A Philosopher's Blog

Fake News III: Pizzagate

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on December 7, 2016

While fake news is often bizarre, one of the stranger fake claims is that the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria was part of a child sex ring led by Hillary Clinton. This fake story made the real news when Edgar M. Welch allegedly armed himself and went to the pizzeria to investigate the story. This  investigation led to gunfire, although no one was injured. Mr. Welch surrendered peacefully to the police after finding no evidence of the sex ring.

Given that the story had been debunked by the New York Times, Snopes, and the Washington Post, it might be wondered why someone would believe such a claim. Laying aside the debunking, it might also be wondered why anyone would believe such a seemingly absurd claim: for all her flaws, Hillary Clinton does not seem to be a person who would run a child sex ring.

Some might be tempted to dismiss people who believe fake news as fools or stupid, most likely while congratulating themselves on their own intellectual prowess. While there is no shortage of fools and everyone is stupid at least some of the time, the “people are stupid” explanation does not suffice. After all, intelligent people of all political stripes are fooled by fake news.

One reason why fake news of this sort convinces people is that it makes use of the influence of repetition. While people will tend to be skeptical of odd or implausible claims when they first encounter them, there is a psychological tendency to believe claims that are heard multiple times, especially from multiple sources. While the Nazis did not invent this technique, they did show its effectiveness as a rhetorical tool. The technique of repetition is used more benignly by teachers trying to get people to memorize things. Not surprisingly, politicians and pundits also use this method under the label of “talking points.”

This psychological tendency presumably has some value—when people are honest, things that are repeated and come from multiple sources would generally be true (or at least not deceits). The repetition method also exploits a standard method of reasoning: checking with multiple sources for confirmation. However, such confirmation requires using reliable sources that do not share the same agenda. Getting multiple fake news sites reporting the same fake story creates pseudo-confirmation which can create the illusion of plausibility. The defense against this is, of course, to have diverse sources of news and preferably at least some with very little ideological slant.  It is also useful to ask yourself this question: “although I have heard this many times, is there actual evidence it is true?”

Another reason fake news can be very convincing is that the fake news sites often engage in an active defense of their fake news. This includes using other fake sources to “confirm” their stories, attacks on the credibility of real news sources, and direct attacks on articles by real news sources that expose a fake news story. This defense creates the illusion that the fake news stories are real and that the real news stories are fake.

Some of this works through psychology: one might think that such a defense would only be mounted if there was truth there worthy of the effort. Some appeals to reason: if the real news story exposing fake news is systematically torn down step by step, this creates the illusion of a reasoned argument disproving the claim that the fake story is fake. Attempts to discredit the sources also misuses legitimate critical assessment methods—the fake news sites accuse the real sources of news of being biased, bought and so on. These are legitimate concerns when assessing a source; the problem is not the method but the fact that the claims about the real sources are also typically untrue.

Those who do not want to be duped can counter this fake news defense by the usual method of checking multiple, diverse and reliable sources. This is becoming increasingly difficult as fake news sites proliferate and grow more sophisticated.

A third reason that fake news can seem accurate is that it has supporters who use social media to defend the fake stories and attack the real news. Some of these people are honest—they believe they are saying true things. Others are aware the news is fake. Some even create fake identities to make themselves appear credible. For example, one defender of Pizzagate identified himself as “Representative Steven Smith of the 15th District of Georgia.” Georgia has only 14 districts; but most people would not know this. All these supporters create the illusion of credibility, making it difficult for people to ferret out the truth. After all, most people expect other people to be honest and get basic facts right most of the time—that is a basic social agreement and a foundation of civilization. Fake news, among its other harms, is eroding this foundation.

The defense against this is to research the sources defending a news story. If the defenders are mostly fake themselves, this would indicate that the news story might be fake. However, fake defenders do not prove the story is fake and it is easy to imagine the tactic of using fake defenders to make people feel that the real news is fake. For example, a made up radical liberal source “defending” a story might be used to try to make conservatives feel that a real news story is fake.

A fourth reason that fake news can seem accurate is that the real news has been subject to sustained attacks, mostly from the political right in the United States. Republicans have made the claim that the media is liberally biased a stock talking point, which has no doubt influenced people. Trump took it even further, accusing the news of being terrible people and liars (ironically for reporting that his lies are lies). Given the sustained attack on news, it is no wonder that many people do not regard the real news as reliable. As such, the stories that debunk the fake news are typically rejected because they are the result of liberal bias. This does, of course, make use of a legitimate method of assessing sources: if a source is biased, then it loses credibility. The problem is that rather than being merely skeptical about the mainstream media, many people reject its claims uncritically because of the alleged bias. This is not a proper application of the method—the doubt needs to be proportional to the evidence of bias.

In regards to people believing in seemingly absurd claims, there are both good and bad reasons for this. One good reason is that there are enough cases of the seemingly absurd turning out to be true. In the case of Pizzagate, people hearing about it probably had stories about Jared Fogle and Bill Cosby in mind. They probably heard stories about cases of real sex rings. Give this background, the idea that Hillary Clinton was tied to a sex-ring might seem to have some plausibility. However, the use of such background information should also be tempered by other background information, such as information about how unlikely it is that Hillary Clinton was running sex-ring out of the basement of a pizza place.

The bad reason is that people have a psychological tendency to believe what matches their ideology and existing opinions. So, people who already disliked Hillary Clinton would tend to find such stories appealing—they would feel true. Such psychological bias is hard to fight against; people take strong feelings as proof and often double down in the face of facts to the contrary. Defending against bias is probably the hardest method—it requires training and practice in being aware of how feelings are impacting the assessment of a claim and developing the ability to go into a “neutral” assessment mode.

Given that fake news is spreading like a plague, it is wise to develop defenses against it to avoid being duped, perhaps to the point where one is led to commit crimes because of lies.


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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on December 7, 2016 at 10:48 am

    There’s actually a lot more to this story than you realize. There’s been a well organized and well funded operation in place for some time now that perpetuates false narratives like Pizzagate. I’ve written a few posts about this over the past five years. Beginning with the Tucson shooting of US Rep. Gabby Gifffords and murder of US federal judge John Roll (and others) in January 2011, people online have been creating YouTube videos that supposedly decode photographs of crime scenes taken of various events (Sandy Hook, Boston, etc…). Pizzagate has been perpetuated by the same people using the same modus operandi. My own theory about this phenomenon is as follows: Government contractors are pushing this online photo analysis/interpretation. What’s been happening is that people are being paid to spend hours making YouTube videos about virtually every news event in which someone has died, and in these videos they are showing photos with arrows drawn on them pointing out supposed anomalies that supposedly reveal the event to have been staged, or, as they put it: a hoax. Well meaning people, who are already suspicious of the media/government, come home from work, get on YouTube, watch these videos, and believe they are true. These people don’t have all day to do research, nor do they have all day to make videos. They are vulnerable and actually see what they are told to see by the contractor YouTube video producers. This psychological operation has been going on, as I said, since January 2011 and it’s only getting worse, as Pizzagate shows. This operation is very sophisticated and based upon decades of psychological research. Its purpose is to plant false narratives in order to demonize, divide, and conquer the truth seekers who are researching and posting real articles about government crimes and coverups. The idea is actually quite clever, and it’s working as planned.

    • ajmacdonaldjr said, on December 7, 2016 at 11:02 am

      The operation actually began earlier, around 2007, with articles and videos about supposed 9/11 media fakery (meaning 9/11 was media fakery and not a real event). But I didn’t take note of it until the 2011 Tucson shooting.

      “In 2007, [James] Fetzer and his new partner Kevin Barrett announced that they now went even beyond the wildness stated above. They now stated that they supported the idea of TV fakery. In other words, the videos of the 9-11 event were faked.”

      Read more: The Decline and Fall of Jim Fetzer https://kennedysandking.com/john-f-kennedy-articles/the-decline-and-fall-of-jim-fetzer

      I had a 2 hour radio debate with Fetzer in 2014 about the Boston bombing, which he asserts to be a hoax: The Boston Marathon Bombing: Hoax? or Reality? Radio Debate: James Fetzer… https://youtu.be/m88DgjsfgpE

  2. TJB said, on December 7, 2016 at 12:26 pm

    A couple of points:

    1) Fake new has been around forever. If you Google “National Enquirer” and click on “images” you can see for yourself.

    2) People are right not to trust the MSM. They are highly partisan and will not pursue stories damaging to the Dems. I know Mike believes otherwise, but the evidence is overwhelming.

    3) I am suspicious about this sudden focus on “fake news.” I suspect that the people driving it want to suppress speech they disagree with.

    • WTP said, on December 7, 2016 at 2:27 pm

      TJ help me out here as I’m confused about something. When the National Enquierer reports on John Edwards philandering but the MSM ignores what is going on right under there noses, is that fake news or real news? Somewhat conversely, if you look at the link I posted last night from the 2012 GOP presidential debate where the MSM was all over a Gingrich he said/she said messy divorce gossip, was that fake news or real news?

