A new, convoluted conspiracy theory called “Aquariumgate” is spreading on 4chan in which people are theorizing that fake aquariums in Texas are somehow tied to child trafficking, satanic rituals or “(covens) of satanic witches,” tunnel systems, or something else entirely. The conspiracy theory is, according to experts, a low-effort Google Maps trolljob that has actively been cleaned up by Google over the last few days.
Aquariumgate, which has also been called “Pizzagate 2.0” by some posters, requires several levels of conspiracy knowledge to understand, but basically goes like this: Sometime over the weekend, a few posters on 4chan discovered a string of bizarre place listings on Google Maps in the greater Houston area. Many of these place listings were for “aquariums,” all of which had two-letter names.
These included, for example, “HR Aquarium,” “TS Aquarium,” “TD Aquarium,” “EC Aquarium,” and so-on and so forth. Google Streetview images of these locations made clear that no aquarium was located in most of these places; lots of the “aquariums” corresponded to random houses in Texas, or the middle of a forest, or broad stretches of road where there were no buildings whatsoever.
A 4chan user posted that they had found these Google Maps listings, and posters on 4chan began looking for coded messages in the reviews for the aquariums (very few of them had any reviews at all), in StreetView images of the areas, in their names, the descriptions of the locations, or, seemingly, in the reviews and listings for other, real aquariums in Texas. Users began suggesting that these locations or codes they found were intended to direct people to child trafficking services, or witch covens, or “gang safehouses.”
Many of the listings were eventually deleted by Google because they are obviously fake, and discussion of the conspiracy was deleted by Reddit moderators on r/conspiracy, all of which, of course, led people to believe the conspiracy was being hidden (the Reddit posts were deleted because they contained addresses, some of which seemingly corresponded to people’s houses.)
This is all somewhat reminiscent of “PizzaGate,” where the pizza restaurant Comet Ping Pong in Washington, D.C. became the subject of a conspiracy theory that it was secretly a child sex dungeon broadly associated with the Clintons and other elites. That conspiracy theory eventually led someone to show up to Comet Ping Pong with a gun. The general thought with Aquariumgate is that, perhaps, children are being kept by traffickers in glass tanks of some sort.
The main thing to keep in mind here is that there is no evidence of anything here. It is possible for anyone to add a specific location to Google Maps, and none of the aquarium listings viewed by Motherboard were verified by Google, which requires a business to enter a pin number sent by physical mail to the business’ mailbox.
“Anyone can add a ‘Business’ to Google at a location, however, Google won’t verify it unless they can send you a postcard with a pin number,” Jason Isoline, an artist who uses Google Maps in his artwork, told Motherboard. “These aren’t verified locations because they likely don’t have mailboxes. Therefore, it’s just a weak, user-based hack.”
Mickey Mellen, a tech consultant who has been writing about Google Maps for more than a decade, told Motherboard that it’s easy for anyone to “spam [Google Maps] with garbage like this.”
“In a way, it feels like when people cook up crazy things like ‘If you rearrange the letters of Delta and Omicron, you get MEDIA CONTROL,’” he said. “The idea that Google is showing these aquariums out there as kind of a semi-hidden pizzagate is just silly. I figure it's either a group foolishly using Google Maps for something they want hidden, or just some person/people trolling everyone.”
A Google spokesperson told Motherboard that it has begun deleting Aquariumgate locations: “We’re aware of the situation and have begun removing policy-violating content and putting protections in place to help prevent further abuse. We have clear policies that prohibit fake contributed content, and our automated systems and trained operators work around the clock to monitor Maps for suspicious behavior. We also make it easy for people to report misleading places and inappropriate content, which helps us keep the information on Maps authentic and reliable.”
The spokesperson added that the company always deletes deliberately fake content.