Trigger warning: This newsletter contains mentions of sexual abuse, violence against children and suicide.
Apparently, Chrissy Teigen has been “arrested and is awaiting tribunal.” Or at least, that’s what a rando image going around on Twitter is claiming.
Since she was literally tweeting videos of her kid ignoring a pretty scary spider while this image was circulating, this is obviously not true. (And yes, I’m sure the video was not taken from jail, since jails don’t tend to look like Chrissy Teigen’s house, nor do they allow tiny John Legend lookalikes to hang around in little printed swim trunks.) But it’s just the latest addition to the Chrissy Teigen conspiracy theory canon, which has been swirling for the past several years and mostly centre on the model, TV personality and cookbook author’s supposed links to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
How did we get here?
To understand this week’s trending topic, we have to go back to 2016, when the Pizzagate conspiracy theory first popped up. In case you’ve blocked the whole thing out, Pizzagate is the false claim that politicians, celebrities and governments around the world are working together to victimize children in a far-reaching sex trafficking ring. Its unfortunate name comes from a Washington, D.C. pizzeria—Comet Ping Pong—which early proponents of the theory believed was ground zero for the fictitious ring. Apparently, this was where Hillary Clinton “murdered and chopped up and raped” children, according to Infowars host/alt-right troll Alex Jones, and where her campaign chairman, John Podesta, supposedly carried out satanic rituals.
It sounded ridiculous even then, but prior to Election Day ‘16, far-right commentators pushed the theory and, according to the Washington Post, bots from Czech Republic, Cyprus and Vietnam retweeted it into legitimacy.
The conspiracy theory continued to circulate even after Donald Trump won the presidency, which was presumably its goal. And there were real world consequences; in December 2016, a former firefighter drove from North Carolina to Washington with an AR-15 and a revolver to rescue the children he believed were hidden in tunnels beneath Comet Ping Pong. Spoiler alert: there were no children hidden in any tunnels—though that didn’t stop him from firing the weapon inside the restaurant. (He was later sentenced to four years in prison.)
Soon, the hoax evolved to encompass celebrities including Howie Mandel, Gal Gadot, Bill and Melinda Gates, Ellen, Oprah, Tom Hanks and, yes, Teigen and her husband, John Legend, who were dragged into this whole thing at the end of 2017 when Liz Crokin, a self-proclaimed author and journalist, claimed the model had shared photos of their then one-year-old daughter, Luna, alongside captions that contained hidden messages about the (again, fictitious) child sex ring. Just to be very clear on what happened here: Crokin used photos of her one-year-old baby to accuse Teigen of child abuse and pedophilia.
There are links to other recent conspiracy theories
Teigen and Legend publicly shut the rumours down and threatened legal action, but the conspiracy theory never really went away. QAnon, another far-right conspiracy theory that involves an international child sex trafficking ring, is considered an offshoot of Pizzagate. (Terrifyingly, adherents of this one are vying for political power.)
And when Jeffrey Epstein was arrested in July 2019, it became entangled with his very real crimes.
Epstein, a convicted sex offender, financier and socialite, “sexually exploited and abused dozens of minor girls at his homes in Manhattan, New York and Palm Beach, Florida, among other locations,” according to U.S. federal prosecutors. He had a plane that was nicknamed the “Lolita Express.” And he was known to associate with politicians (Donald Trump, Bill Clinton), celebrities (Bill Gates, Kevin Spacey) and royalty (Prince Andrew).
Why so many conspiracy theories revolve around child abuse
As bizarre as Pizzagate is, the news makes it seem a bit more plausible.
According to a 2019 article in The Atlantic, “allegations of pedophilia are central to some of the most widely circulated conspiracy theories on the internet today.” Partially, that’s because it’s a horrific crime, says Anna Merlan, the author of Republic of Lies. But “any sort of sexual-abuse scandal that involves powerful people is taken as proof of their basic thesis… It’s sort of a sad reality that the world is so full of rape and sexual abuse and predation of women and children that it’s possible to do this,” she told the magazine.
So, it’s not surprising that this particular conspiracy theory has reared its head again. Earlier this month, Ghislaine Maxwell, Epstein’s best friend/fixer/ex-girlfriend, was charged with six crimes, “four related to transporting minors for sexual assaults and two for perjury,” according to CBC. The news pushed his crimes back into mainstream discourse, and Teigen was soon facing a resurgence of harassment, while online home decorating retailer Wayfair was being accused of selling children on its site.
Should this change how we think about conspiracy theories?
But here’s the really fucked up thing: thousands of people are talking about child sex abuse online right now, many claiming that they are trying to save children. But when Epstein (and, for that matter, R. Kelly, Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby) were actually abusing young women, many people were willing to look the other way.
In fact, people are still looking the other way. In 2019, the New York Times reported that more than 4,500 children said they had been sexually assaulted in U.S. detention centres. And, there was “an increase in complaints while the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant families at the border was in place.” During the COVID-19 pandemic, child exploitation rose sharply as children began spending more time online. And sex trafficking is happening all the time, literally in our own neighbourhoods—yet we pay far less attention to those real-life cases than we do to conspiracy theories online.
There are lots of reasons why conspiracy theories are so popular: according to a 2016 study, they can be a way for some people to feel special, as if proponents have access to special knowledge that sets them apart from “sheeple” who believe whatever they’re told. Another study found they can provide people with explanations for otherwise random acts of violence. And, of course, they’re entertaining.
But I’m beginning to think reading about conspiracy theories—especially this type of conspiracy theory—is a bit like enjoying true crime journalism, or going down Wikipedia rabbit holes about cults and serial killers. They’re all juicy stories with twists and turns. They’re mysterious, which keeps people engaged in the narrative they’re pushing. Some of them even turn out to be true.
And none of that justifies the fact that it’s really easy to get caught up in the story and forget about who’s actually being hurt.
And Did You Hear About…
This very relevant op-ed about anti-Semitism among Black Americans. (It’s pegged to Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson’s recent Instagram posts, but in light of Nick Cannon’s anti-Semitic statements, it’s even more important.)
Writer Anne T. Donahue’s recent newsletter about rejecting hustle culture.
This NYT article about country music’s inability to actually engage with our current racial reckoning.
This super smart piece on the teen movies of the 90s and 2000s—and why there are so few being made now.
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