Things have come full circle.
In 2016, the original Pizzagate conspiracy theory—which claimed Democrats were running a child sex ring—spawned the birth of QAnon, a conspiracy movement that has grown to become a global phenomenon.
Now, as QAnon’s hero, President Donald Trump, trails his rival by double digits in almost all national polls, Pizzagate 2.0 has emerged as an attempt to undermine the campaign of Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
Over the weekend, the baseless conspiracy theory, which claims Biden’s son Hunter is a pedophile, spread with astonishing speed from the depths of fringe message board 4chan to being peddled by a national TV station.
The conspiracy is spreading once again on social media platforms, where baseless claims by high-profile right-wing commentators have been shared tens of thousands of times. And despite the script for this made-up scandal being almost identical to the one peddled four years ago, it seems that platforms like Twitter and Facebook do not have the necessary safeguards in place to stop it from happening all over again.
On Friday, as the story about Hunter Biden’s laptop began to fall apart, a 4Chan user claiming to be Chanel Rion, the White House correspondent for the far-right, pro-Trump cable network One America News Network, posted a series of messages claiming that a huge story about Hunter Biden was about to drop.
The user teased various aspects of the story, but the most salacious was the claim that Hunter Biden’s laptop contained child abuse imagery and a video of him engaging in sex with a minor.
Rion was quick to deny that she had posted those messages:
But it didn’t matter.
QAnon followers quickly picked up on the claims and linked them to other so-called proof.
A number of QAnon accounts flagged a document published by the New York Post that’s supposedly a subpoena for the seizure of a laptop left at a Delaware repair shop, which the owner says belongs to Hunter Biden.
The signature on the subpoena appears to look similar to that of an FBI agent who is known to work on child pornography and abduction cases. However, it has yet to be proven if the laptop does belong to Hunter Biden, if the contents published by the New York Post are genuine, or if the subpoena is directly related to the laptop left in the Delaware repair shop.
By Sunday, the conspiracy theory had gone mainstream: Republican Sen. Ron Johnson repeated the claim on Fox News.
Johnson appeared to ignore the fact that John Paul Mac Isaaz, the owner of the laptop repair shop at the center of the scandal, told reporters last week that he had found no child abuse images on the device he claims may belong to Hunter Biden.
Along with Johnson, prominent far-right voices are giving the Pizzagate 2.0 scandal oxygen on Twitter and Facebook.
Among the most prominent voices is Wayne Allyn Root, a conservative radio host who has previously peddled conspiracy theories including claims DNC staffer Seth Rich was shot by the Democratic party, and that the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting was orchestrated by ISIS.
A tweet by Root, that claims the minor captured on video with Hunter Biden was Chinese and that the Chinese government has a copy of the video, has been shared tens of thousands of times and quote-tweeted by other prominent right-wing accounts, including internet preacher Pastor Greg Locke, and Anna Khait, a former contestant on Survivor.
Allyn has posted the same message on Facebook, where it has been shared, liked, and commented on more than 1,000 times.
Neither Facebook nor Twitter immediately responded to questions about the spread of this latest conspiracy theory on their platforms.
Here’s what else is happening in the world of election disinformation.
Propaganda has replaced local news
Local newsrooms across the country have been devastated in recent years, leaving a void for those looking for reliable and trusted news. Republicans have apparently sensed that gap in the market and are now trying to fill it — with disinformation and distortion. A yearlong investigation by the New York Times has uncovered a nationwide operation of 1,300 local sites publishing coverage that is ordered up by Republican groups and corporate PR firms.
The sites have names that sound just like the newspapers they are seeking to replace — the Des Moines Sun, Ann Arbor Times, and Empire State Today — and they use the kinds of layouts you’d expect local news sites to look like, with a mixture of community news, local politics, and some national stories.
But it’s really little more than propaganda. Take, for example, the Illinois Valley Times’ apparent obsession with Republican state senator Sue Rezin, who was featured in virtually every story on the site in early September. One reporter wrote 40 articles, 34 of which were about Rezin. Rezin said she was unaware of the coverage but didn’t have any objection to the positive spin on her campaign.
So much for Twitter’s ban
Twitter’s decision to ban all links to the New York Post’s story about Hunter Biden last week didn’t really have the desired effect. According to Zignal Labs, a media intelligence firm, shares of the Post article “nearly doubled” after Twitter started suppressing it. This is a perfect example of the Streisand Effect in action: Twitter’s ill-thought-out decision is allowing conservative voices to make the story much bigger than it would have been in the first place. Twitter’s subsequent decision to reverse course simply reinforced the belief among critics that the company simply doesn’t know what it is doing.
TikTok’s QAnon Ban Is Not Working
In August the video-sharing app announced that, like Twitter, it would ban QAnon-related hashtags on its platform. But an analysis by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue has found that Tiktokkers are easily circumventing the efforts with simple tweaks. For example, using #Pizzagte or #Pizzagayte, hashtags which have 1.6 million views and 1.8 million views respectively. The #SavetheChildren hashtag, which QAnon supporters have already hijacked on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, is also a hugely popular way to share conspiracy videos on TikTok. “Our analysis shows Q supporters face little to no obstacles in spreading their conspiracy across the platform,” Ciaran O’Connor, an analyst on ISD’s Digital Research Unit, said in a report.