Pizzagate: How to Consider the Source

There has been a lot in the news about “fake. news” lately—those stories that have no basis in fact, but can have real effects upon people’s lives. (In the good old days, we used to call them “lies”).  The most current example is the notorious “pizzagate” story.  In case you’ve been living on a desert island and missed it, here’s the story in a nutshell.  John Podesta’s email accounts were hacked and released by Wikileaks. Among those emails was one to the owner of Comet Ping Pong, a popular and family-friendly D.C. pizzeria, concerning a possible fundraiser at the restaurant. (https://wikileaks.org/podesta-emails/emailid/14395).  However, instead of realizing that an email about pizza was, indeed, an email about pizza, somebody in the Twitterverse thought that this was proof of the existence of an international pedophile ring, with Hillary Clinton at its head.  In other words, he added 2 + 2 and came up with the square root of fuck all.  Under normal circumstances (remember what they were like?) this would merely be another example of how silly people can be.

However, the story spread faster than a vomit virus in a nursery, and grew in both detail and monstrosity.  There were claims that the restaurant’s logo was actually an internationally acknowledged symbol for pedophilia.  Children were allegedly abducted and abused in the basement of the restaurant—a neat trick, considering that there is no basement in the restaurant.  As the story wore on, it became more and more lurid, until an otherwise nice man from North Carolina allegedly entered the restaurant and aimed his automatic weapon at a scared shitless employee.  The customers ran out, in fear for their lives, because of the two allegedly random shots emanating from said gun or guns.  He was there, allegedly, to “self-investigate,” and, presumably, to rectify the situation on his own terms should he find any alleged victims in the alleged basement.  Happily, there were no children—tortured or otherwise– in the non-basement (http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/pizzagate-gunman-surrendered-after-finding-no-evidence-fake-conspiracy-court-n692321). Or, as he put it, “the intel on this was not 100 percent (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/07/us/edgar-welch-comet-pizza-fake-news.html ).”

As amazing as all of this is, what really shocks me is how people still believe in pizzagate.  Apparently, there are people out there who think that the gun man was a set up to fool the unwary into thinking that pizzagate was not real—rather like the faked planting of an American flag on the moon way back in ’69 (http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/conspiracy-theorists-pizzagate-shooting-false-flag-44092906). Mike Flynn Jr. managed to offend the sensibilities of the Trump transition team (no mean feat, that!) and got his ass fired for tweeting some post-gunman pizzagate nonsense (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/06/us/politics/michael-flynn-son-trump.html).

But there are still people demanding an investigation of pizzagate. And although many of them are simply (and allegedly) crazy, many of them admit to being so confused by the morass of allegations that they believe that a formal investigation is the only way to ascertain the facts of the matter.

In a way, I can sort of see their point of view.  When there are so many stories floating around on the internet, how does one tell shit from shine-o-la? How can we help these poor, benighted souls?

Well, I used to teach Critical Thinking back in the day, and what these people want to know was actually covered by the syllabus. Their unarticulated question is this: what criteria should one use to judge the validity of an individual’s claim, report, point of view, testimony, whatever? It seems to be such a daunting task, but it becomes easier to judge the validity of a claim if the source is reliable.  Happily, there is a very easy way to remember how to reasonably judge the reliability of a person making a claim:  RAVEN.

Teachers adore mnemonics, and this is a particularly useful one.  RAVEN stands for Reputation, Ability to observe, Vested interest, Expertise, and Neutrality.  It can be used to evaluate the reliability of any claim of any kind.  Also, since these criteria are reasonably related to a witness’s veracity and are objectively verifiable, they are a good guard against personal attacks based purely on ideological differences.  Using pizzagate as an example, we can see how easy it is to apply this simple tool to a real life situation without resorting to nasty ad hominem attacks.

Reputation

Reputation in this sense refers to the speaker’s reputation for honesty.  If someone has a track record of telling the truth, then it is more likely than not that she will be honest in this instance.  Conversely, if someone is a habitual lying sack of shit, then chances are she’s not being totally forthcoming in this instance.  This is not a fool-proof test, of course, since most of us are generally honest in most situations, but have also been known to tell a few whoppers in order to avoid embarrassing or difficult situations (“The dog ate my homework.”  “My, that dress certainly does something for you!” Et alia).  That is why reputation for honesty is only one of several criteria—but it is still an important one.

