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Connecting the Dots Between Donutgate and Pizzagate

Portland-based Voodoo Doughnut has become the subject of a far-right conspiracy theory, two years after a D.C. pizza shop was similarly targeted. How and why are these specific accusations being flung at these businesses, and why now?

Ringer illustration

Last week, iconic Portland bakery Voodoo Doughnut was the subject of a devastating rumor. Online conspiracy theorists alleged that the bakery is at the center of a child sex-trafficking ring. As internet-fueled rumors increasingly do, it all began with a YouTube video. Before diving in, it’s important to note that this is a familiar story. In 2016, the internet watched in first confusion and then horror as a D.C.-area pizza shop became the target of a rumor regarding child abuse. The unraveling of the so-called Pizzagate conspiracy theories led one believer to bring a gun to the pizza shop in December 2016. Now, Voodoo Doughnut finds itself in an eerily similar position.

The trendy doughnut shop opened in 2003 as a distinctly different sort of bakery. Instead of cutesy cakes with pink frosting and sprinkles, Voodoo has menu items like the “cock ’n balls” and the “maple blazer blunt.” Much of Voodoo’s branding is dripping in double entendres: Its motto is “the magic is in the hole”; its boxes bear the quip “good things come in pink boxes.”

The original shop is located in Portland’s gritty Old Town, a bright-pink bastion amid gray buildings and grayer skies. Voodoo went from something of a punk twist on a bakery to a tourist trap. There are now multiple locations, including shops in Denver and L.A., and the store’s once grungy look has transformed into a more calculated take on the aesthetic. Lines wrap around its two buildings in Portland, the blaring pink brick becoming something of an Instagram playground for visitors.

Voodoo Doughnut is not without mild political affiliation. During the 2016 election, the shop featured donuts of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, and Voodoo owner Tres Shannon even delivered a box to Sanders’s campaign staff during their stop in Portland. As to why Voodoo didn’t make a Donald Trump donut, Shannon said: “Trump supporters like doughnuts, too. I’d love to do a Donald Trump doughnut with flames and devil eyes, but I don’t want to alienate an entire group of people.”

He might have anyway. In a video published August 4 (which has since been removed), a man named Michael Whelan explained on the conspiracy YouTube channel Lift the Veil that he recently attended an event at Shannon’s home, where he witnessed partygoers abusing children. Whelan even threw in a connection to Comet Ping Pong, the pizza shop at the center of Pizzagate, saying some employees of the pizzeria were at the Voodoo Doughnut party.

Lift the Veil, which has almost 63,000 subscribers, features videos about how the moon landing is rigged, the iPhone 7 can control your mind, and a handful of recent clips linking Macaulay Culkin to Pizzagate and now Donutgate (alternately spelled Doughnutgate). Shortly after the first Whelan interview, the story was picked up by Infowars and QAnon, the latter of which has only recently come into the collective consciousness. The New York Times explained QAnon as “an interactive conspiracy community” following the reports of Q, who claims to be a government insider whose mission is to spill government secrets. QAnon followers gather IRL and online on YouTube, 4chan, and Reddit, among other sites. It is simultaneously a disparate, tangled franchise and also an incredibly well-connected and mobilized group.

On August 10, Lift the Veil interviewed Whelan again, and both Whelan and host Nathan Stolpman spent some time distancing themselves from any political affiliation in an attempt to prove their credibility. On August 13, Lift the Veil published a call to arms to the Portland police on its Twitch channel, and the rumors began picking up steam on Twitter. The Portland police are not investigating the allegations against Voodoo. Sergeant Peter Simpson told me via email that the bureau “is aware of the information being shared on social media but at this time has not received any reports substantiating these allegations. Should an actual police report be filed, the Police Bureau would take appropriate investigative measures to follow-up on information regarding criminal activity.”

In the thick of the misinformation age, it is crucial to explore what exactly about both Pizzagate and Donutgate inflamed conspiracy theorists. For starters, Donutgate centers on child sex-trafficking and abuse. A recent Wired story explored this particular type of accusation as a viral hoax-spreading tactic: “Alleging that your enemy preys upon children is an ancient propaganda tool that’s been used by everyone from medieval Catholics to the Soviet Union. It’s a powerful indictment because it trades on fundamental human fears. It’s designed to otherize the opposition and sabotage any sympathy you might have for them. It’s a ubiquitous tactic because it works.” The allegation has been levied against politicians, pizza places, and even Tom Hanks.

Both “-gate”-suffixed hoaxes are also a product of current affairs. Conspiracy theories thrive in times of turmoil, argued professor Jim Kline, who teaches psychology at Northern Marianas College. He wrote a paper on this idea, exploring how throughout history, hoaxes have flourished in uncertain and hysteria-ridden periods—including two years ago. “During the volatile 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, a flurry of conspiracy theories erupted, aimed at demonizing the candidates,” Kline wrote. “One of the most outrageous conspiracy theories, involving child sex trafficking, ritual murder, and cannibalism, is examined to reveal its archetypal elements and relevancy to hard-wired taboos shared by all of humanity.” He is, of course, talking about Pizzagate. But he could’ve been talking about the medieval witch hunt or the early days of Christianity, two eras also plagued by what would today be labeled “fake news.”

These times can affect the psyche of conspiracy theorists and also encourage those already flirting with the idea of spreading outright lies into doing so with the intention of starting flame wars. “All of us are susceptible to believing in outrageous plots and perversions. The human brain is an insatiable maker of cause-effect connections. Magical thinking remains prevalent, encouraging individuals to make connections between events that have no cause-effect relationships,” Kline told me via email. He goes on to explain that researchers have found that people who are more susceptible to conspiracy theories are often obsessed with religion or a god or a value system. They’re also fearful of and angered by “the omnipotence of elites,” characterizing them as inhuman (reptilian, even) or capable of inhuman acts (like child abuse). Kline agreed that what’s happening with Voodoo seems to closely resemble Pizzagate. “Conspiracy theorists choose their targets by creating faulty cause-effect relationships with controversial facts,” he said. “In the case of Pizzagate, the theorists plowed through the emails of John Podesta, released by WikiLeaks, and began making faulty assumptions about what Podesta was actually referring to in some of his emails, specifically about his association with the manager of Comet Ping Pong.” Conspiracy theorists connected those references to long-standing falsehoods claiming the Clintons are pedophiles, and the new conspiracy was born. “As for #donutgate, it’s the same ‘logic,’” Kline said. “There are many similarities between the the two theories.”

Beyond the nature of the allegations, Comet Ping Pong and Voodoo Doughnut share an aesthetic and attitude. Of Comet, the educational journal Committee for Skeptical Inquiry wrote: “The place is a haven for artists, punks, gays, and other marginal groups: a tangible emblem of inclusivity, tolerance, and other progressive values that are threatening to the conspiracy-prone alt-Right.” Voodoo Doughnut shares these qualities and found itself similarly threatened. “A legend such as Pizzagate can only spread if the regressive values it reflects—nativism, racism, and xenophobia—are alive and well and resonate with a sympathetic audience.” Two years post-Pizzagate, this remains true.

Donutgate continues to live on Twitter, where some users are mocking it while others remain convinced.

As with those of Comet Ping Pong, the Yelp and Facebook pages of Voodoo Doughnut have been flooded with outraged conspiracy believers. Based on Twitter activity, Donutgate doesn’t seem like it’s yet reached the hysteria level of Pizzagate—but that doesn’t mean it won’t. Researchers from the Social Informatics Lab at Wellesley University studied Pizzagate and found that initially the story was a small hoax circulating on Twitter before a Turkish journalist elevated the news with a tweet, and then echo chambers formed to discuss it, causing it to go viral weeks after the initial rumor had first emerged. “One might wonder whether there was any skepticism during the spreading of the rumor. The answer is no, because the rumor spread in a dense echo chamber, creating a perfect environment for growing the conspiracy theory,” the researchers wrote.

Takis Metaxas, a Wellesley computer science professor who worked on the Pizzagate study, pointed out that Donutgate has the potential to grow if it likewise finds international media traction. “What made Pizzagate get bigger over time was that it was promoted by journalists outside the U.S. who wanted to believe it for their own reasons,” he said. Metaxas says it helps that so far no “trusted agent” has picked up the Donutgate story, and the fact it sounds so much like Pizzagate—something that most people now recognize as a hoax—is a factor in limiting its spread. In short time, the theory could die down just as quickly as it surfaced.