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Pizzagate: How a 4Chan conspiracy went mainstream

The power of “meme magic” is changing the world as we know it.

“Meme magic” is a relatively new phenomenon. Beginning in 2015, the practice has nothing to do with potions, poltergeists, or Potters, but instead describes the art of creating memes that transcend the internet to have real-life consequences. According to 4Chan’s controversial Pol board – an anonymous forum where people go to be politically incorrect – the election win of Donald J Trump was meme magic in action. “We actually elected a meme as president,” wrote one user on the site.

Although this was arguably the most successful time 4Channers used memes to influence popular opinion, they didn’t stop there. Over the last month, a conspiracy known as Pizzagate has ascended from the depths of the site to become a mainstream news story. On Sunday, a man was arrested after he walked into the pizza restaurant at the heart of the conspiracy and fired an undisclosed number of shots with an assault rifle.

This is undoubtedly meme magic in action. Pizzagate technically started in March, when WikiLeaks released a batch of emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta, and an anonymous 4Chan user claimed a photo Podesta received of two girls sharing pizza proved that he was involved in human trafficking. The conspiracy theory received renewed attention in November when a new batch of emails was leaked. References to “pizza” in the messages were considered by 4Channers to be a paedophilic code, and one restaurant – Comet Ping Pong in Washington DC – was alleged to be a front for an underground child sex ring favoured by Hillary Clinton.

So how did the theory go from an obscure 4Chan thread in March to a trending Twitter topic covered by most major media outlets in November?

The conspiracy first moved from 4Chan onto Reddit’s r/The_Donald a month ago, and this is the key to its mainstream success. As a hub for Trump supporters, this subreddit has been influential in spreading pro-Trump news. When Pizzagate reached r/The_Donald, users began engaging in the great art of internet conspiracy theories: circling things and using excessive exclamation marks. They then began specifically asking people to tweet about the conspiracy to get it trending.

Next the theory was shared by a popular Twitter user @PizzaPartyBen, who identifies himself as a winner of “The Great Meme War” (a phrase 4Channers use to describe the American election) in his bio. A YouTube video was then uploaded by the channel Evil Hillary before the theory received its first mainstream attention in the Washington City Paper.

At this point it’s worth noting that Pizzgate is many things to many people. Some genuinely believe they are doing important work uncovering a scandal, others are spreading a smear campaign, and more still are just trolling and hoping for the aforementioned meme magic to occur. To the mainstream media, Pizzagate quickly became a joke – much like Trump himself – which only inadvertently exposed it to millions more eyes.

Commenting on this, one anonymous 4Chan user who claimed to believe Pizzagate is “nonsense” wrote: “If the MSM keeps talking about this story, there is a certain percentage of people who will start to believe the PG nonsense… Conspiracy minded people and other wackos will start to believe that CNN, the Clintons, Pedesta, etc all have something to hide.”

Like everything in this election cycle, however, it is fake news that had more impact than the mainstream media. Sites like Infowars and Planet Free Will capitalised on the theory’s popularity and spread it further still. Stephanie MacWilliams, a contributor to the latter site, said today: “I really have no regrets and it’s honestly really grown our audience.”

But how does a laughable hypothesis suddenly become very, very serious? Just ask President-Elect Trump. Arguably the most influential move of the entire Pizzagate affair was when the son of General Michael Flynn – Trump’s choice for national security adviser – tweeted about it. “Until #Pizzgate proven to be false, it’ll remain a story. The left seems to forget #PodestaEmails and the many ‘coincidences’ tied to it,” he wrote on 4 December.

Flynn Jr had been working for his father on the transition team but lost his job on Wednesday for spreading the conspiracy theory. According to the Guardian, however, Flynn Sr – along with many others on Trump’s team – still continues to spread fake news on Twitter.

With the election of Trump, a handful of conspiratorial men now have the power to spread rogue theories that once remained safely tucked in the corners of the internet.

Though the arrest of Edgar Welch for shooting inside the Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant seems to make a fitting book-end to the saga, there is no doubt that Pizzagate is not over yet. 4Channers are calling the shooting a “false flag”, ie. they believe it was orchestrated to discredit the conspiracy theory. Pizzagate has gone mainstream; only time will tell where it goes from here.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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Marcus Hutchins: What we know so far about the arrest of the hero hacker

The 23-year old who stopped the WannaCry malware which attacked the NHS has been arrested in the US. 

In May, Marcus Hutchins - who goes by the online name Malware Tech - became a national hero after "accidentally" discovering a way to stop the WannaCry virus that had paralysed parts of the NHS.

Now, the 23-year-old darling of cyber security is facing charges of cyber crime following a bizarre turn of events that have left many baffled. So what do we know about his indictment?

Arrest

Hutchins, from Ilfracombe in Devon, was reportedly arrested by the FBI in Las Vegas on Wednesday before travelling back from cyber security conferences Black Hat and Def Con.

He is now due to appear in court in Las Vegas later today after being accused of involvement with a piece of malware used to access people's bank accounts.

"Marcus Hutchins... a citizen and resident of the United Kingdom, was arrested in the United States on 2 August, 2017, in Las Vegas, Nevada, after a grand jury in the Eastern District of Wisconsin returned a six-count indictment against Hutchins for his role in creating and distributing the Kronos banking Trojan," said the US Department of Justice.

"The charges against Hutchins, and for which he was arrested, relate to alleged conduct that occurred between in or around July 2014 and July 2015."

His court appearance comes after he was arraigned in Las Vegas yesterday. He made no statement beyond a series of one-word answers to basic questions from the judge, the Guardian reports. A public defender said Hutchins had no criminal history and had previously cooperated with federal authorities. 

The malware

Kronos, a so-called Trojan, is a kind of malware that disguises itself as legitimate software while harvesting unsuspecting victims' online banking login details and other financial data.

It emerged in July 2014 on a Russian underground forum, where it was advertised for $7,000 (£5,330), a relatively high figure at the time, according to the BBC.

Shortly after it made the news, a video demonstrating the malware was posted to YouTube allegedly by Hutchins' co-defendant, who has not been named. Hutchins later tweeted: "Anyone got a kronos sample."

His mum, Janet Hutchins, told the Press Association it is "hugely unlikely" he was involved because he spent "enormous amounts of time" fighting attacks.

Research?

Meanwhile Ryan Kalember, a security researcher from Proofpoint, told the Guardian that the actions of researchers investigating malware may sometimes look criminal.

“This could very easily be the FBI mistaking legitimate research activity with being in control of Kronos infrastructure," said Kalember. "Lots of researchers like to log in to crimeware tools and interfaces and play around.”

The indictment alleges that Hutchins created and sold Kronos on internet forums including the AlphaBay dark web market, which was shut down last month.

"Sometimes you have to at least pretend to be selling something interesting to get people to trust you,” added Kalember. “It’s not an uncommon thing for researchers to do and I don’t know if the FBI could tell the difference.”

It's a sentiment echoed by US cyber-attorney Tor Ekeland, who told Radio 4's Today Programme: "I can think of a number of examples of legitimate software that would potentially be a felony under this theory of prosecution."

Hutchins could face 40 years in jail if found guilty, Ekelend said, but he added that no victims had been named.

This article also appears on NS Tech, a new division of the New Statesman focusing on the intersection of technology and politics.

Oscar Williams is editor of the NewStatesman's sister site NSTech.