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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.

Flickr: woodleywonderworks
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Lol enforcement: meet the man policing online joke theft

A story of revenge, retweets, and Kale Salad. 

A man walks into a bar and he tells a joke. The man next to him laughs – and then he tells the same joke. The man next to him, in turn, repeats the joke. That bar’s name is Twitter.

If you’ve been on the social network for more than five minutes, you’ll notice that joke theft is rampant on the site. Search, for example, for a popular tweet this week (“did everyone just forget about the part of 2016 when literal clowns would chase people with knives in public and nobody really did anything” – 153,000 retweets) and you’ll see it has been copied 53 times in the last three days.

One instance of plagiarism, however, is unlike the others. Its perpetrator is the meme account @dory and its quick Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V has over 3,500 retweets. This account frequently copies the viral posts of Twitter users and passes them off – word for word – as its own. Many similar accounts do the same, including @CWGirl and @FatJew, and many make money by promoting advertising messages to their large number of followers. Twitter joke theft, then, is profitable.

In 2015, Twitter promised to clamp down on the unchecked plagiarism on its site. “This Tweet from [user] has been withheld in response to a report from the copyright holder,” read a message meant to replace stolen jokes on the site. It’s likely a message you’ve never seen.

Dissatisfied with this solution, one man took it upon himself to fight the thieves. 

“I'm a like happy internet kind of guy,” says Samir Mezrahi, a 34-year-old from New York who runs the Twitter account @KaleSalad. For the last six months, Mezrahi has used the account to source and retweet the original writers of Twitter jokes. Starting with a few hundred followers at the end of December 2016, Mezrahi had jumped to 50,000 followers by January 2017. Over 82,000 people now follow his account.  

“I've always been a big fan of like viral tweets and great tweets,” explains Mezrahi, over the sound of his children watching cartoons in the background. “A lot of people were fed up with the meme accounts so it’s just like a good opportunity to reward creators and people.”

Samir Mezrahi, owner of @KaleSalad

I had expected Mezrahi to be a teen. In actual fact he is a father of three and an ex-Buzzfeed employee, who speaks in a calm monotone, yet is enthusiastic about sharing the best content on Twitter. Though at first sourcing original tweets for Kale Salad was hard work, people now approach Mezrahi for help.

“People still reach out to me looking for vindication and just that kind of, I don’t know, that kind of acknowledgement that they were the originals. Because all so often the meme accounts are much larger and their tweets do better than the stolen tweet.”

But just why does having a tweet stolen suck so much? In the grand scheme of things, does it matter? Did everyone just forget about the part of 2016 when literal clowns would chase people with knives in public and nobody really did anything?

Meryl O’Rourke is a comedian and writer who tweets at @MerylORourke, and now has a copyright symbol (©) after her Twitter name. In the past she has had her jokes stolen and reposted, unattributed, on Facebook and Twitter and hopes this symbol will go some way to protecting her work.

“It’s hard to explain how it felt... as a struggling writer you’re always waiting for anything that looks like recognition as it could lead to your break,” she explains. “When your work gains momentum you feel like your opportunity ran off without you.

“Twitter is a test of a writer’s skill. To spend time choosing exactly the right words to convey your meaning with no nuance or explanation, and ensure popularity and a chuckle, in the space of only 140 characters – that’s hard work.”

However, Mezrahi has found not everyone is bothered by their tweets being stolen. I found the same man I reached out to with a stolen tweet who said he didn’t want to speak to me because it felt too “first world problems” to complain. Writers like O’Rourke are naturally more annoyed than random teenagers, who Mezrahi says are normally actually pleased about the theft.

“If you go to [a teenager’s] timeline it’s always the same thing. They’re replying to all their friends saying like ‘I’m famous’, they’re retweeting the meme accounts saying like ‘I did it’… they don’t mind as much it seems. It’s kind of like a badge of honour to them.”

Sometimes, people even ask Kale Salad to unretweet their posts. College students with scholarships, in particular, might not actually want to go viral – or some viral tweets may accidentally include personal information. On the whole, however, people are grateful for his work.

Yet the Kale Salad account does have unintended consequences. Mezrahi has now been blocked by the major meme accounts that frequently steal jokes, meaning he had to create alternate accounts to view their content. But just because he can’t see them doesn’t mean they don’t see him – and he has noticed that these accounts now actually come to his profile to steal jokes he has retweeted, in a strange role-reversal.

“There are definitely times when they're picking up things that I just retweeted, like I know they're like looking at me too,” he says. “It feels like vindicated or validated that they come to me.”

Mezrahi now works in social media on a freelance basis, but would be open to making Kale Salad profitable. Earlier this year he set up an account on Patreon – a site that allows fans to pay their favourite creators. Some people didn’t approve of this, tweeting to say he is “just retweeting tweets”. So far, Mezrahi has three patrons who pay him $50 (£39) a month.

“I mean I spend a certain amount of time on this and I think it’s a pretty good service, so I've been thinking about monetisation and thought that might be a route,” he explains. He believes he is providing an important service by “amplifying” creators, and he didn’t want to make money in less transparent ways, such as by posting sponsored advertisements on his account. Yet although many online love Kale Salad, they don’t, as of yet, want to pay him.

“Twitter should buy my account because I’m doing a good thing that people like every day,” he muses.

Many might still be sceptical of the value of a joke vigilante. For those whose jokes aren’t their bread or butter, tweet theft may seem like a very minimal problem. And although it arguably is, it’s still incredibly annoying. Writing in Playboy, Rob Fee explains it best:

“How upsetting is it when you tell a joke quietly in a group of friends, then someone else says it louder and gets a huge laugh? Now imagine your friend following you every day listening for more jokes because people started throwing money at him every time he repeated what you said. Also, that friend quit his job because he made enough to live comfortably by telling your jokes louder than you can. Odds are, you’d quickly decide to find new friends.”

For now, then, Kale Salad will continue his work as the unpaid internet police. “As long as people like the service, I don’t mind doing it. If that's a year or two years or what we'll see how the account goes,” he says.

“Twitter is fun and I like the fun days on the internet and I like to help contribute to that.

“The internet is for fun and not all the sadness that’s often there.”

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

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