      • TJB said, on December 7, 2016 at 3:59 pm

        Good examples of why the MSM is so deeply mistrusted.

        If you have a few minutes this video of James O’Keefe explaining how the MSM self-destructed is fantastic:

        • WTP said, on December 7, 2016 at 6:00 pm

          Another question, TJ ..was Clock Boy fake news or real news?

          • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 7, 2016 at 7:23 pm

            Was the story properly researched and were the actual facts presented? If so, real. If the authors were aware of lies as they wrote them, then fake.

            • WTP said, on December 7, 2016 at 9:52 pm

              Answer the fucking question. Yes or no. The media blew this story up without bothering to investigate any further than the point that fit the leftist narrative. They accepted his story that he “invented” a clock when any reasonable person could see what it was, a disassembled store bought clock. The Costanza defense, “it’s not a lie if you really believe it, Jerry”, is not acceptable to responsible people.

              You can play these fucking bullshit games with TJ, don’t be playing them with me.

            • TJB said, on December 7, 2016 at 10:06 pm

              Clock boy was leftist bait that the MSM gobbled whole.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 7, 2016 at 7:17 pm

        If the Enquirer vetted the story professionally and thus got it right, then it was real news.

        If MS vetted the story professionally and got it right, it would be real news. Not important news, but non-fake.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 7, 2016 at 7:22 pm

      Dude, I routinely note media bias on the part of the right (Fox) and the left (MSNBC). They are the mainstream.

      People got that those tabloids were fake; the new fake news is a different breed of fake.

      • TJB said, on December 7, 2016 at 8:23 pm

        “People got that those tabloids were fake; the new fake news is a different breed of fake.”

        Mike, why do you think that people generally don’t know the new “fake news” isn’t fake? Of course some people will believe it. I even knew someone who believed that professional wrestling was real.

    • ronster12012 said, on December 8, 2016 at 12:18 pm

      I remember reading years ago the the National Enquirer did more fact checking in the OJ Simpson case than the NYT or WaPo who accepted his testimony that he did not own or had ever worn a pair of Bruno Magli shoes linked to the murder. They actually got a cadet reporter to look for every photo of OJ wearing shoes till it was discovered that he did indeed wear them, and had lied about it under oath.


      So which is the ‘reputable’ fact checking newspaper and which is the rag?

  3. TJB said, on December 7, 2016 at 2:03 pm

    Mike, don’t you think it is time you commented on the “hands up — don’t shoot” fake news that was promulgated by the MSM?

    I am particularly interested in the riots and loss of life that this piece of fakery caused.

    Mike, you have also used “hands up–don’t shoot” in several posts.

    You really should comment on why “Pizzagate” is so much worse than “hands up — don’t shoot.”

    From the NYT:

    They were four words that became the national rallying cry of a new civil rights movement: “Hands up, don’t shoot.”

    Protesters chanted it, arms raised, in cities across the country in solidarity for Michael Brown, the black teenager who some witnesses said was surrendering when he was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo.

    The slogan was embraced by members of Congress, recording artists and football players with the St. Louis Rams.

    It inspired posters and songs, T-shirts and new advocacy groups, a powerful distillation of simmering anger over police violence and racial injustice in Ferguson and beyond.

    But in its final report this week clearing the police officer, Darren Wilson, of civil rights violations in Mr. Brown’s death, the Justice Department said it may not have happened that way. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. cast doubt on the “hands up” account even as he described Ferguson as having a racially biased police department and justice system.

    “It remains not only valid — but essential — to question how such a strong alternative version of events was able to take hold so swiftly, and be accepted so readily,” Mr. Holder said Wednesday.

    • WTP said, on December 7, 2016 at 2:20 pm

      Exactly what I’ve been saying for months.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 7, 2016 at 7:15 pm

      If the author of the report knew it was untrue and presented it as fact, then it was fake news by definition. If the author believed it was true, then found out it was not and the story was not corrected, then it became fake news.

      Rhetorical slogans seem to have a different function than making a factual claim. The slogan is used to express a sentiment about police violence, and it seems to do that. But, it could be argued that rhetorical slogans need to be factually accurate.

      Also, while I certainly value the truth, I think that the question of whether or not “Ferguson had a racially biased police department and justice system” is rather more significant than the question of whether the slogan is factually accurate.

