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How the alt-right wields and weaponises accusations of paedophilia

The psychology, history, and consequences of the extreme right accusing their political opponents of child abuse. 

In the final hours of 2017, Chrissy Teigen and John Legend were forced to deny accusations that they were part of an elite paedophile ring. The American model and her musician husband responded to tweets by Liz Crokin, a right-wing conspiracy theorist, who had collated pictures of the couple’s daughter dressed as Alice in Wonderland and a hot dog. This, alongside the fact the couple have previously been pictured with Hillary Clinton and Harvey Weinstein, prompted Crokin to tweet that the pair “run in circle with people who rape, torture & traffic kids”.

If you are confused as to how pictures of a child dressed as a storybook character and a sausage are evidence of paedophilia, you are probably not alone. In 2016, a conspiracy theory that emerged on the controversial – and notably far-right – forum 4Chan went mainstream. “Pizzagate” was the name given to the theory that members of the Democratic Party (most prominently Hillary Clinton and her campaign manager, John Podesta) ran a paedophile ring and engaged in satanic rituals. 4Channers alleged that a Washington DC pizzeria, Comet Ping Pong, was at the centre of the ring and that “cheese pizza” was a code for child porn while “hotdog” was a paedophile code word for “boy” (never mind that it was Teigen and Legend’s daughter dressed as the food item).

Many think Pizzagate ended when the internet’s most famous conspiracy theorist, Alex Jones, apologised for promoting the story a few months after a gunman fired shots inside Comet Ping Pong. In actual fact, the Pizzagate theory has grown exponentially in the last year, expanding into a whole host of accusations known as “#Pedogate”. The hashtag #FollowTheWhiteRabbit collates conspiracy theories surrounding many in the Democratic party, as well as liberal celebrities (and goes some way to explaining why an Alice in Wonderland costume is seen as suspicious). The Daily Dot notes that most who use this hashtag are pro-Trump in their Twitter handles and bios.  

Once someone is a target of those who “follow the White Rabbit” (i.e. go down a rabbit hole into perceived truths), it is remarkably easy for theorists to find “evidence” of their crimes. Crokin, for example, points out that Teigen once made a joke about witchcraft in a magazine. Anderson Cooper, an anchor at one of Trump’s most hated news sources, CNN, was pictured with a cut-out of child star Honey Boo Boo and once posted an Instagram of a gruesome looking teddy bear, so he is clearly “shopping for trafficked children to rape”. Other hashtags that collate this “evidence” include #QAnon (the nickname of a 4Channer who claims to have insider information and posts mysterious questions on the site) and #TheStorm (the idea that a storm of accusations and arrests is incoming).  

These theories notably target high-profile figures who are anti-Trump (Teigen was blocked by the president on Twitter in July). In December, actor Tom Hanks expressed – for the first time – “concerns” about Trump’s presidency. A day short of a month later, Crokin shared a tweet about Hanks “listening to people’s cell phone conversations” with a cell phone scanner, adding her own hashtags – #Qanon #followthewhiterabbit #TheStorm – to the tweet.

It is worth noting that many who spread these theories ardently believe them, with some – including Crokin – stating they themselves were victims of child sexual abuse. Some of these conspiracy theorists are clearly trying to fight for the safety of children, and have had some success (in November 2016, #Twittergate exposed accounts sharing child pornography on Twitter). Yet Crokin is a staunch defender of Roy Moore, the Republican who was accused of sexual misconduct by nine women in November 2017, one of whom was allegedly 14 years old at the time of the incident. It is clear, therefore, that online paedophilia accusations are often politically opportunistic.

The most infamous incident of a weaponised paedophilia accusation came when Mike Cernovich, a prominent alt-right social media personality, accused comedian Vic Berger of being at the centre of a paedophile ring. Cernovich and Berger had argued after the latter mocked him in a video, which resulted in Berger’s fans trolling Cernovich. Two of these fans sent Cernovich disturbing messages about his baby – Cernovich then extrapolated that because Berger had interacted with these fans on Twitter a handful of times before, he was friends with paedophiles. Berger received death threats.

Cernovich repeatedly uses accusations of paedophilia to smear the left-wing. When students at Columbia University protested the alt-right personality coming to their campus, a fake banner was planted. The protest sign read “No Mike Cernovich” and also “No pedo bashing”, and featured a logo for the “North American Man/Boy Love Association” (NAMBLA). Conspiracy theorist Paul Joseph Watson – who has been described by many as alt-right, but denies this affiliation in his Twitter bio – tweeted the picture, meaning a lie that the left-wing openly support paedophiles spread. A day later, the person who originally tweeted the photograph revealed it was right-wing counter-protesters who had planted the banner.

