S1E7: The Wayfair Conspiracy - how a furniture website became the epicenter of a misinformation event about child trafficking...

Podcast published date: 

Aug 27, 2020

Michael Simeone: This is Misinfo Weekly, a somewhat weekly program about misinformation in our time. Misinfo weekly is made by the unit for Data Science and analytics at Arizona State University Library.

Today we're going to talk about conspiracy theory that concerns the Wayfair furniture company and the role that misinformation played in inflating it, making it seem important and making sure it's spread around and got people to really believe in it. Shawn, when was the first time you heard about this?


Shawn Walker: So I heard about this a little over a week ago. But this conspiracy theory has actually been floating around since about the middle of June.


Michael Simeone: It seems like a big deal. It was in the local paper. It was in BBC News. When exactly did this start?


Shawn Walker: Initially, there was a tweet on the 14th of June. Someone was searching for furniture apparently. And they pointed out that many of the pieces of furniture are listed by Wayfair and have the names of people especially the names of girls - so young girls.


Michael Simeone: Let me let me get this straight. It started, when somebody noticed that the name of the furniture was named over young girls, it didn't come from any other kind of source. Somebody had a like an epiphany as they were searching the website.


Shawn Walker: Yes, these are named after children. So then they started to allege that the furniture actually had children in them. And that this was part of a child trafficking ring. There were also issues related to some of the furniture being exorbitantly expensive. And one of the reasons why it was so expensive is because you know, that you basically receive a child in addition to the furniture.


Michael Simeone: Okay. Okay, so the allegations... So the idea is that the price is inflated, but actually paying for isn't merely a cabinet. You're paying for a human being. Yes, that's right. So it's part of the kind of ghoulish marketing using this furniture store as a front. So that, that's in June. It gets a little bit of attention. And then we're now hearing it. And the reason we're podcasting about it now is because Twitter has kind of exploded around this idea of this Wayfair conspiracy. There's a lot of different Facebook interactions going on around this Wayfair conspiracy. It made it all the way to, to our local papers about this particular conspiracy. We have influencers or social media influencers in Arizona playing a big role or drawing attention to this. How did we get there?


Shawn Walker: As we said, the 14th there's this initial post proposing these allegations that more expensive pieces of furniture are connected to this.  And then around July 9 or so, some folks started posting this to Reddit to the conspiracy subreddit. And then that's when it started to gain legs and this happened within especially QAnon followers on Reddit and moved from the conspiracy on subreddit and slowly went to like Ask Reddit some state Reddit other Reddit so basically moved outside of the conspiracy community into less sort of conspiracy areas more politics and then started to receive some news coverage and then from there it just exploded. Okay and so this is how we get to this couple in Scottsdale who did a 40 minute Instagram Live video all about this particular conspiracy. How many total views did it get? I know it got well over a quarter million but the video has been taken down. This person we're talking about, they have about currently about 50,000 followers on Instagram and they're connected with some companies that have been on you know, morning TV shows like The Today Show and other things for in the makeup and cosmetics.


Michael Simeone: Yeah, so this is so these aren't the only social media influencers who made a splash on Instagram by talking about this particular conspiracy, but it's it's kind of seems like the the way that we jumped into the main stream was people reading this stuff on Reddit. And then all of a sudden it goes viral on Instagram. And then we've got stuff going on on Facebook and Twitter. I feel like Twitter has been a through line through this all the way. Do you feel like there's any kind of sequence here in platforms? Or did it all kind of build momentum together across many different platforms.


Shawn Walker: So you have the initial post in the middle of June, on Twitter, nothing really happens, that doesn't go far. Then we move to Reddit. And that starts to move around Reddit. And around that same time, it moves outside of Reddit to Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, but there's also news coverage. So we have this interaction effect. And I posit that if we didn't have any news coverage of the allegations, then these rumors about Wayfair would not have gone so far.


Michael Simeone: Yeah, July 15th, is when we get some of the news coverage. But this feels like or this article that I'm looking at in particular seems like it's kind of after the fact.