      I’m still trying to sort out why the “hands up” thing is such a point of obsession. That is, suppose it “may not have happened that way.” What is the significance for law enforcement, race and justice?

      • TJB said, on December 7, 2016 at 8:25 pm

        “Rhetorical slogans seem to have a different function than making a factual claim.”

        Isn’t this equally true about claims of Hillary Clinton running a child sex ring?

      • WTP said, on December 7, 2016 at 9:42 pm

        Also, while I certainly value the truth, I think that the question of whether or not “Ferguson had a racially biased police department and justice system” is rather more significant than the question of whether the slogan is factually accurate.

        Which is precisely why mike only uses the “Hands up, don’t shoot” image in the context of discussing what happens in Ferguson.

        Don’t you get tired of swallowing Mike’s bullshit TJ? How often have you provided straight and honest answers and/or spoken plainly and honestly about a subject when you could have weasled as mike constantly does? Why do you do that? How often has mike shown you the courtesy of a straight and un equivocating response?

        Not sure if I asked this before, but do you have teenage children or have worked with and/or been responsible for such, TJ?

        • TJB said, on December 8, 2016 at 12:22 pm

          I have a couple of middle schoolers.

          • WTP said, on December 9, 2016 at 11:39 am

            So conversing with Mike is good training for the kind of logic you will need to be addressing shortly. Learn well, Grasshopper.

  4. ronster12012 said, on December 8, 2016 at 11:06 am


    The only reasons that we are discussing this and using the term ‘fake news'(itself a fake term because it is 1/used as a smear and 2/undefined) is that 1/ MSM is getting slowly eaten by the net 2/ the MSM is losing (or lost) credibility 3/ elite power structures are losing control of the narratives in play….so pump out the meme that they are ‘real’ news outlets and everyone else is just fake. How sad and desperate but they only have themselves to blame. If they only acted more like wikileaks and less like advertorials they would be riding high.

    Another way to look at this is the creative destruction inherent in capitalism and so the MSM are no longer required and should just go away or die or something.

    • WTP said, on December 8, 2016 at 11:29 am

      “Another way to look at this is the creative destruction inherent in capitalism and so the MSM are no longer required and should just go away or die or something.”

      Same goes for most of our academic instituions. If you don’t go to college you are uninformed, if you do go to college you are misinformed. Depending on major. YMMV.

  5. nailheadtom said, on December 8, 2016 at 11:53 am

    “Fake news” is a cousin of the normal news. Michael Crichton pointed out in 2005:

    Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect works as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward––reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

    In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story-and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read with renewed interest as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about far-off Palestine than it was about the story you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

    That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I’d point out it does not operate in other arenas of life. In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. In court, there is the legal doctrine of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all.

    But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper. When, in fact, it almost certainly isn’t. The only possible explanation for our behavior is amnesia.

    • ronster12012 said, on December 8, 2016 at 11:58 am


      “The only possible explanation for our behavior is amnesia.” Or hypnosis, ie, we are in a trance.

  6. ronster12012 said, on December 8, 2016 at 11:54 am


    “Laying aside the debunking, it might also be wondered why anyone would believe such a seemingly absurd claim: for all her flaws, Hillary Clinton does not seem to be a person who would run a child sex ring.”

    Again without reference to the veracity of the claims etc, but what would a person who ran or even participated in a child sex ring seem like? They don’t usually have ‘pedo’ stamped on their foreheads. Does Bill actually seem like a rapist? Well, what is a rapist supposed to actually seem like? There’s got to be a fallacy or three in there. So the answer is that people usually are different to what we imagine them to be therefore, the problem lies more in our own imagination than in the external world.

    As for high level pedo rings, I am sure that they exist. Marc Dutroux of Belgium, the network in the UK that the late Leon Brittan ‘lost’ the dossier detailing , even the Jeffery Epstein network. Then of course is the fact that by their very nature, ie. elite, illegal and secretive one can only guess as to how many such pedo rings actually exist.

  7. Nick Byrd said, on December 8, 2016 at 3:08 pm

    It strikes me that people interested in this fake news phenomena might also be interested in this blog about the psychology of conspiracy theory: https://conspiracypsychology.com/

    • ronster12012 said, on December 9, 2016 at 3:31 am


      I had a look at your link. Whatever they need to believe to make sense of the world and keep themselves sane. Perfect career choice too, with the approaching criminalizing of heretical opinions the four lads will be in demand. This ‘fake news’ campaign looks like it is designed to justify cracking down on wrongthink, with net censorship(at least an attempt at it) a part of it.