Robert Bartholomew, a sociologist and author of Hoaxes, Myths and Manias: Why We Need Critical Thinking tells me why accusations of paedophilia are weaponised in this way – and how they spread so far. “It’s is a powerful weapon to use against one’s political enemies because, regardless of the motivations of the accusers, the accusation alone can be enough to permanently ruin someone’s reputation,” he says. “People like John Legend and Chrissy Teigen are natural targets because they are high profile celebrities who are liberal, elite, and outspoken in their support of gender equality – like letting their daughter cross-dress and play with toys that would be considered traditionally male.”

Bartholomew says that undoubtedly many on the far-right do believe the sexual abuse claims against Legend, Teigen, and others, but this can be unconsciously politically motivated because it confirms their worldviews. In November, Legend spoke out against gender stereotyping in children’s toys and films. “This would make many on the alt-right feel nervous, if not outraged,” says Bartholomew, “I have no doubt that some ultra-conservatives actually believe the sexual abuse claims because they view what Legend and Teigen are doing as abusive and harmful and they read into things that aren’t there.

“Paedophile conspiracy theories reinforce pre-existing suspicions and provide convenient scapegoats for concerns surrounding transgender issues.”

Once a person begins to believe these theories, Bartholomew explains that human psychology means they seek out more information to fit their preconceived worldview. While this sort of moral panic has always happened – Bartholomew cites the Communist Scare and the Lavender Scare (the witch hunt of gay men and lesbians in government positions) in the 1950s – he notes that these modern panics are even “more dangerous”.

“We live in a global village with the advent of social media and instant communication.  It’s easy to make claims.  Anyone can do it.”

The number of people who have had their lives turned upside down by these accusations grows every day. One individual shares with me their experiences of being attacked online – they wish to remain anonymous so that their name appearing in the press does not provoke further attacks.

“Through an email I sent to a personal friend that was released by Wikileaks, I found myself viciously attacked by many hundreds of utter strangers via every form of communication including email, phone calls, Twitter and Facebook,” they say.

“The accusation, apparently shared with those in what I would call the ‘Hate-o-sphere’, was a total fiction and not even close to what I wrote in my leaked email. To my horror, this invented ‘report’ about me caused people (or bots?) who don’t know me to barrage me with attacks that were often vulgar, hateful, and life-threatening.

“I still wonder why do so many people attack someone they don’t know and do they have any idea they are aiding and abetting in spreading a lie, not to mention causing the recipients, me and my family, mental duress and even physical fear.”

In November, Newsweek journalist Alexander Nazaryan asked Mike Cernovich why he frequently leveraged pedophilia accusations. In an email reply, Cernovich wrote: “My belief that the left is full of pedophiles is every bit as sincere – and more supported by evidence – as the left’s belief that Trump supporters are Nazis… When people view us as evil demons, how can they be surprised when we see the worst in them, and view them as being defined by the worst acts of their members?”

It’s a self-reportedly noble motivation, and anyone who claims to be standing up against pedophilia can easily paint themselves as in the right. Yet clearly, spreading accusations of paedophilia against political opponents is not an altruistic act. But regardless of how ridiculous these accusations get –“evidence” against Teigen includes that she once used a pizza emoji alongside a picture of her daughter – they are incredibly damaging and distressing for the accused and their reputations.

Legend has it that Lyndon B. Johnson, the 36th president of the United States, once argued with an aide about what he could and couldn’t say about his political opponent. When the aide protested that the president’s accusations weren’t based in truth, he came up with a legendary, but apocryphal, retort.

“Of course it ain’t true – but I want to make the son-of-a-bitch deny it.”

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

Photo: mdl70 via Flickr
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Childhood mythology is being revamped by digital monsters like Slenderman

The stories the younger generation tell one another are just as rich, and as terrifying.

“I am the spirit of dark and lonely water, ready to trap the unwary, the show-off, the fool...”

The eldritch tones of Donald Pleasance will breathe a chilly memory along the vertebrae of those of a certain age. That 1973 public information broadcast about water safety lingers long in the memory. But why? There was something about the hooded figure depicted beside the river where children cavorted that just resonated. A shadow, a memory, a whisper. It was as if we'd almost heard it before. It wasn't just a warning. It was a story.

Before Donald Pleasance kept Britain's children from its treacherous riverbanks, we had tales of ubiquitous river-hags. Two good examples are Peg Powler, who haunts the banks of the Tees, and Jenny Green Teeth, who stalks Shropshire's waterways.  Both of these terrifying water spirits live to drag youngsters to a watery lair. These monsters pan the world, from the native Penobscot people of Maine, with their child-luring swamp-woman Skwaktemus, to the Inuit's Qalupalik, a green-skinned water witch that reaches up from below the ice to snatch wayward and disobedient children.

