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Pizzagate Is not Slender Man: The Responsibility of Fiction

Pizzagate, more so than other fake new cluttering the internet, is a fine lesson in the responsibility of fiction.

The alleged perpetrator - though we have a statement from him and footage of his arrest, the fashion is to use "alleged" until a conviction in court - is 28-year-old Edgar Maddison Welch of Salisbury, North Carolina. He "stated that he had read online that the Comet restaurant was harboring child sex slaves and that he wanted to see for himself if they were there." He apparently intended to do this by pointing a rifle at an employee and firing several rounds in a crowded restaurant, becoming a much bigger and more immediate threat than the "alt-right" fairy tale or the salt and fat of the pizza.

The employee at the wrong end of the rifle was able to escape and alert the police, who managed to stop this travesty from escalating to a tragedy. No one was reported hurt - according to the complaint he "surrendered peacefully when he found no evidence that underage children were being harbored in the restaurant" - but I doubt those kids or their parents are going to be eager to go to Comet Ping Pong any time soon. Welch has been charged with assault with a dangerous weapon and says now that he regrets how he went about this.

Prior to this attack that so easily could have become a mass shooting, the owner of Comet Ping Pong, James Alefantis, and employees were repeatedly threatened on social media for running this alleged child torture factory, just a bit of semi-anonymous pre-election slander. When you are accused of a crime that sounds like a word salad of mortal sins, it is hard to take the threats with the seriousness they were apparently intended. Had it not been Welch, it seems it would have been someone and soon. It might have been a man who did not let the employee - or the children in the restaurant - escape.

This bizarre claim couldn't have been made up entirely of whole cloth, could it? So many people wouldn't be taking this so seriously if it amounted to bad fiction, right? From what I can tell, Alefantis participated in a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton's campaign. As such, he communicated with John Podesta - he of the "politically inconvenient" emails WIkileaks released, coincidentally right before the election - about his role in the fundraiser. For reason we will probably never know, the proprietor of a pizzeria repeatedly used the word "pizza," which the conspiracy theorists decided was code for "pedophilia." Then again, this same crew somehow thinks a rebranding from "Neonazi, white supremacist fascist scumbags" to "alt-right" is fooling anyone who won't be called as collaborators before the next Nuremberg Trials. The Associate Press's style guide is not confused as to what they are.

The conspiracy originated in the danker corners of the Neonazi's cesspool, where it made perfect sense that a career politician like Hillary Clinton would be engaged in satanic child molestation. I brushed against a quickly shuttered Reddit amassing the evidence, boiling down to a crossed ping pong paddles resembling a NAMBLA symbol (if you squint through a keyhole in a dark room) and the owner's Instagram playing host to occasional nude art. I discounted this as very weak fiction and had a hard time believing any of this was meant as more than an off-color joke. Pizzagate would not pass muster as creepypasta, a comparison to which we will return presently.

Does the troll who originated Pizzagate, at the bare minimum defaming a family restaurant, bear some responsibility for an armed man pointing a gun at an employee in a restaurant full of kids? Would he - I'm going out on a limb here that this was not the work of many women - have been morally culpable had the man shot someone? Surely the "author" didn't do more than weave ludicrous elements together, so I doubt it is a criminal matter (the civil courts may feel differently, but it may not be worth the cost and legitimacy to bring it there). No one told a gunman to go investigate, but neither did the fools telling cyber ghost stories almost literally to demonize the Democratic candidate for the presidency discourage him from mistaking fiction for reality.

I have heard this conspiracy referred to as a spiritual cousin of creepypasta, those shadowy bits of horror fiction lurking the internet, and have maintained this here. As such, let me be clear using creepypasta's greatest success that this is a false equivalence. Most don't think Slender Man is real. We know his exact moment of origin, on a 2009 SomethingAwful photoshop contest entry by "Victor Surge" (the nom du screen of Eric Knudsen), though his stretched out, black and white facelessness speaks to something some primal terror inside our minds. Had Knudsen not created him, it seemed a matter of time before someone else would, so eagerly did the internet denizens embrace and detail him.

Yet because of the creation of Slender Man, a preteen was stabbed nineteen times by her friends, who insisted that Slender Man would reward them for the sacrifice. They might as well claim that Freddy Krueger. Should the creator of Slender Man - or any of the literally thousands who have contributed creepypasta to his mythos - bear any of the blame for what those little girls did?

It is important to draw a line between what a character says and does and what the author actually believes. My books feature torture, but I carry spiders and crickets out of my bathtub on the regular. One of my villains was a child molester before becoming a vampire, yet I would go to great pains to keep any child from being hurt or bothered, having spent too long trying to fix those that were abused. Though I keep my books somewhat morally gray, as I do not believe anyone is pure good or evil, I try to give just deserts for those who have done harm.

I am not morally answerable to what my characters do. I may have created them, but I cannot be put on trial because someone fictional was murdered by my pen. However, do I bear some responsibility for someone playing out a violent scene in one of my books?

Whoever created this Pizzagate story - and I think it is impossible to follow the theory back to one author, for which he should be grateful - the most culpable parties are the ones sharing it as though it were true, those using it as a cudgel against their supposed enemies. The biggest culprit by far is Alex Jones, who has both a massive and loyal audience and a history of doing exactly this without evident negative repercussions. Prior to the shooting, he goaded his audience by saying he might take a week off to investigate Comet Ping Pong in person, though I have no indication he meant this as anything more than bluster. (What would this investigation entail on this part? A slice of pizza and a game of ping-pong while leering at children and trying the locked doors to find a basement that doesn't exist?)

The danger is that these theorists have a loud voice and it is one bending the ear of our president-elect loud and clear. Trump has gone on record praising Alex Jones - a man who also believes that the Sandy Hook shooting was wholly faked to take away the guns that sold much better after twenty children were murdered. Jones's show is carried by 160 stations and he had 1.8 million followers on Youtube. One would think that with this reach comes a responsibility not to inspire children to be murdered, but Jones seems not to believe this. Being complicit in what easily could have become a mass shooting (which he likely would have denied as a black flag operation to take your guns) will only improve his ratings as curiosity seekers tune in to see what the fuss is about.

That Trump, a man who has avidly retweeted conspiracy theories proffered by sixteen-year-olds, or members of his crew pay mind to Jones is not speculation on my part. Before the Republican primaries, he appeared on Jones's InfoWars and thanked his audience for their support. On Sunday, Michael Flynn Jr, the son of incoming National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, tweeted "Until #Pizzagate proven to be false, it'll remain a story. The left seems to forget #PodestaEmails and the many 'coincidences' tied to it." To Flynn the Younger, if not necessarily his father, the idea of a satanic child sex-slavery ring patronized by a political opponent seemed credible enough as a hill on which to die. (Then again, prior to the election, actual rape lawsuits and multiple accusations of sexual impropriety surrounded Trump, most of which were discounted or ignored by his supporters. We see what we want most to see and nothing else.)

Needless to say, this is not the first time that such a story has filtered through the public consciousness on its way to destroy lives. The 1980s played host to the Satanic Panic, which I would love to call the twentieth century's answer to the Salem Witch Trials, but we've had a few more before and since. In short, the Satanic Panic accused anyone within reach of conducting exotic rituals in honor of Satan, going so far as to say that three-year-olds were being impregnated and forced to sacrifice their babies on altars. That these children were never pregnant should have alerted their parents to the fact that this was not reliable testimony, but more than one person spent a decade in prison on charges that might as well have been spectral evidence.

So what, really, is the difference between Pizzagate and something like Slender Man? In a word, intention. Knudsen and almost all of the derivations thereto did not intend to inspire anyone to violence. It is tacitly understood that creepypasta is not real and should never be treated as such, no matter how fun it may be to pretend at sleepovers. Pizzagate was sloppily created to do harm, like all fake news. Though I sense a patina of a meme on top of it, though I acknowledge that the originator might have been throwing together a series of ideas onto a blender, though a fraction of those posting the story wherever they could treated it as a joke, too many of those who perpetuated this meme did so with malice. They wanted to believe that Hillary Clinton and her camp were not merely politically at odds with their candidate (though even a superficial dig would reveal that Clinton is far from left wing; in a European nation, she would be closer to right wing), they wanted her to be cartoonishly evil. I genuinely understand the impulse, having watched one-star conspiratorial Netflix documentaries that solely blamed 9/11 on George W. Bush's malfeasance. (In all likelihood, all Bush and his cronies were guilty of was political ineptitude, bad luck, and some profiting after the fact. They aren't good, but they aren't literal demons.)

Authors may not be responsible for their fiction, but we are for our lies. Slender Man, in that he was a photoshop that evolved in a myth, was never a lie. He was fiction - unnerving and potentially violent fiction, that that goes back to the dawn of humans around a campfire. Never has Knudsen claimed Slender Man had any material reality, which is why he defends his copyright to the character. Slender Man was never a lie, no matter what was done in his name. Pizzagate was never anything but a lie swallowed by the gullible and so the sin of it does fall on the shoulders of those who created and perpetuated it.

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings.

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