Recently, a young father of two girls in North Carolina named Edgar Maddison Welch became enraged by a story he read on the internet. He saw it multiple times. The story said that there was a pedophile ring being run out of a pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C.
Mr. Welch took the story to heart and became upset that he did not see anyone doing anything about it. According to court papers, On December 1, 2016, he texted his girlfriend and said that he was researching “Pizzagate” and that what he read made him “sick.” In text messages with friends on or about December 2, 2016, he said: “Raiding a pedo ring, possible [sic] sacrificing the lives of a few for the lives of many;” and “Standing up against a corrupt system that kidnaps, tortures and rapes babies and children in our own backyard.”
On December 4, 2016, Mr. Welch packed a rifle, a shotgun and a revolver into his car and drove several hours to the restaurant to rescue the child sex slaves that he believed were being held there. The appearance of a man with a rifle in a restaurant terrorized the patrons and they fled as soon as they could. He roamed around the restaurant for some 45 minutes, threatened an employee and fired two or three shots, but discovered that it was just a pizza restaurant and there were no child sex slaves or evidence thereof. The police then came and arrested him.
In fact, although the story achieved wide circulation and popularity, it was completely made up. The restaurant has never been involved in any criminal activity, let alone criminal activity involving children. A dissection of the incident may be found here.
As further related in this story and interview:
"What did [Mr. Welch] think when he discovered there were no children at the pizzeria?“
The intel on this wasn’t 100 percent,” he said. However, he refused to dismiss outright the claims in the online articles, conceding only that there were no children “inside that dwelling.” He also said that child slavery was a worldwide phenomenon.
Where did he learn about the fake news involving Comet?
He said it was through word of mouth. After recently having internet service installed at his house, he was “really able to look into it.” He said that substantial evidence from a combination of sources had left him with the “impression something nefarious was happening.” He said one article on the subject led to another and then another. He said he did not like the term fake news, believing it was meant to diminish stories outside the mainstream media, which he does not completely trust. He also said he was not political. While once a registered Republican, he did not vote for Donald J. Trump. He also did not vote for Mrs. Clinton. But he is praying that Mr. Trump takes the country in the “right direction.”"
So why did this man choose to believe this fake story and terrorize a restaurant in the way he did? Interviews of people who knew him indicate that he was not terribly unusual. He had had some trouble holding down a job or figuring out where he belonged as far as a career was concerned and had been divorced. He was known to spend a lot of time on the internet and his love for the outdoors. But he was never known to be violent. So we must consider why ordinary people would act in this manner in this day and age.
Since this blog is about the application of three particular Lenses of Wisdom or modes of analysis, let's get started. Looking first through the Fractal Lens, we can see that the spread of this particular piece of fake news followed the common "viral" pathway of popularity on the internet. As described here,
"[On Oct. 30], someone tweeting under the handle @DavidGoldbergNY cited rumors that the new emails [in the Comey investigation] “point to a pedophilia ring and @HillaryClinton is at the center.” The rumor was retweeted more than 6,000 times.
The notion quickly moved to other social-media platforms, including 4chan and Reddit, mostly through anonymous or pseudonymous posts. On the far-right site Infowars, talk-show host Alex Jones repeatedly suggested that Clinton was involved in a child sex ring and that her campaign chairman, John Podesta, indulged in satanic rituals [and had dined at Comet Ping Pong]. . . .
On Nov. 7, the hashtag #pizzagate first appeared on Twitter. Over the next several weeks, it would be tweeted and retweeted hundreds or thousands of times each day.
An oddly disproportionate share of the tweets about Pizzagate appear to have come from, of all places, the Czech Republic, Cyprus and Vietnam, said Jonathan Albright, an assistant professor of media analytics at Elon University in North Carolina. In some cases, the most avid retweeters appeared to be bots, programs designed to amplify certain news and information.
