PhD candidate in Cinema and Media Studies @USCCinema. Occasional/lapsed photographer, filmmaker, actor.
This week, a conspiracy theory emerged in the fever swamps of the Internet, linking Hillary Clinton campaign manager John Podesta to a ring of pedophiles and child abusers. A satirical website titled RealTrueNews posted a story satirizing the ridiculousness of some of the arguments in this conspiracy theory. Within a day, this satirical take was picked up and reproduced in earnest, word for word, by several right-wing conspiracy theory websites. The satirical article is credited to a “Max Insider,” one of the four posters on the website. The others go by the names “Projekt Pyramid”, “#NeverEVERHillary”, and “Lex Icon”. If you are still unsure about the satirical intent from the names, you need only to take a look at their About page and recent articles for proof.
Mr. Insider’s article begins with a link to the emergent conspiracy theory on the CT forum Godlike Productions. One of the supposed pieces of evidence proving this theory is a “suspicious” email found in the Podesta cache, from a Georgetown Law student to the Georgetown Law listserv, to which Podesta is evidently connected. You can find the original email on Wikileaks, but I won’t post a link to it here, for a reason I’ll make clear in just one second. Here are its contents:
My parents are visiting this weekend, and I need to sell my enormous collection of beanie babies! I’ve approximately 480 little creatures of joy, and I’m selling each one for $20.00. You must buy all 480, though. It is a collection (not an auction)… They are very respectful and amicable with one another, and they are (for the most part) cat and dog friendly. Some are sassier than others, naturally. Please let me know! My parents can’t find out.
On the Godlike Productions forum, this email seems to have given birth to some pretty far-fetched madness, although it was (1) not written by Podesta, and (2) not even addressed to Podesta, but rather to a listserv with many subscribers who are in no way related to the Clinton campaign. A sample:
Amusingly enough, this email isn’t even new to the Internet. It was shared — presumably by one of the many other people on the Georgetown Law listserv — on Imgur, picked up by Reddit, and then featured by Internet humor site Uproxx at the end of July, 2015.
At this point, you might wonder: was the initial email earnest? Uproxx makes fun of it as if it were, because the Imgur post includes an image of the beanie babies in question. Here it is, in all its glory:
However, that image had itself been posted, in April 2014 (more than a year before the Georgetown email), by a blog titled Perfectly Ridiculous, under the headline #tbt — a nostalgic throwback to the Beanie Baby craze. I’m not sure whether this is the first version of the image, but it’s the earliest I could find through a quick search; at any rate, it shows that the Georgetown email didn’t originate it.
In that context, and given the odd description of the Beanie Babies as “cat and dog-friendly” and “sassy” in the original email, we’re pretty much forced to surmise that this was a weird joke shared a bit too widely between coworkers at Georgetown. The person posting the email on the Cringe Pics subreddit was essentially doing what the initial sender did — sharing a ridiculous photo of too many beanie babies with a community that will likely have a quick laugh at it and move on with their day. Uproxx picked up the story and showed it to their own viewers for the same reasons, making fun of the initial sender’s ridiculous language as if it were earnest, missing the high probability that the initial sender was joking about it as well. That distantiation increased the chance of laughter, but also decontextualized the image — does the pattern sound familiar?. Luckily, it at least didn’t expose the original sender, redacting the sender address in the email screenshot.
But Wikileaks, of course, does not redact, so now the identity of the sender is publicly available and being bandied about by conspiracists. I will not reproduce it here because I don’t want to add to the damage myself. But the plot thickens. Some of the conspiracists who picked up the satire from RealTrueNews wholesale and redistributed it as fact had no idea that the Beanie Baby email contained an attachment of the goods in question. The Conservative Daily Post, however, took the attachment, analyzed it, noticed that it had been posted earlier, and adapted the conspiracy to the new information: the fact that the image had been posted earlier is, to them, proof of the Georgetown sender’s malevolent intent. I am posting a screenshot of their speculation here, redacting the Georgetown sender’s name myself, because this is an absurd witch hunt and he doesn’t deserve to get his name dragged across the Internet because he once sent a joke to his co-workers. Regardless of whether you find the initial joke funny or not, this certainly goes beyond my bounds for reasonable retribution/speculation: