A series of Etsy listings for pizza have stirred up conspiracy theorists. Image by AAP Image/Julian Smith
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Why online pizza posts are a danger to democracies

Tom Wark December 28, 2023

Many Australians headed to Etsy – the online craft and gift store – for something a little different this Christmas.

But among the various handmade and vintage goodies were several strange listings.

“Cheese pizza, $3000,” read one item. “YummyYumPizza, low in stock $4000,” read another, accompanied by an image of a winking child holding a slice to her mouth.

Many will have passed it off as a bizarre, joke listing.

But within days, related posts began appearing across social media referencing child trafficking rings, global cabals and secret codes.

And while the posts have nothing to do with trafficking, cabals, ciphers or even pizza, their origins are sinister and they pose a threat to democracies, particularly the US. 

Etsy fake post
 One of the many social media posts flagging the Etsy listings. Image by Facebook 

The listings have their roots in the 2016 US presidential election campaign.

In November of that year, WikiLeaks published emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta.

One exchange involved Podesta attempting to arrange an event at an unremarkable pizzeria in Washington DC.

Conspiracy theorists began poring over the emails in the dark corners of the internet. 

The emails, they theorised, featured various code words (“cp” meaning child pornography, rather than cheese pizza) and they claimed the pizzeria was the headquarters for a child sex trafficking scheme, run by Ms Clinton and Mr Podesta.

The claims were entirely baseless but the damage was done. 

Right wing conspiracy sites like InfoWars amplified the claim, it became a common line of attack for some against Ms Clinton and a core narrative for QAnon followers.

It is impossible to gauge what – if any – impact it had on the election of Donald Trump.

But more tangible consequences came in December of 2016, when a 28-year-old strode into the DC pizzeria with an AR-15 rifle over his shoulder. 

Edgar Welch fired the semi-automatic weapon into a locked door in an attempt to uncover what he told police was a child sex-trafficking ring.

 Hillary Clinton was the subject of the original pizzagate conspiracy in 2016. Image by David Moir/AAP PHOTOS 

Jon Lewis, an extremism and terrorism expert at George Washington University, told AAP the ‘pizzagate’ conspiracy theory was entirely baseless and hugely dangerous.

“Conspiracies like these encourage the reader to build a completely alternate reality, and provide a comprehensive echo chamber of like-minded actors who will pull the reader further down the rabbit hole,” he said.

“Centring on the concept that government, mainstream media, and anyone who supports an opposing worldview is inherently evil and un-American, this creates a post-fact environment for the reader.”

The COVID-19 pandemic brought a new wave of conspiracies.

But pizzagate was revived in mid-2020 with the focus shifted to online furniture store Wayfair.

QAnon followers claimed – without any evidence – that storage cabinets on the site were being used to traffic children.

The Etsy conspiracy shares many similarities and Mr Lewis says it is no surprise it has quickly taken hold again.

“Individuals who have been true believers in these conspiracies will continue to see patterns and evidence which – despite lacking a basis in reality or fact – supports their pre-existing viewpoints,” he said. 

The Etsy conspiracy also leans into the original pizzagate claim – with AI images of winking children eating pizza accompanied by cryptic messages.

Many believers claim the FBI is on the case. 

While the agency declined to comment when contacted by AAP, Etsy said the posts posed no risk to children and were simply based on the repeatedly debunked conspiracy.

High-profile figures, including Trump’s former National Security Advisor, have circulated the claim.

AAP FactCheck, the fact-checking arm of Australian Associated Press, has discovered dozens of social media posts from Australian users spreading the baseless claims.

It would be easy to pass off this latest iteration as the harmless fantasy of cranks and cookers.

But Sheehan Kane, from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland, said the Etsy posts were a very real threat.

“Unfortunately, the QAnon conspiracy theory radicalised millions of people, and some went on to mobilise on behalf of it,” Ms Kane said. 

“From 2019 to 2021, extremists who committed ideologically-motivated crimes in the United States were linked to the QAnon conspiracy theory more than any other extremist group or movement.”

She said more than 125 extremists in START’s database of those who carried out ideologically motivated crimes between 2019 and 2021 were connected to QAnon.

With the US presidential election next year, Ms Kane said it was no surprise the conspiracy had been given a new lease of life.

But where has it come from and who continues to spread it?

Over the years it has been spread by Donald Trump’s political allies, Russian trolls, far-right activists and bots. 

Ms Kane said it was difficult to pinpoint who might be behind the Etsy listings. 

“I have seen speculations online including internet trolls trying to provoke conspiracy theorists, a potential money laundering scheme, or even a mere money-making scam,” she said. 

“Regardless of who is behind it, even if it is an elaborate joke, it has led to the circulation of baseless claims revolving around child trafficking that are quite dangerous and clearly resonating with many people.”

With Donald Trump preparing for another presidential run, the pizzagate conspiracy theory is expected to pick up steam in 2024.