[Editor’s Note: This article is written by Kosmo, our staff writer. If you didn’t know me better, you might think I’d apply this to some other financial fraud that I often write about, but I won’t do that.]
By now, almost everyone has heard of Pizzagate. If not, here is it is in a nutshell. Someone spun up an incredible tale that Hillary Clinton and John Podesta were running a child sex-trafficking run out of pizza restaurants in the DC area. People noticed that the owner of one pizza joint had corresponded with Podesta in emails leaked by Wikileak (the restaurant owner had held some fundraisers for Hillary, hence the emails). Even more damning, the emails contained words like “pizza”, which were obvious code words for pedophilia (alternate theory: it’s a code word for “pizza”). Even in the universe of conspiracy theories, it’s pushing the envelope of credulity. Even if you believe that Hillary would be running a pedophilia ring, why would she run it out of locations that are very visible to the public? In the words of Bill Engvall, here’s your sign.
In early November, that restaurant began being targeted by conspiracy theorists, including death threats that arrived via text, Facebook, and Twitter. On December 4, a man from North Carolina walked into the restaurant with an AR-15 and fired shots. He was there to “self-investigate” the claims, since law enforcement was obviously involved in a cover-up.
Clearly, these types of conspiracy theories present a very real danger to the public – someone could easily have been seriously injured or killed as the result of a theory that was simply created out of thin air.
I believe there is also a more subtle secondary impact. Conspiracy theories allow financial fraudsters to more easily target victims. In the past, the most naïve among us had their naïveté shrouded in a cloud of relatively anonymity. Unless you interacted with a person on a fairly regular basis, you might not realize how gullible a person was. As a result, you might know who the most gullible people in your immediate social circle were, but you wouldn’t be able to pick them out of your broader circle.
The internet has changed that. I’m friends with 355 people on Facebook. Some of them I know very well; some of them I know more casually. I can scroll down my feed and look for friends/acquaintances who are sharing bizarre conspiracy theories today and make a list of names. A few days from now, I can repeat the practice. After several iterations, I can compare notes and find the names that pop up repeatedly. These are the people with a high gullibility index. If I wanted to run a Nigerian Price scheme, these would be the people I would target. Instead of casting a broad net, I could target people who had shown an inclination to believe utter [Editor’s note: bovine poop] and probably have a much higher success rate with my scams.
Naturally, I’m not actually going to do this. While I won’t claim to be a saint, my moral compass isn’t far enough askew to commit financial fraud. However, I am quite sure that there are people who would do this. In fact, I would expect professional fraudsters to start spinning up conspiracy theories for the sole purpose of serving as bait – assuming that they aren’t already doing this. They’ll set a theory loose into the wild and then track the people who share it. The moral of the story – use your critical thinking skills before sharing something. If it sounds too crazy to be true, the most likely explanation is that it simply isn’t true.