  8. nailheadtom said, on December 8, 2016 at 10:13 pm

    What’s the difference between “fake news” and propaganda? Which category does “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion occupy?

    Prior to and after the climax of the Branch Davidian affair Janet Reno maintained that children in the “compound” were being molested. They had no evidence of this. Was that “fake news”, propaganda or simply a lie?

    • ronster12012 said, on December 9, 2016 at 3:19 am


      “What’s the difference between “fake news” and propaganda? Which category does “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion occupy?”
      Not ‘fake news’ or propaganda but an amazingly accurate account of the history of the past century. Worth reading and reflecting on…

      “Prior to and after the climax of the Branch Davidian affair Janet Reno maintained that children in the “compound” were being molested. They had no evidence of this. Was that “fake news”, propaganda or simply a lie?”

      Perception management + bureaucratic containment

  9. Larry Sanger said, on December 10, 2016 at 12:10 am

    Yo Mike!

    For my sins, I spent a few hours in the last couple days watching videos and reading amateur analyses of Pizzagate. It does of course smell like a silly conspiracy theory. But, like any good conspiracy theory, it has some crap that keeps people looking at it.

    Unlike many educated people, and unlike you, I don’t say, “The mainstream media has pronounced judgment on this and declared it to be bullshit.” You know as well as I do that the mainstream media is perfectly capable of tanking not just a plausible story, but a completely true story, if it does not fit their narrative. So, no. If you’re going to employ your logico-philosophical skillz, let’s see your analysis of the fallacies involved in the “evidence” that the purveyors of Pizzagate. It seems to me that it would help your readers to understand how to recognize “fake news” by showing how various poor thinking allows it to propagate.

    It looks like someone has put together a summary of the “evidence” here: http://themillenniumreport.com/2016/12/massive-repository-of-indisputable-pizzagate-evidence/

    Some of the stuff is transparently trumped-up for reasons it is not hard to see. For example, someone sends an invitation to what looks like a family-and-friends get-together, saying “We plan to heat the pool, so a swim is a possibility. Bonnie will be Uber Service to transport Ruby, Emerson, and Maeve Luzzatto (11, 9, and almost 7) so you’ll have some further entertainment, and they will be in that pool for sure.” The implication is that the “entertainment” means molestation, but of course that’s idiotic; it means that friends will enjoy watching playful kids screaming in the pool, which some people (friends and family of the kids…) actually quite innocently like.

    Some of the stuff is very weird, though. There are some locutions in some of those Podesta emails that are just bizarre and cannot seem to be given any construction except by using some sort of code. “I’m dreaming about your hot dog stand in Hawaii…” “Do you think I’ll do better playing dominos on cheese than on pasta?” What’s potentially disturbing here is that, in fact, pedophiles apparently use code of this sort. (I don’t know what their source for this is. For all I know, the code symbolism is made up by the conspiracy theorists.)

    There’s a lot of extremely circumstantial stuff that is, probably, simply coincidence, such as logos resembling pedophile logos (here’s background from the Daily Mail from last April, before the emails came out: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3560069/The-symbols-pedophiles-use-signal-sordid-sexual-preferences-social-media.html).

    And then there are the frankly disgusting (to me) art preferences of Podesta and the weird and sometimes rather disturbing images that have allegedly (I didn’t bother to check) on Instagram accounts of the Rocket Pizza place (or whatever it’s called).

    Put it all together, and those of a conspiracy-theorizing mindset have an argument to the best explanation. Too many coincidences! It must be a pedophile ring!

    Just like there are too many coincidences about how the WTC collapsed. It must have been an inside job!

    …But maybe there was a pedophile ring. It’s not impossible. Maybe it was an inside job. I’m not ruling it out.

    I just don’t think it’s very likely. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

    • Larry Sanger said, on December 10, 2016 at 12:11 am

      P.S. I hope I never hear another word about this whole disgusting, depressing theory.

  10. TJB said, on December 11, 2016 at 10:11 pm

    The Reply All podcast has an excellent discussion of Pizzagate. The pedophile code is described by the FBI.

    Some of the Podesta emails do read like some sort of code.

  11. TJB said, on December 12, 2016 at 8:31 am

    I believe this was the email that jump-started the conspiracy theory:

    Hi John,

    The realtor found a handkerchief (I think it has a map that seems pizza-related. Is it yorus? They can send it if you want. I know you’re busy, so feel free not to respond if it’s not yours or you don’t want it.



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