“What bots are doing is really getting this thing trending on Twitter,” Albright said. “These bots are providing the online crowds that are providing legitimacy.”
Online, the more something is retweeted or otherwise shared, the more prominently it appears in social media and on sites that track “trending” news. As the bots joined ordinary Twitter users in pushing out Pizzagate-related rumors, the notion spread like wildfire."
It is now well-known that the propagation of a popular news story on the internet yields a power-law distribution, or sometimes it's cousin, the logonormal distribution. Thus, as depicted here, "The Logonormal Distribution of a Viral Post", there is often a spike and then a tailing off of interest. As another example, here is the a graph of a different post that follows more of a power-law distribution.
Whether the logonormal or power-law distribution is applicable in a particular case is often hotly debated amongst mathematicians and data analysts, going back to the disputes between Mandelbrot himself and Herbert Simon from the 1950s. If you are interested in the math and history of the debate, this paper by Michael Mitzenmacher provides a pretty good summary. It turns out that the two types of distributions tend to track each other in their "fat" parts but diverge in the tails, which is interesting but unnecessary for this discussion.
Let us consider the contexts in which these patterns appear. As noted, it is possible to observe these patterns in the context of a single post or article. But what is more interesting and has led to the development of a cottage industry, is considering the distribution of all posts, or all popular posts, to see which ones are the most viewed. Internet businesses like Buzzsumo offer a variety of analytical tools. And articles such as this one, "Why Content Goes Viral: What Analyzing 100 Million Articles Taught Us", seek to divine the magic or secret formulas for getting a post or article to "go viral". Scholarly papers such as this one from Berger and MIlkman suggest that certain emotional triggers are the best predictors of whether a story will be shared. As summarized here, there are essentially six:
The Comet Ping-Pong story certainly scored high on triggers 3-6, especially in the context of a hotly contested election. The purveyors of it were able to leverage the "surprise" factor and the "anger" factor in particular by tying it to the disclosure of Clinton-related emails.
Yet the view through the Fractal Lens shows us that even the best-positioned-to-go-viral story or post is not guaranteed to go viral or have the kind of effect that the Comet Ping Pong story had on Mr. Welch. There is still a random element that cannot be predicted. Thus, in addition to inventing stories that tag the right emotional triggers and have decent chance of being shared, a fake story factory must also truck in volume.
It is well known in sales that marketing campaigns, whether direct-mail or cold-calling or something else, will have a certain yield rate: thus, while it cannot be predicted which particular solicitations will result in sales or in the volume of resulting sales, with sufficient volume it can be predicted that a certain small percentage -- often only 1-2% -- will almost for certain have some impact. However, the amount of impact is also unpredictable. Thus, sales associates learn very quickly that to be successful, they have to pursue lots of leads. And when the books are done up at the end of the year, the power-law distribution falls out again, showing that a minority of efforts produce the lion-share of the results, both in terms of the number of customers gained and of volume of sales per customer.
So just how many fake news stories were out there this election cycle? Truth is, nobody really knows. It is speculated that there were hundreds or thousands. But the key takaway is that there were enough of them that a few of them were bound to have a significant impact on their readers, such as Mr. Welch. Thus, there was nothing particularly special about the Comet Ping Pong story -- it just happened to be the "lucky" one that had a big impact this time around.
Now looking through the Prospecting Lens, we can see how stories that appeal to the emotional triggers above also appeal to System 1 thinking, regardless of whether they happen to be true. A number of heuristics are invoked that apply both the the public at large who would share the fake story and Mr. Welch himself. For the public, these include:
COHERENT STORIES (ASSOCIATIVE COHERENCE). To make sense of the world we tell ourselves stories about what’s going on. We make associations between events, circumstances, and regular occurrences. The more these events fit into our stories the more normal they seem. Things that don’t occur as expected take us by surprise. To fit those surprises into our world we tell ourselves new stories to make them fit. We say, “Everything happens for a purpose,” “God did it,” “That person acted out of character,” or “That was so weird it can’t be random chance.” Abnormalities, anomalies, and incongruities in daily living beg for coherent explanations. Potential for error? We posit intention and agency where none exists, we confuse causality with correlation, and we make more out of coincidences than is statistically warranted.
