Last week, the Miami Herald published a massive investigation suggesting financier and friend-to-the-stars Jeffrey Epstein may have gotten away with sexually abusing dozens of teenage girls. Despite a large number of survivors emerging with virtually identical stories about being paid to massage the billionaire when they were in middle and high school and then being molested or worse, and despite corroborating phone and flight records, willing witnesses, and a horrifyingly detailed little black book with even more names of possible victims, Epstein was ultimately offered a plea deal on prostitution charges that landed him a mere 13 months in county jail.
To add insult to injury, Epstein was allowed to work out of a cushy office six days per week while serving his minuscule sentence.
The Herald articles suggest this travesty of justice went down because Epstein was able to offer up information that was (possibly) used in an unrelated federal investigation. They also point the finger at Trump Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta, who as a US attorney at the time helped hash out the generous deal . But conspiracy theorists would probably find a more plausible explanation by looking through the rolodex of the convicted sex offenders's friends, which included Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, and Prince Andrew. (Clinton was known to fly repeatedly on Epstein's private plane, and Trump was said to do the same at least once, as well. The Herald probe, meanwhile, showed Epstein's plea deal seemed almost designed to stoke speculation about a larger plot of international sex trafficking, for which there was some evidence, by providing immunity to "any potential co-conspirators.") Though a lawyer for several victims is now pursuing a federal court case that could nullify that non-prosecution agreement, Eric Levitz was right to point out in New York that the Epstein saga—a tale of a politically-connected liberal who appeared to operate what amounted to a pedophilia ring in plain sight—is as close to Pizzagate as anything in real life is going to get.
But what happens when a story like this falls into the laps of far-right conspiracy theorists who don't trust the mainstream media? To get an idea of how horrific, real-world events might affect fringe discourse, and what that twisted dialogue might produce when it spills back into reality, I called up Jessica A. Johnson, a University of Washington anthropology lecturer who studies how white men radicalize on the internet, and how conspiracies like Pizzagate originate. Our conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
VICE: So, first off, for the uninitiated, what's with the fixation on powerful liberals and pedophilia rings on the far-right?
Jessica A. Johnson: So I think a lot of these tensions and a lot of the paranoia and fear that is amplified through conspiracy theories around pedophilia certainly has something to do with fears concerning the unraveling of our nation's moral fabric as construed by white Christian nationalists, or fundamentalists. But also it kind of creates an institutional space for hitting back against so-called non-normative people in terms of sex, gender, race. And I don't think we can separate what's happening with Epstein and what happened with [Pittsburgh synagogue shooting suspect] Robert Bowers. I think a very clear connection to a white nationalist, anti-Semitic belief system is being stoked on these online forums right now.
The first iteration of this wasn't the Satanic panics of the 80s, but hundreds of years previously, right?
I think that's an obvious one, but it's also really about Satan as a conspiracy figure. People like Epstein, [Robert] Mueller, [John] Podesta, even more-so than either of the Clintons, become these demonic figures. So I think this really goes back to the Bible. It's apocalyptic. So the Satanic Panics were certainly [related] to white, middle-class women entering the work force in mass numbers and leaving their children entrusted to child care, and it had that certain kind of tension to it. But now this is a different kind of way of thinking about it.
Has there ever been a real, journalistically-sound case like the Epstein one that you could point to as having directly contributed to this kind of thinking, or have these theories always been based off of more vague feelings of cultural unease first and facts second?
I don't think we can separate this from what's being going on with #MeToo. Looking at, for example, what QAnon did with Tom Hanks: Putting his name out there as the guy they needed to fixate on. When I saw that, I was thinking about how there's no way we can separate this focus on Hollywood figures in particular with things like #MeToo and the Weinstein case that broke everything open. So I do think that the real-world connections—and this is how conspiracy theory works—they don't have to be clear-cut. The language of QAnon is "crumbs." So there just has to be crumbs of evidence that open up the possibility for people to participate in trying to put together the puzzle.
How have these kinds of theories evolved over time? And how do they fit into the context of other right-wing fears like Jade Helm and other militia-type views? What's usually going on in the culture that leads to one genre of conspiracy rather than the other?
Bowers on Gab, which was his social media network of preference, was saying things like, "Jews are the children of Satan." Because of the way that online technologies open up these degrees to which people can participate in an affective networking of paranoia or of a particular kind of feeling, you're not necessarily saying, "I'm feeling paranoid." But you're actually embodying that intensity such that you then act on it without really thinking about it. And in that case it literally goes back to Satan, in terms of his own language. It's not only an unraveling of the hetero-partriachy, or white masculinity, or even white nationalism. It's all of those things, but it's also very much a Biblical vision of what is happening in the world right now.
Does the modern compartmentalization of views—and fake news, etc.—make it harder to debunk or combat this stuff than in decades past?
So I think I would want to emphasize that the level of participation that's available due to social media is critical to how intense conspiracy theory discourse has become in our current cultural climate. Donald Trump certainly has something to do with it. When you see high-level government officials reiterate these things over Twitter, [that] makes a huge difference. It's not just through some news network or political speeches—although he's doing that, too—but the fact that people can then participate by reposting and trying to get his attention and all that kind of stuff. So you have all these kinds of levels through which people can contribute to and help hash out the puzzle.
Do these conspiracy theorists even pay attention to the mainstream media or care about a story like this—even if it fits their worldview?
Any story related to pedophilia being perpetrated by government officials on the right will be amplifying paranoia toward liberal elites and their [alleged] participation in global sex trafficking of children. So even if Epstein has connections to Trump, for example, his connections to [Bill] Clinton and Hollywood celebrities are gonna take precedence. And I've seen a lot of things lately about the Mueller investigation, and I think [Anthony] Scaramucci's comments, and the way things are playing out online in various forums, whether it be through QAnon and their mega memes on YouTube or Reddit, is basically a distraction from the Mueller investigation and trying to turn it into something its not.
What kind of chatter are you seeing on the internet about Epstein, and how is it similar or different from what you saw in your research about Pizzagate?
Last night I was looking at some QAnon pieces on YouTube, and they weren't using any actual photos of the girls that Epstein molested, but rather a lot of the stock footage that I saw when I was doing my Pizzagate investigation. They're not even photos—they're illustrations and sketches of children. They're on hooks. They're hanging from walls. There's blood. There's a ritual sacrifice montage, and the people perpetrating it are always masked. They look more like monsters and demons than they do actual humans. So girls, even the language of girls, and the girls that Epstein molested and there are pictures of, are not being used in any of the conspiracy theory discourse and footage I'm seeing. It's always the figure of the child. So any kind of reality in terms of the actual children being abused is not being considered at all.
Now I think we're seeing a shift into the apocalyptic and supernatural, where it's not about mothers leaving children behind and what that means in terms of the division of labor in the home and the hetero-patriarchy, it's much more about the End Times.
So what's likely to happen next in the never-ending story of right-wing feverdreams?
A lot of people still believe in Pizzagate. People were still believing in it and went to the White House to protest. I think it was roughly 70 people. Then we see QAnon pop up, and every hashtag I see is #QAnon, #Pedogate, and #Pizzagate. All of those things feed one another. If one goes away anytime soon, there will be another hashtag that pops up. I definitely don't think this is going away anytime soon, and if anything, it's just going to keep getting more intense and more violent in real-life terms. Whether that be targeted individuals like Mueller or Podesta, or populations like Jewish people. Unfortunately, those are very real dangers.
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