Shawn Walker: Well, there's some initial, initial news coverage is actually the following day. So we July 9th, is when we have these posts to our conspiracy, the subreddit. And then we have a couple of news articles on the 10th, that start to pick it up, then a group of sort of less prominent, smaller outlets pick up those and amplify, like the Newsweek articles and others, and then it starts to get picked up by the larger mainstream media in general and is amplified that way.


Michael Simeone: Yeah, and hashtag on Twitter as pedogate, and really just looking at after the 9th is at least when the Twitter activity really takes off like a lot of outrage, like I'm looking at some of these tweets. And, you know, things like, I'm sure nothing is substantiated yet, but there's too many connections here for Wayfair to act like this isn't a problem, hashtag QAnon. I'm actually nauseous over this, is another comment. I started typing in the names on these $10,000 pillows coincidence that every single one of them matches the name of a missing girl. So talk to me a little bit  about why people are trying out the names of. You mean on the Wayfair site? Why are people constantly searching the names of women is it because they feel like they're going to be able to reproduce what happened all the way back in June?


Shawn Walker: It seems like a method that they're trying to connect the names of missing women to these products. So we can find a one to one relationship between products and women that have been exploited or gone missing or in human trafficking circles. So then we can say, look, this is actually happening, because now we have evidence.


Michael Simeone: This is kind of remarkable, though, if you believe it, right. So if on June 14th, someone said, I searched the names of these people, I believe it. It's a big deal. You should care too. And then you have some people get on Instagram and talk about it and say their peace. It's kind of remarkable that people feel the need to go there and try it out for themselves. And that's how they kind of get tied into this.


Shawn Walker: Yeah, because if you go back all the way to the initial, some of the initial tweets, or even some in July, that they're saying, you know, Wayfair wtf is this? You cannot tell me this isn't  child sex trafficking, the same $500 cabinet posted over and over again, with different little girl names for $15,000? Is this how they're getting the platform to buy children in 2020? Explain. So there's not a lot of evidence in these accusations. So by searching, you're trying to find those connections, and then kind of show proof. So to say this allegation is actually legitimate, but then there are lots of connections or themes to like a Comic Ping Pong incident during the 2016 election, which it was saying that Hillary Clinton along with staff members that worked with her were operating a human sex trafficking ring in the basement of a pizza parlor called Comic Ping Pong in Washington, DC. So this is a similar theme that continues to run through many of the QAnon theories, and it's a very righteous theme that we can connect, you know, for the children. So that that has, has a pull to that, then can people get sucked into it? So they want to investigate? Like, is this really a thing? Let's go to the site, let's put in a child's name. Oh, my gosh, something comes up. That must be true. Yeah.


Michael Simeone: Yeah, yeah. But there's a participatory factor to this that is very remarkable, in that in order to, to really cement your belief or your support in this, you go to the website and you try it out. And you see for yourself, and that's, that's proof enough. And even you know, when interviewed, the couple in Scottsdale, right, some of their comments about this, I found to be very striking, you know, along the lines of what you were saying. They're quoted, there is not one person in the world who can tell me, this is not true right now. And this cannot be stated false until it is proven false. So the way that they're going into this website is kind of just looking for reinforcement for something that they already believe. And it's supercharged by that moral righteousness that you're talking about, about needing to save the kids.


Shawn Walker: And you see those same narrative tropes throughout the content that's posted on Instagram, where there's this idea, you can't possibly debunk this without a thorough investigation. So any website that says that this is not true and believes what Wayfair is saying, then you shouldn't trust them for anything. So now they're actually using this as a tool to then debunk entire classes of the news media as well as fact checking websites in general saying, you have to spend months investigating this rather than going, actually, this is pretty preposterous, here's, here's a lot of mountain of evidence that this isn't true. And they're like, no, it's going to take a deep investigation.


