Satire and Conspiracy: Partisanship, Trolling, and the Poisoning of the Public Sphere

by George Carstocea

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:

Reminder: this e-mail was not even sent to Podesta, but rather to a Georgetown Law listserv that presumably has hundreds of members


Back to the RealTrueNews website — in case you’re having trouble keeping track, this is the satirical post. It goes on from the Beanie Baby email, to the other “codes” that have been picked up by right-wing trolls, continuing to establish the conspiracist background against which it pitches its final satirical blow. The already-infamous Mike Cernovich, a pro-trump troll coordinator who was profiled in the New Yorker a few weeks agosees a drug code in the emails. Sam Adair, an anti-gaming advocate, supports his point — no one could ever play dominos for cheese, he argues, therefore there must be something sinister at work. RealTrueNews reposts Adair’s tweet alongside the perfervid “codebreak” I reproduce below, before proceeding to its satirical coup de grace.

Note the number of retweets on this

At this point, we veer into the really absurd part of the story. RealTrueNews/Max Insider has thus far simply cited some aspects of a far-fetched conspiracy theory. To satirize them, he adds his own fabricated smoking gun, highlighting the absurdity of the conspiracy. I reproduce it here in full, but go to the original post to read it if you will; I assume the satirist behind it tries to make a living off advertising revenue, and I personally find this bait-and-switch amusing. Picking up on a leaked email to Podesta, already fodder for conspiracy, in which a friend tells him that he left a handkerchief behind that might be “pizza-related,” “Max Insider” wrote the following fake email, photoshopping it to look like it was screenshotted from Wikileaks:

Don’t Let My Players See It

Kat,

That handkerchief is my sketch for Level 5 of Castle Eisendorf. Brock’s rogue is trapped in a water-chamber and Hillary’s sorcerer is almost out of spells and HP! They’re going to face a Glabrezu with 180 HP — I rolled!) and I doubt Mook’s Paladin is up for it but if he can get back together with Sid’s fucking munchkin’d Dragonborn Barbarian. High drama — Can’t wait!

I’ve got a bunch of new WhizKids figurines that I’ve custom moded. Reapers. Red Skeletons. And Pit Fiends. Gonna have the room lit with sandalwood scented candles and a couple of vintage Lava-Simplex Lava Lamps for atmosphere!

So I don’t need the map, I’ve got a scan of it — but make sure the others don’t get a look. I know Mook especially plays for *any* advantage he can get. Haha! I want to see them squirm!

Oh, and don’t worry about the pizza. I think we’re ordering Chinese tonight.

John “Killer DM” Pod

Since I first saw this post on a conspiracy theory site rather than on the satirical one, ripped from context, I was very amused by it. Even more amusing seemed the breakdown of the “code” that underlies it. For anyone who knows Dungeons & Dragons, i.e. for us nerds, this Wiki-leaked email would spell joy: Podesta and the Clinton staff are D&D players. I got so excited, that I initially just posted the conspiracist article to Facebook, laughing at the conclusions it draws from the email, and rejoicing in the nerdiness of the Clinton team. Here’s Max Insider’s “code breakdown” for your satirical, schadenfreudian pleasure:

This densely coded message is clearly the Rosetta stone to cracking this whole thing open. After frantic study, it is clear that the entire Clinton machine is involved in a satanic sex-ring operation. For example:

Players: This is all just a sick game to them. Sid is Sidney Blumenthal. Mook is her campaign director. Brock is David Brock who runs Correct the Record.

Paladin: One of foremost warriors of Charlemagne’s court (historically). Here is he clearly an enforcer. The security force if you will. Dragonborn is a reference to the Grand Dragon level of the secret society the Ku Klux Klan.

Glabrezu: A demonic name. One of the “entities” they are “communing with” (sandalwood candles are used heavily in occult seances).

Hillary’s Sorcerer: This is the high-priestess of the Satanic cult. Probably Marina Abramovic, who appears in other emails doing “Spirit Cooking,” a form of Satanic food ritual.

(note: for a sane account of the Marina Abramovic-related conspiracy referenced in this point, check out check out http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2016/11/spirit-cooking-explained-satanic-ritual-or-fun-dinner.html)

Water Chamber: An execution chamber, a drowning pool used in sacrifices. If a “Rogue” is trapped in a “water chamber” it may mean that Hillary is ready to sacrifice David Brock.

