If you don’t live in DC, you probably associate Washington with national politics and all its current associated nastiness. But, believe it or not, those of us who actually live here are regular people too, just getting our kids to school, going to work and even going out for pizza once in awhile. So when a man brought a gun into one of our local restaurants this week, it kind of felt like that swirling political nastiness was suddenly knocking on our front door, carrying a rifle.
Thanks to the well-entrenched internet hoax known as Pizzagate, a man drove from North Carolina to DC, brought a gun into Comet Pizza, the Northwest pizza joint at the center of this cyber-hallucination and managed to fire off a shot before getting arrested by police. He didn’t hurt anyone, thankfully, but the episode left me and plenty of other DC residents feeling angry and frightened.
What’s especially disturbing about this episode is that it’s not just one guy. Twitter is crawling with Pizza Truthers and they’re all completely delusional. Comet Pizza and several neighboring businesses receive harassing phone calls and death threats on a daily basis. There are real consequences to a post-truth, “there’s no such thing as facts” reality, and what’s happening to this beloved local business is just one of them.
Conspiracy theories, like Pizzagate, are familiar ground for me. If you write about science controversies like GMOs, vaccines or quack medical cures, you know the internet is filled with hoaxes and misinformation. And just like Pizzagate, the consequences are real. We’ve seen a resurgence in measles and we’ve seen people die (sometimes from curable diseases) because they chose a quack “cure” over proven medical treatments.
Pizzagate is why we need skepticism. Because skepticism helps you learn to ask questions rather than buy into a crazy theory wholesale. Skepticism pushes you to insist on evidence, not some guy’s interpretation of an email. When I was a new mom, I was freaking out about pesticides on my produce and whether I could breastfeed. I thought baby swings and strollers might prevent me from bonding with my child. I saw my c-section as a source of trauma, not a lifesaving operation.
Where did I pick up most of those fears? Mostly from message boards. The Mothering.com message boards can be as dangerous and erroneous as the worst subreddit. But it wasn’t just message boards, it was also books like Naomi Wolf’s Misconceptions and Ina May Gaskin’s Guide to Childbirth. I read a ton of information but I didn’t realize how much of it was horseshit. Today it’s even worse. We’re all constantly deluged by information. So how do you know what and whom to trust?
Well, you can begin by questioning your echo chamber. I’m in plenty of Facebook groups, but I don’t treat something in my social media feed as credible until I see it demonstrated in scientific studies or hear it from multiple scientists. Of course, reading scientific studies isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time, but you can at least look to what most experts in the field are saying. Can you find a pediatrician who doesn’t follow the CDC vaccine schedule? Sure, there are a few. But most pediatricians endorse and follow those CDC guidelines. Similarly, you can trust the National Academy of Sciences conclusion that GMOs aren’t harmful to human health.
As Nathan Tempey explains in this DCist piece, there is no credible evidence behind Pizzagate. Emails about pizza or signs with a common image like a heart are not evidence of pedophilia or a sex trafficking ring. There are no accusers here and no actual accusations. No legitimate news source has said this is anything other than a crazy hoax. If you really care about child trafficking, stop investigating Pizzagate and donate to Save the Children.
I’m arguing for logic to prevail here but, let’s face it, most Pizza-truthers are probably already too far down the pizza hole. I’m afraid it’s up to the rest of us to be more vigilant in all areas of our life. Let’s look more closely at what we’re reading. Is it opinion or is it news? Are there facts and evidence cited in the piece that you can access and read for yourself? Is it from one of the questionable sites listed here?
Let’s reflect on the value of critical thinking too. Maybe take a pause from reciting the opinion running on a loop in your head and challenge yourself to see the other side. You don’t have to agree with someone in order to hear them.
With all that listening you’ll be doing, no doubt you’ll work up an appetite too. If you’re in DC, come out to support Comet Pizza this Friday. That’s where I’ll be. But please don’t bring your gun.