The Comet Ping-Pong story was put together from a set of almost random coincidences that were juxtaposed to create an alternate, post-truth reality. Mention of the restaurant in an email and an Obama fundraiser in 2008 was enough to make it a place of alleged prominence with respect to Clinton and her advisors. Menu items and symbols were reinterpreted as "code words" for alleged child pornography. A picture of President Obama playing ping-pong at the White House was re-cast as an event at the restaurant. Other unrelated pictures of people and children were misappropriated to add more flavor.
So why would people buy into this? Mostly because they really wanted it to be true based on their pre-existing beliefs. Which gets us to:
CONFIRMATION BIAS. This is the tendency to search for and find confirming evidence for a belief while overlooking counter examples. “Jumping to conclusions is efficient if the conclusions are likely to be correct and the costs of an occasional mistake acceptable, and if the jump saves much time and effort. Jumping to conclusions is risky when the situation is unfamiliar, the stakes are high, and there is no time to collect more information." System 1 fills in ambiguity with automatic guesses and interpretations that fit our stories. It rarely considers other interpretations. Potential for error? We are prone to over-estimate the probability of unlikely events (irrational fears) and accept uncritically every suggestion (credulity).
And this story was accepted and shared by many -- uncritically, because it supported their pre-existing world views. Which are encapsulated by:
THE HALO EFFECT and AFFECT. The Halo Effect is the tendency to like or dislike everything about a person—including things you have not observed. Good first impressions tend to positively color later negative impressions and conversely, negative first impressions can negatively color later positive impressions. The problem with all these examples is that our intuitive judgments are impulsive, not clearly thought through, or critically examined.
AFFECT. Emotions influence judgment. People let their likes and dislikes determine their beliefs about the world. Potential for error? We can let our emotional preferences cloud our judgment and either under or over estimate risks and benefits.
The Halo Effect and Affect are particularly prominent in political seasons. All good attributes of one's favored candidate are accepted and overemphasized. All bad attributes of the opponent are magnified. But none of the information collected is examined critically to see whether and how true it is. Affect is also the reason that the six emotional triggers "work" for the propagation of stories and memes on the internet.
Mr. Welch was also directly affected by these System 1 heuristics, which ultimately led to his abortive investigation and accidental terrorism:
PRIMING. Conscious and subconscious exposure to an idea “primes” us to think about an associated idea. If we’ve been talking about food we’ll fill in the blank SO_P with a U but if we’ve been talking about cleanliness we’ll fill in the blank SO_P with an A. Things outside of our conscious awareness can influence how we think. Potential for error? We are not objective rational thinkers. Things influence our judgment, attitude, and behavior that we are not even aware of.
Even before he became aware of the Comet Ping Pong story, Mr. Welch was primed to believe in conspiracies he found on the internet. He appeared to view himself as having some kind of "mission" to save children from exploitation and said that he was really just trying to "do good" in his own way:
"He said he did not believe in conspiracy theories, but then added that the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks needed to be re-examined. He has listened to Alex Jones, whose radio show traffics in conspiracy theories and who once said that Mrs. Clinton “has personally murdered and chopped up” children. “He’s a bit eccentric,” Mr. Welch said. “He touches on some issues that are viable but goes off the deep end on some things.” Mr. Welch likes to read. A favorite is “Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul,” by John Eldredge, about masculinity in evangelical Christianity. He said he did not do drugs but drank the occasional beer. He misses his children: “They are in my thoughts every second of the day.” He said he had grown religious in the last few years. Tattooed on his back are Bible verses: “Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”"
CONFIDENCE OVER DOUBT. System 1 suppresses ambiguity and doubt by constructing coherent stories from mere scraps of data. System 2 is our inner skeptic, weighing those stories, doubting them, and suspending judgment. But because disbelief requires lots of work System 2 sometimes fails to do its job and allows us to slide into certainty. We have a bias toward believing. Because our brains are pattern recognition devices we tend to attribute causality where none exists. “When we detect what appears to be a rule, we quickly reject the idea that the process is truly random,” Potential for error? Making connections where none exists.