WhizKids: Reference to Nate Silver’s fearsome enforcer Harry Enten.

Killer DM: DM is “Dungeon Master” a Sadomasochistic Dominant who tortures his subjects.

Folks, this is dark and scary. It’s much, much bigger than “pizza.”

I quickly realized this seemed too funny to be earnest, looked up the Dungeon Master e-mail on Wikileaks, failed to find it, and then went back to the conspiracy theory page to see if I could track down its sources. Lo and behold, the whole thing was copied and pasted in its entirety from a satire website. Once I came to terms with the fact that Podesta plays dominos but not D&D, I realized I should get over my disappointment and write up this quick research trip into some dark recesses of the Internet.

Here are some of the conspiracy theory websites that are currently sharing Max Insider’s satire as truth. With a bit of media literacy and humor on my side, I was able to track down their ridiculous gambit and write an explainer in a few hours.


Tomorrow, the US will vote for their 44th president. Months ago, someone sent a joke e-mail to their co-workers. One of them posted it on Imgur. Uproxx picked it up, and by that point, the sender of the original e-mail was part of the joke, object of the mockery himself. When the e-mail leaked as part of the Podesta dump, right-wing conspiracy theorists took that joke and spun it into fodder for attacking John Podesta on counts of unspeakable crimes, although it was sent to a public listserv — not quite the place to use a code for shady deals. They also published the name of the original sender, essentially doxxing someone whose most egregious sin seems to have been misjudging the audience for a joke. Max Insider satirized the ridiculous conspiracies that emerged later, but his satire was added to the pile of supposed proof. Unfortunately, I do not have the time and energy to track down and/or refute every single one of the weird conspiracy theories generated from Wikileaks dumps over the past few weeks. No one does.

Even if I could, the point is precisely that these unfounded, speculative chains of signification and argumentation are surprisingly immune to reasoning and counterargument. They rely on context collapsefilter bubbles, and cyberbalkanization to bypass curatorial and journalistic standards, fostering partisan paranoia and radicalizing vulnerable swaths of the American public. Some of them have been convincingly linked to hostileor opportunistic foreign actors. As Maria Bustillos explains, they are vectors of dismediation, and their effect — whether perpetuated by the economics of clickbait or by nefarious partisan political agendas — is to destroy the possibilities of online political debate. Early academic accounts of the online public sphere, in their utopianism, missed this negative potential of new media— but it’s coming at us much faster than the speed of peer review, and it demands ad-hoc, free, accessible, shareable critique.

To be clear, I believe this is an issue that crosses partisan lines. A recent Buzzfeed study (can’t believe I’m writing this, but they are doing very good work) has shown that conspiratorial misinformation spreads through both right-wing and left-wing channels — although the particular viciousness and lack of scruples endemic to the Trump-Breitbart-(Putin) trolling-industrial complex should not be discounted.

Online viral conspiracies work by flooding the public with difficult-to-parse information and encouraging baseless speculation. They drown out legitimate critiques of the Clinton campaign and the candidate as well as positive information about them. Their goal is not well-reasoned debate or substantial, back-and-forth argument — it is to poison the well, discouraging the possibility of dialogue and radicalizing both liberals and conservatives who encounter them but don’t have the patience or the know-how to work their way through the layers of inane verbiage. They are, in one word, the reason why we desperately need trustworthy curators of the public sphere; why we must regain our faith in the Fourth Estate and develop critical practices that can restore social cohesion. Otherwise, the American demos will drown in a sea of misinformation.

This is how trolling works. This is how public opinion can be manipulated by unscrupulous actors who don’t mind taking advantage of partisan biases to advance their interests. This is why we all feel we need our privacy and context. This is why this election is going off the rails. And however tomorrow works out, this is why we need to invest in media literacy and education, and keep trolls from taking advantage of the least informed segments of our population and poisoning public discourse. Humor and comedy studies should, for this reason and many others, be an essential part of the media studies curriculum — they help build a critical skillset that is essential to the functioning of the contemporary public sphere.

Published by permission of the author

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