So, let’s look at the original posting that started pizzagate rolling. According to Buzzfeed, pizzagate started on 30 October with a tweet from David Goldberg, who in turn reposted a Facebook post by Carmen Katz (https://www.buzzfeed.com/craigsilverman/fever-swamp-election?utm_term=.goEQ8Y2mN5#.ehV7VezkMQ). Now, I don’t know David Goldberg, nor do I know Carmen Katz, so I really don’t have a basis for assessing their reputation for honesty.  Hell, I don’t even know if they actually exist, since they could be aliases. So, I’m stymied, right?

Well, not so fast.  First of all, I could, if I weren’t so damned lazy, conduct an internet search and find out whether Carmen and David exist and if they’re known for their honesty.  But, let’s face it.  I’m lazy.  Not gonna happen.  So, instead, I could argue that, since they’re unknown, then I have no basis for believing them—but then, it’s equally plausible to assume that they are honest.  It just depends on how you view human nature. However, instead of admitting defeat, I could look at the reputation for honesty of the sources they are citing.  So, let’s forget all about Dave and Car and look instead at the reputation for honesty of the people they are relying on.

But wait.  You can’t do that—both of their sources are anonymous members of the NYPD.  At least Katz and Goldberg put their names out there—absolutely nothing is known about their sources except for the fact that they belong to the NYPD.  But what part of the NYPD?  Vice?  Homicide?  Traffic? Who knows? I am therefore totally unable to assess the reputation for honesty of the person making the initial claim that Hil and Bill are implicated in a child sex ring: I am totally unable to verify the reputation for honesty of their unidentified sources.

Now, you might say that newspapers use anonymous sources all the time, so why shouldn’t Dave and Car? Well, as it happens, newspapers and other legitimate news outlets do not use anonymous sources all that often, and when they do, they are supposed to follow the ethical guidelines of their profession. (http://jea.org/home/curriculum-resources/anonsources/).  When journalists and editors rely too much on anonymous sources, they lose that most precious of journalistic assets: a reputation for truthfulness (https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/erik-wemple/wp/2016/03/15/the-new-york-times-tightens-rules-for-using-anonymous-sources/?utm_term=.259abd0fb46e).  So, unless Dave and Car can demonstrate that they underwent the stringent test that reliable news sources are supposed to use when relying on an anonymous source, I have absolutely no reason to think that these sources have a reputation for truthfulness. In that case, I think that pizzagate fails the first test of RAVEN.

Ability to See

The “ability to see” means exactly that:  was the person making the claim actually present when the event occurred? Does he or she have first-hand knowledge of the shenanigans going on in that non-existent basement?

Well, it’s kind of hard to say, since a simple look at any number of the stories that spread pizzagate will reveal that there is nobody stepping forth with first-hand knowledge about what went on.  There are lots of references to “unnamed sources,” “friends in the NYPD,” and “rumors”—but not a single name of a single witness. (https://www.buzzfeed.com/craigsilverman/fever-swamp-election?utm_term=.usM9krd6aB#.nrjPgoXY4y ). Hmmm.  Looks like a total fail on the ability to see test.

Vested Interest

The question here, basically, is whether the author of the claim has any dog in this fight.  If the answer is “yes,” then, while not a total fail, it should, at the very least, raise some eyebrows.  And the bigger the dog in the fight, the higher those eyebrows should go.  So, let’s take a look at some of the people writing about pizzagate and see if they own some dogs, shall we?

Well, for starters, according to Craig Silverman, it seems that at least two of the stories about pizzagate originated with a couple of entrepreneurial Macedonian lads.  I tried to check the links that he gave in his article, but, sadly, they had been removed.  Goodness only knows why.  If Silverman’s claim is true, then there is a clear money trail between the story and at least two of the claim makers.  The little town of Velès, Macedonia, has made quite a name for itself in the past few weeks as a result of its latest export—fake news stories that are geared to reel in gullible readers  (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/macedonian-teen-claims-trump-supporters-paid-him-60k-to-produce-fake-news-during-campaign_us_584ac403e4b0bd9c3dfc51b7).  I’m sure the Velès Chamber of Commerce must be very proud.

