The Washington Post Column

What ‘cheese pizza’ means to the Internet’s conspiracy-mongers

In the past few days, there have been many excellent accounts of the armed man who showed up at Comet Ping Pong, a Washington, D.C., pizzeria, and the various con artists and purveyors of fake news who inspired him to believe he would discover a secret group of pedophiles in its nonexistent basement. But one detail, supplied by a 16-year-old of my acquaintance, has been missing from many of the “mainstream” articles: the fact that, in some of the weirder Internet forums this particular teenager frequents, “cheese pizza” — a phrase used in one of John Podesta’s leaked emails — was assumed to be code for “child pornography.”

Child pornography. Cheese pizza. Comet Ping Pong. The letters “C” and “P” seemed to establish a secret chain of connections that amazed and delighted these readers of the Podesta emails, and that seemed to tell a deep and profound story. They then looked at all references to “pizza,” sought patterns — and a conspiracy theory was born.

Bizarre though it sounds, this sort of thinking is nothing new: Since the dawn of time, the human brain has sought to make sense of the world by linking random stories into narratives, and by interpreting signs and symbols in order to find meaningful patterns. Medieval scholars combed through the Bible, looking for metaphors that would transmit God’s hidden messages. Modern literary scholars read poetry looking for coherent explanations, too.

But most of us, most of the time, suspect that we don’t have access to hidden information. We try to read the signs but we fear that we are, in Plato’s metaphor, the ordinary men who see only the shadows of truth on the wall of the cave, not the philosophers who can see the real thing. That’s why we are so fascinated by scoops and revelations. And that’s why we respond so dramatically and emotionally to information that was previously hidden: taped conversations, secret documents and, nowadays, private emails.

In fact, there was nothing remotely interesting or significant about Podesta’s emails, just as there was very little of real interest in Hillary Clinton’s emails. There were communications between political operatives. There were conversations with rich people about donating money. Sometimes the commentary was snide or vindictive; sometimes someone mentioned pizza. But the fact that it was so banal drove some of the public into a frenzy. Surely this material — reportedly hacked by Russian operatives and leaked by WikiLeaks in the dramatic weeks of an emotional election — must reveal something more than the vacation plans of Clinton staffers.

Like medieval biblical scholars, the habitués of Internet fora frantically sought secret codes, hidden meaning, deeper explanations. And they found them, hidden in words beginning with “C” and “P.”