Mr. Welch already had a history of doing his own research on the internet and believing in connections he found, no matter how tenuous. The Comet Ping Pong story was not the first time that Mr. Welch had become enamored with believing what he found and ignoring other evidence that should cause him to doubt his conclusions.
"A few years ago, Welch told a longtime friend and former roommate, Dane Granberry, about stories he had read online describing miles of secret tunnels under the Denver airport. Welch, who had also been fascinated by conspiracy theories about the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks having been staged by the United States, had become obsessed with the tunnels idea and spent long hours reading articles, watching videos and searching for details.
“He’s into doing his own research,” Granberry said. “I don’t think he has very much faith in the media, but none of us do.” Granberry said her friend needed to see things for himself.
THEORY-INDUCED BLINDNESS. Once you have accepted a theory and used it as a tool in your thinking, it is extraordinarily difficult to notice its flaws. If you come upon an observation that does not seem to fit the model, you assume that there must be a perfectly good explanation that you are somehow missing. When the blinders fall off the previously believed error seems absurd and the real breakthrough occurs when you can’t remember why you didn’t see the obvious. Potential for error: Clinging to old paradigms that have outlived their validity.
This is ultimately what got Mr. Welch into the car with some weapons and drove him hundreds of miles to take action on his theory about Comet Ping Pong. And even after he found nothing there and was arrested and sitting in jail, he still was not willing to completely drop it.
"Mr. Welch, the father of two daughters, said he woke up Sunday morning and told his family he had some things to do. He left “Smallsbury,” a nickname for his hometown, for the 350-mile drive to Washington with the intention of giving the restaurant a “closer look” and then returning home. He wanted to “shine some light on it.” As he made his way to Washington, he felt his “heart breaking over the thought of innocent people suffering.” Once he got to the pizzeria, there was an abrupt change of plans. Mr. Welch would not say why he took a military-style assault rifle inside the restaurant and fired it. According to court documents, Mr. Welch said he had come armed to help rescue the children.
“The intel on this wasn’t 100 percent,” he said. However, he refused to dismiss outright the claims in the online articles, conceding only that there were no children “inside that dwelling.” He also said that child slavery was a worldwide phenomenon.
IGNORING FRAMES. How a problem is framed determines our choices more than purely rational considerations would imply. “The meaning of a sentence is what happens in your associative machinery while you understand it. “Reframing is effortful and System 2 is lazy." Potential for error: Thinking we make decisions in an objective bubble when in fact there are subjective factors at work about which we are unaware.
Here, Mr. Welch's frames were founded around his innate distrust of the media. This caused him to ignore boring facts that were probably true, because he associated them with being inside the "frame" of that media. Instead, he favored sensational facts that were within the frame of what he could "discover" online. There was a complete lack of critical thinking in favor of the pre-existing frames.
Finally, looking through the Mimetic Lens, we can see the ancient mechanisms at work that drive individuals to behave as they do, as well as the inevitable consequences. While Mr. Welch was certainly an accidental terrorist, the mechanism by which this incident occurred, and the probability that something like it would inevitably occur in the present environment, were no accidents.