Some other purveyors of the story also own some nice-sized pit bulls.  For example, according to the BBC, supporters of President Erdogan of Turkey retweeted the pizzagate story in order to throw sand in the eyes of political opponents who were concerned about a genuine child abuse scandal in Turkey.  (http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-38156985; see also, http://www.dailydot.com/layer8/pizzagate-alt-right-turkey-trolls-child-abuse/).  Similarly, Alex Jones has been pushing pizzagate like nobody’s business (http://www.npr.org/2016/12/06/504590375/radio-conspiracy-theorist-claims-ear-of-trump-pushes-pizzagate-fictions), and one can only wonder whether his dogged pursuit of the story has anything to do with his ratings and resulting advertising revenues.

So, there is at least a strong indication that some of the most enthusiastic proponents of pizzagate stood to gain some benefit (monetary or political) from the story.  Given how the pizzagate gang failed R and A, I’m going to have to put the ball in their court for V:  unless they can prove that the indication is merely that, an indication of a vested interest that is utterly without substance, then I think that they have failed the vested interest test.

Expertise

If the stakes weren’t so high, I would actually find this an amusing test to apply.  There are some highly colored claims out there, and one can only wonder where the authors of these posts got their expertise in some fairly arcane subjects.  For example, how did Jared Wyand know that “pasta” stood for “little boy,” while “sauce” meant an orgy? ( https://pics.onsizzle.com/hotdog-boy-pizza-gir-cheese-ittle-girl-pasta-little-boy-6047206.png.) I would love to ask him where he got his expertise, but as of December 12, 2016, his Twitter account has been suspended.  The same goes for the “experts” who analyzed Comet Ping-Pong’s logo and decided that it was an internationally recognized symbol of pedophilia.  Happily, the New York Times and Snopes have been able to dissect the validity of these bits o’ “evidence” (as well as other claims) and since they lack any shred of reliability whatsoever, I really don’t think I need to dig much deeper.  Thanks, guys!  (http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/12/10/business/media/pizzagate.html and http://www.snopes.com/pizzagate-conspiracy/).

So, expertise?  Not so much.

Neutrality

Ideally, neutrality would come immediately after invested interest, but that’s not how you spell RAVEN.  The two ideas are linked, but they are not exactly the same.  It is possible that someone could have a financial stake in the outcome of a dispute, but still be able to render a disinterested, dispassionate decision about it.  For example, lawyers working on a contingency basis can and should give good advice to their clients.  So, even though the pizzagate purveyors didn’t do so well with the vested interest test, maybe they’ll smell like roses in this because they are totally neutral about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

Well.  That was hard to write.  Because if you look even for even the teensiest second at how the people who pushed this story regard Mrs. Clinton, you’ll see that “dispassionate” is probably the second to last word you would use to describe them.  Alex Jones is famous for saying the President Obama and Secretary Clinton are, literally, satanic (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/14/us/politics/alex-jones.html).   According to Media Bias Fact Check (an amazing source for checking the reputation for honesty and the biases of media outlets, by the way), True Pundit, another outlet for pizzagate “also currently has a very strong anti-Hillary Clinton bias.  Most articles have an anonymous author.  Simply not trustworthy https://mediabiasfactcheck.com/true-pundit/ ).”  Brietbart, which tweeted about a Podesta-pizza-handkerchief-map that was somehow proof of something, (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/12/04/fake-news-delivers-real-gunman-to-pizzeria-caught-up-in-alt-right-fake-news.html) is also rated as “highly biased towards conservative causes (https://mediabiasfactcheck.com/?s=breitbart) .”

Hardly Switzerland, wouldn’t you say?

The Verdict?

Well, put all together, it’s fairly clear that the pizzagate conspiracy was suspect from the very beginning until its sordid end.  It was a lie, a hoax, a fraud—and, but for the grace of God, could have ended in tragedy.  Tell your friends to ignore the story.  But don’t let them ignore the people who tried to get them to believe it. And remind them to use RAVEN the next time they mention a bullshit story on Breitbart.

Copyright D R Miller 2016

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One Response to “Pizzagate: How to Consider the Source”

  1. […] [4] And, Donald, just in case you or Kellyanne is reading this, here is the link.  AGAIN.  https://essayettes.wordpress.com/2016/12/13/pizzagate-how-to-consider-the-source/ […]

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