This paper aims at tracing and mapping the life-cycle of a rumour, turned into a conspiracy theory and ending with an episode of extremism, known as “Pizzagate”. More specifically, I will look at the online evolution of claims that the higher echelons of the U.S. Democratic Party were involved in a child trafficking and prostitution ring using a the pizzeria as their front end. At the same time, I expect to provide some clues for the investigation of the links between marginal speech acts (e.g. conspiracy theories) and mainstream politics. “Pizzagate” was a conspiracy theory with a clear political intent, eventually falsified by a believer in a violent event. In this sense, it can provide some clues about the connection between the networking dynamics of online activists the emergence of populism and extremism, particularly in Europe and the United Staes.
The internet became the centre stage for the advancement of conspiratorial modes of thought and there is an apparent lack of understanding about the way network effects contribute to the rise and fall of conspiracy theories, populism and extremism. Like small plot devices in a larger narrative, certain rumours or fringe conspiracy theories can be fundamental to understand the backdrop against which the current political scene unfolds. This is particularly acute in a media ecosystem where online social networking plays a central role in the way information flows and public opinion is formed.
Research on online communities has consistently stressed their polarised nature. On the one side, this is just an expression of an identified tendency for like-minded people to clump. The flip side of clustering is segregation. Political, religious or racial segregation is not only a defining characteristic of the online communities, but a general social trend.
Social media networks reproduce this sect-like pattern (Guerra, Meira Jr, Cardie, & Kleinberg, 2013). Web platforms, like Facebook or Twitter, show a great deal of polarisation and clustering (Bakshy, Messing, & Adamic, 2015; Conover, 2011). This online entrenchment takes the shape of “echo-chambers” (Sunstein, 2009, p. 44), here reconceptualised as “echo-systems”, spaces marked by the internal reproduction of ideas and opinion reinforcement. Conspiracy theories are a typical by-product of echo-systems. Highly shared and minimally challenged ideas tend to thrive and resonate throughout a traditionally bounded space inhabited by like-minded individuals eager to sanction their worldviews. When challenged by outsiders, conspiracy pedlars tend to shut down from the world and entrench. However, in the last years, some echo-systems seem to have gained access to a wider audience and their signals are now being received beyond the limits of the self-secluded clusters. This seeming transition from entrenchment to encroachment is a new phenomenon in world politics.
The analysis of the #pizzagate conspiracy theory will show how echo-systems are resonating beyond their formerly bounded limits through network dynamics. At the same time, it will it will demonstrate that #pizzagate had prominent “conspiracy centrals” and a clear political intent. In this sense, it allows us to trace the connections between conspiracy theories, populism and extremism.