These stories are geographically distant but carry essentially the same message: “Stay away from the water”. Predatory creatures embody a very real fear. The unimaginable nightmare of our children in real peril is blunted by the presence of a monster.

Children need stories as much as adults do; stories make sense of reality when reality is hard to understand. Stories are told to be re-told, to be embellished, to raise heroes and to make monsters.

For people of the Dark and Lonely Water generation, including me, it's easy to assume that today's kids have lost the art of storytelling. We say social media has diffused, has numbed, has snuffed the flame of imagination. Yet perhaps it hasn't. Perhaps we just got old. On the contrary, the stories the younger generation tell each other are just as rich. Monsters are still being made. This world of ours is still being understood.

There is real danger out there. There are real monsters. But now they come in new forms, they lurk in new lairs.

Today, the internet is the new hunting ground of the monster. Grooming, trolling, cat-fishing and scamming have become the MOs of the vile in our society and, as if in direct response, legends and myths have sprung from the same place.

Creepypasta, 4Chan and /nosleep are breeding colonies of legend. Forums and social media have taken the place of the skipping-rope chants and the childhood whispers. Young people still know Bloody Mary, yet Black-Eyed Kids and the Goatman have usurped her from her throne. Nefarious rituals and games like Hooded Man or Elevator to Another World have been born of the internet age, submitted as stories and experiences. Like the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water in the 70s, they have touched a common nerve.

The most iconic of these net-dredged horrors is Slenderman: born of a paranormal Photoshop competition, his legend has transmogrified into an internet Tulpa, the power of which played a significant part in the decision of 12-year-olds Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser to stab their friend Bella Leutner 19 times. He is strengthened with every share, every fan image, every account of his being. It is no wonder that he has become flesh in the hearts and minds of those who need him, who want to escape into his world.

The readers of the forums that bear these eldritch fruits know the content isn't real. Yet disbelief is intentionally suspended. As it says on the /nosleep board guidelines “Everything is true here, even if it's not. Don't be the jerk in the movie theater [sp] hee-hawing because monkeys don't fly.”  It's disrespectful to negate the skill or the talent that it takes to write a story or make an image on Photoshop. This leaves space for storytelling. We need stories.

These stories stir something inside us, lend a bellow to the flames of our imagination. Images, anecdotes and instructions - they are monsters we have the power to control. Online, we can pass on the whispers, we have the ability to interact with the shadows. Online we can be the purveyors of this mythology. We can tell each other stories. We can control. If we make a monster, it is ours. Most importantly, we can escape from reality and immerse ourselves in our monsters.

Not just monsters lurk online, there are games and rituals, rich in their own mythology. The illicit Ouija board in the parks and graveyards of my own childhood are dwarfed by the trans-cultural crucible of today's games. With the ingenuity of Koji Suzuki's cursed video in Ring, far eastern influence and technology are pervasive throughout. Japan can boast the ghost-summoning Satoru-kun, and the White Kimono game. Both are alleged to summon spirits, Satoru-kun specifically with a mobile phone. There are many more of these games sprouting up from all over the rest of the world eg.- Mexico's ' El Juego Del Libro Rojo' (Red Book game) and Portugal's Ritual da Televisão (Television ritual) and nearly all carry grave warnings.

These nebulous games, like the internet's monsters carry their own stories. Peruse Reddit and you'll find accounts and speculation from those who claim to have played and been changed or had their lives altered by what they've done. The comments below the hundreds of accounts begging for advice are a mix of sincerity and concern.

“Dude, luck only lasts so long, and even longer less when you tempt things you know nothing of.”

“OP, you messed up big time. You're always supposed to follow the rules of the game as completely as you can!”

“You idiot! Ghost games are not for play! Especially japanese ones, they are dangerous”

“Get some sage. Burn the sage, and wave it into every corner of every room in the house... I would recommend putting salt across doorways and window sills, anything that would be an 'entry' into the house, but it sounds like you may have summoned it inside the house”

Everything is true here even if it's not.

But how can we know for sure? Do we really know that the user didn't summon something terrible from the void they opened with one of these games?

That's what makes them so compelling. That's what makes Slenderman, Smile Dog and Jeff the Killer so iconic. Like that friend of your mate's brother who went mad after he did an Ouija board down the park, we are still whispering, we are still embellishing and interacting.

The internet is open, unchartered landscape, there are no rules of the real world in which to weave mythology and the quest is to be the creator of something that wriggles from our grasp and is embraced, formed and made flesh by a collective consciousness. Are we in some way thankful for these creatures that bring us together over oceans and time zones?

Phones and tablets in the hands of our children are frightening to us: they are the unknown, the window into an abyss. Yet from that abyss, we are like our ancestors, toasting heraldry and horror, and making new myths.

Hydra by Matt Wesolowski, published by Orenda Books is out now.