Alt-right websites spent the last 72 hours before the 2016 election screaming at the abyss, creating new conspiracies that “Benghazi was an inside job” and that Hillary Clinton’s campaign advisor was involved in a high-profile Portuguese kidnapping, as map forecasts showed Trump with exceedingly smaller chances of winning the presidency.
Websites like InfoWars helped give voice to a baseless conspiracy theory that appeared to equate seemingly random foods ordered in Clinton campaign advisor John Podesta’s email with code words for a child sex ring.
“Other strange emails sent to Podesta include cryptic references to ‘pizza,’ ‘hot dogs,’ ‘pasta’ and ‘walnuts,’ which are fueling speculation they are code words from criminal activity—including child molestation,” an InfoWars writer wrote.
The rumors appeared at first on Reddit’s r/The_Donald, 4chan and 8chan, and eventually found their way to prominent alt-right websites and Twitter accounts.
One of the world’s foremost conspiracy theory experts, Pitzer College professor Brian Keeley, believes that these sorts of conspiracy theories—while potentially created by true believers—often provide something wanted by anyone watching this campaign: an escape hatch to hope.
“While I do believe that calculated cynicism likely plays some role in such theories, it’s important to not overlook the idea that part of the appeal of such theories is that they often offer their believers a way to make sense of the world,” Keeley told The Daily Beast. “One thing that I believe many critics of such conspiracy theories overlook is that there is a deep sense of hope embedded in them.”
In this case, those conspiracy theories provide a coping mechanism for those who are, as Keeley said, “baffled that we’ve ended up with Clinton and Trump as the Democratic and Republican candidates for President.”
“They despair at the choice Americans are being asked to make. A conspiracy theory that claims that some nefarious group of powerful individuals is responsible for this state of affairs involves at least two hopeful elements,” said Keeley.
Those two elements? First, that the voters “aren’t culpable for the outcome.” And second?
“If a conspiracy is to blame, then this means, in principle, we can fix things by unmasking the conspiracy and re-taking control from the conspirators,” said Keeley. “If instead there is no conspiracy—if Satan, the Russians, the Illuminati, etc. are not behind it—then it looks like Americans have no one to blame but themselves.”
On Friday, The Drudge Report and Fox News host Sean Hannity attempted to tie the Clinton campaign to “Satanic rituals” because an invitation to an art performance featuring modern artist Marina Abramović showed up in Podesta’s hacked email inbox. InfoWars’ four top stories Friday night had to do with Abramović’s “Spirit Cooking” performance, which editor and founder Alex Jones believed to be proof Clinton was a Satanist and likely a literal witch.
In December of last year, Trump, who has banned journalism outlets like The Washington Post and Politico from rallies and encouraged the booing of reporters, praised InfoWars’ coverage of the campaign.
“Your reputation’s amazing. I will not let you down,” Trump told InfoWars’ Alex Jones. “You will be very, very impressed, I hope. I think we’ll be speaking a lot.”
With less than 24 hours to go before polls opened on the east coast, the third top story at the largest Trump community on the web, Reddit’s r/The_Donald, was titled “HOLY SHIT! Fox News reporting that Benghazi was an inside job: diplomats attacked by security forces hired by State.”
On 8chan, a meme circulated that claims there is “an uncanny resemblance [between] the men wanted in the abduction of Madeleine McCann” and John Podesta and his brother, Tony. McCann was three years old when she disappeared from a Portuguese apartment in 2007, a case that merited wall-to-wall tabloid coverage in the U.K., where she and her parents lived. The meme topped the subreddit /r/conspiracy for most of Monday.
Keeley said that the one thing the last 48 hours of nonstop conspiracy theorizing reminds him of is “Gish Gallop,” a “debating tactic of simply drowning your opponent in a torrent of small, interlocking arguments intended to prevent your opponent from being able to rebut your conclusions in real time.”
“So many more and more bizarre theories have been trotted out at an increasing rate that it’s hard to ‘truth squad’ it all,” said Keeley. “No sooner than you squash one that six others pop up.”
Prominent pro-Trump Twitter accounts, like @JaredWyand, spent the last week increasingly hyping a 4chan comment, reposted repeatedly, that claimed a “evidence of perhaps the largest coverup in American History” would be revealed on November 5th, stringing together documents from the “DNC, FBI, CIA and Clinton Foundation.” The meme was often accompanied with the phrase “Remember remember the 5th of November,” an allusion to Guy Fawkes Night.
That document drop, like the rest of them, appears to have never existed.