The internet has allowed the mimetic formation of groups of people that have the same frame as Mr. Welch -- they have become so distrustful of ordinary media that they reflexively deny its validity without critical analysis. Instead, they choose to believe conspiratorial allegations, which they repeat and connect with the flimsiest of evidence, and then mimic each other's beliefs, outlooks and desires. Ironically, they create the same sort of "group think" that they claim exists in ordinary media and seek to disavow, just in reverse -- in effect a mimetic rival to the mainstream that is unmoored from reality. This is the basic manner in which societies are formed, albeit this is a virtual society where virtual or "post-truth" notions of reality can reign supreme and unchecked, creating a virtual "post-truth" nation.
Having formed a loose group of "true believers", under the right stimulus -- such as an emotional laden viral story that fits a pre-existing narrative or agenda -- we can then see the ancient mechanism of crowd formation and scapegoating in action, transmuted through the power of the internet, that we discussed in our earlier posts about crowds, here and here. We recall how it works:
First, an alleged evil is identified and the alleged perpetrators are singled out as the scapegoats. Second, the scapegoats are subjected to an onslaught of abuse. Due to the existence of social media and the internet, this can now happen very rapidly and span entire countries or regions in a short period of time, so that everyone in the crowd can participate Third, comes the culmination with the attempted elimination or expunging of the scapegoat(s).
To the outside observer, the whole spectacle seems ridiculous. Yet to the participants like Mr. Welch and the others who hounded Comet Ping Pong, the experience is deeply and emotionally meaningful at a level that is visceral. As Jonathan Haidt noted, participation in such events allows an individual to experience a form of ecstasy of becoming part of a greater whole.
In this episode, the innocent scapegoats were clearly the owners and employees of Comet Ping Pong, and even the businesses nearby. These people did not do anything wrong and did not partipate in any criminal activities whatsoever. Yet they were hounded and continue to be hounded on-line by trolls, cranks, opportunists or hacks seeking to increase click rates or notoriety, and would-be avengers like Mr. Welch. This is how the episode unfolded from the perspective of the victims -- to them, it seemed as if the world around them had gone insane:
"On the Friday before the election, [the restaurant owner] noticed something odd in his Instagram feed: a stream of comments calling him a pedophile.
Upset, [he] told some of his young employees at Comet Ping Pong about the hateful comments, and they poked around online. They found rapidly burgeoning discussions on Reddit, 4chan and Instagram about a purported child sex ring operating out of their restaurant. . . .
In the final days before the election, other shopkeepers on the block began to receive threatening phone calls and disturbing emails. Strangers from faraway places demanded to know about symbols on their shop windows or photos on their walls.
Across from Comet, at the French bistro Terasol, co-owner Sabrina Ousmaal noticed a disturbing Google review of her restaurant that alleged that Terasol, too, was involved in a plot to abuse children.
Then, more online comments appeared, focusing on a photo on Terasol’s website that showed Ousmaal and her daughter posing with Clinton, who had eaten there several years earlier. The Internet sleuths also fixated on a heart logo that appeared on the restaurant’s site as part of a fundraiser for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which Ousmaal, a cancer survivor, has supported for years.
“These maniacs thought that was a symbol of child pornography,” said her husband and business partner, Alan Moin. “It’s crazy.”
The family removed the symbol from their site, but the online comments adapted to the new reality: Terasol must be hiding something. The anonymous calls increased.
“What can we do?” Ousmaal said. “There is no basement. There is no tunnel. There is nothing.”
[The] merchants were mystified: Where was this all coming from? Can’t anyone make it stop?
The merchants approached Facebook and Twitter and asked that disparaging, fictitious comments about them be removed. The shopkeepers said the replies they got advised them to block individual users who were harassing them. . . .
On Connecticut Avenue, the hate calls and death threats kept mounting. Surely, the shopkeepers thought, this will all go away after the election. . . .
For a few days after [the election], a relative calm returned to Comet. But along the block, merchants were hearing from all manner of strange callers. At Besta Pizza, owner Abdel Hammad got an urgent message from the company that maintains his website. A reviewer alleged that his shop’s simple, pizza-shaped logo was a symbol of child pornography. Hammad, an Egyptian immigrant who voted for Trump, was stunned.
