TV box and which never featured any component parts inscribed/stamped/printed or otherwise with COV 19. It has absolutely no relation with any mobile network infrastructure, including that used for 5G.”
We have all seen viral videos of people sneaking into events and locations with nothing but a high vis and a confident demeanour, but this dude seems to be taking BHVE (big high vis energy) to new levels. There is no evidence to suggest he is even a telecoms engineer. He’s just some guy bored in lockdown who grabbed his old sky box and an engraving pen and was keen to start some shit.
But all this counter evidence is useless. Because it is always going to be labeled as fake news that is fed to us by the elite. People believe what they want to believe. And it’s hard to see what the answer is when this is the mentality. How do you talk to those who won’t listen? How do you debunk fake news when you are the one that is seen as the fake news? Regulation is seriously needed by all social media platforms to limit the spread of this crap in the first place. But keeping up with this new age of information sharing is virtually impossible. Everything we develop now and everything we have worked to develop has been about spontaneity, convenience, and the ability for effortless communication. And that makes shutting down this content hard. There is so much content, and it moves so quickly. Regulation cannot keep up. This is evident in other areas too. Live streaming has allowed graphic content to shift from platforms such as 8chan and 4chan and onto mainstream ones. The Christchurch shootings were live streamed on Facebook and there have been reports of live murders, suicides, and other violent or sexually explicit content being live streamed in the past.
But none of these platforms have seen content spread as quickly as TikTok. And part of the problem lies within TikTok’s foundation. It is a Chinese owned company that has come under heavy scrutiny because of this. Concerns around how they censor content to align with China’s heavy censorship, and how they store and control data have been widespread. And to try and alleviate these issues, TikTok has moved to separate themselves from the CCP (Chinese Communist Party). They store all their data outside of the mainland and they operate a separate app within mainland China under the name Douyin to ensure they can meet the requirements within China without compromising the freedoms outside of it. The head of TikTok, Alex Zhu, has been outspoken, declaring they do not censor content to align with the CCP and if he was requested by Xi Jinping himself to do so he says he would politely deny his request. Now whether this is entirely true is difficult to know for sure. There are reports that issues sensitive to China such as Tiananmen Square, Tibet, and the Hong Kong protests have been suppressed by TikTok’s algorithm. But what it does point to is a reluctance to openly censor content. The company is working hard to distance themselves from Censorship, and this has allowed content to spread more freely.
Pizzagate is false, sexual abuse is not. COVID-19 is real, 5G being the source of it is not. TikTok has allowed these claims to spread and to grow and to morph into something else entirely. It is leading to a growing trend among young people with a huge distrust in our media and our politicians. One that is not entirely unjustified, but one that is concerning. Now more than ever we need to be engaged and vocal, and we need to be informed. The latter of those is what so often seems to be missing. I don’t have the answers, I don’t know how to combat this trend. For those of you that may be full blown conspiracy theorists already, I can only hope you will do your research, and you will have an open mind. For those of you who are not, I ask the same. Don’t blindly trust our current systems, our current politicians or our current media. But don’t blindly trust TikTok either.