“It’s a slice of pizza,” he said.
Hammad removed the image from his site but could not afford more than $2,000 to pay for new signs out front.
“Why did you change the website?!” anonymous callers screamed at him on the phone.
“We’re going to put a bullet in your head,” one threatened.
Down the block, at Politics and Prose Bookstore, employees noticed tweets and other online posts that included them on a list of stores linked by underground tunnels that do not exist. . . .
On Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend, two men carrying protest signs showed up outside Comet. Alefantis [the owner] went outside and offered the men coffee. They declined the offer.
On the phone and online, threats poured in, with as many as 150 calls a day.
The shopkeepers approached D.C. police for help. An officer advised them that the online rumormongering was constitutionally protected speech. Ousmaal replied in an email that she respects freedom of speech but that “derogatory libelous and hateful blogs and emails should not and cannot qualify.” The officer, Anthony Baker, responded, “I don’t have anymore options to give unfortunately.”
A D.C. police statement issued Tuesday said that the department “became aware of the fictional allegations contained in the false news story last month; however, despite postings of offensive language, we did not receive reports of any specific threats. Officers advised the staff to immediately report to police any threats made against the establishment or individuals.”
How could this have gone on? Well, consider that the participants of the internet crowd of perpetrators would simply deny that they foregoing happened, or would blame the victims, because they believe that they are "doing good" in the name of the cause of protecting children, and feel empowered because it is a collective effort and they can egg one another on.
What Mr. Welch ultimately did was simply to follow on what the protestors and another "investigator" had done -- attempt to purge or eliminate the scapegoats. In doing so, he acted as the instrument of a crowd and was driven by a sense of belonging and that he was somehow "doing good", even though the actual effect was to terrorize a number of patrons and employees of the restaurant.
Perhaps the most unnerving aspect about this is that it is not unusual behavior, but erupts periodically and in fact has been going on for thousands of years.
So what can we learn from this sorry and tragic set of events? Perhaps, what the comic strip character Pogo once said in a different context: "We have met the enemy and he is us."
But more broadly, it appears that we really have not gotten a handle on the use of the internet and social media. The easy proliferation of fake news stories designed to pull on emotional strings has led us back to the oldest forms of ugly human behaviors in the form of crowd formation and scapegoating. Our challenge is to be better System 2 thinkers -- more careful, more measured and more critical of our own narratives and desires to be "part of something."
And if we want to do something positive, we might take a page from our Christian antecedents by rallying around those who have been scapegoated and unfairly victimized, and seek to uplift them. A few days after Mr. Welch was arrested, hundreds of people came out to Comet Ping Pong to have a meal and show their support and reject the scapegoating that they had endured:
"People came from all over for spots inside the huge, industrial-style space that features bare brick walls, stalactites and at least one vintage Vespa hanging from the ceiling. Patrons were unanimous in condemning Sunday’s incident, and the hoax that inspired it.
“It’s crazy. Absolutely crazy,” said Mike Kleinberg, who works nearby. “People are really disillusioned in the country. It’s bad, and there’s no reason for it.” . . .
She stood in line “in support of this establishment — and in support of the idea that we should have real news.”
“I think that it’s really a shame what’s happened to their reputation for ridiculous reasons,” said fellow Bethesda resident Jody Smith.
“The connections that people made, and the assumptions are ridiculous — loosely threaded rumors and innuendos. You can make something of anything at this point.”
D.C. resident Paul Hofford said he was standing in line “to stand up to bullies. I’ve come here for a long time, and I’m not going to let hate close this place down.”"
Thank you, Mr. Hofford. Here is an interview of the owner with more details of the scapegoating:
I have always been curious about the way the world works and the most elegant ideas for describing and explaining it. I think I have found three of them.
I was very fond of James Burke's Connections series that explored interesting intersections between ideas, and hope to create some of that magic here.