Michael Simeone: Yeah, and there's more there than just matching the names of women who supposedly are missing. Actually, somebody a journalist in Arizona did a little trick where he tried to see if he could replicate the results. And then I went back to the Wayfair site. I'm on it right now just trying to search any human name and it will return some kind of results. There's always going to be some kind of high end products. That's the way that their store works. There's always high end products and in a lot of different categories that go by a lot of different names. It's easy to reproduce this idea of associating a person's name with a very expensive furniture item.


Shawn Walker:   And a lot of these names are fairly generic. You know, if we look at how common names are in the United States, then of course, children's names are going to pop up. Wayfair is pretty pervasive in naming their furniture after sort of people are sort of generic children's names. So that's, you know, these are really spurious connections, but then you get sort of sucked in by these gaps that you can then fill in. So these vacuums that you fill in with what you're interested in, or what issue pulls on to you. And then now you've been sucked into this conspiracy theory.


Michael Simeone: And speaking of one of those gaps, right, there's where I was going before with saying that it's more than just associating names and furniture. We've got books that some of this furniture, you know, allegedly was staged with, and these books are about human trafficking or different kinds of brutal things being done to people. So in the Wayfair staging of it, it looks like there's these books that are kind of virtue signaling. 

This person cares about justice. This person is very worldly. They care about current events. But just now, right? There's thousands of tweets and retweets going on today, trying to make some hay out of the presence of some of these texts, and how it is some kind of very subtle signal to Wayfair customers that, again, what they're really into is human trafficking. They're really into pedophilia. And they're really into brutal organ harvesting, and other kinds of ghoulish activities.


Shawn Walker: And you see, in addition to the books, they're also trying to find symbolism in where the books are on the shelf in the different, the covers, other kinds of things. So, in many ways, you know, we can see this as a bit of like grasping at straws, or, when we discussed QAnon in some previous episodes, is that we're taking these sort of separate pieces, sticking them together into one story and then letting someone make their connections between any pieces of those, and therefore this must be true.


Michael Simeone: Yeah, it's, it smacks me as pretty easy or even ergonomic to put the pieces together when you know your cause is so just and so urgent. And you already know that you're right. That puts you in a position where recognizing patterns or manufacturing patterns becomes, you know, that that can happen pretty quick.


Shawn Walker: And this isn't saying that human trafficking is a horrific issue that, you know, we need to put a lot of effort into addressing that issue. But Wayfair is not connected to human trafficking. This has been debunked by a multitude of organizations across the political spectrum. So this is a bit of a distraction. So there's a bit of an irony in this that this is such a sensitive issue, but is this kind of rumor campaign or conspiracy theory is treating it in such a cheap way. 


Michael Simeone: And it's important to make distinctions here. You know, we've heard a couple times at least, about this idea that this is really just an example of people being in quarantine and having too much time on the internet. And we know that the literature indicates that being on the internet for a while does make you vulnerable for, for misinformation, or to be misinformed. But also the discussion so far and leading up to this indicates to us that, you know, I don't think that this is just an instance of having too much time on your hands.


Shawn Walker: No, because this went through traditional communities that traffic in misinformation to their specific QAnon  communities and accounts, anti vaxxers and influencers with a history of propagating mis and disinformation. So this actually went through  these traditional channels, like the conspiracy subreddits, like anti vaxxer subreddits. And so this isn't just a bunch of new folks that haven't been involved in conspiracies in the past automatically just kind of found this because they just have more time on the internet. This went through a pretty tried and tested and true process that we've seen before.


Michael Simeone: I think there's a creative aspect going on to the need to be right about something, I think, is that there's a that's something so urgent as child trafficking feels like it is so important, morally - right? And it's gruesome and terrible. But then, you know, it feels like it matters, right? So there's this idea that believing in these conspiracy theories and having these conspiracies actually require your participation, it helps your perspective and your activity matter. And so the idea that somehow this is just people with too much time on their hands, I think that's a little short sighted, right? As you mentioned, it goes to the typical channels, but it also elevates your position. It makes you important, we're in a really pitched kind of partisan environment right now. People really are literally screaming at each other about their different points of view. We're in all kinds of different kind of moral and kind of justice related crises. This idea that suddenly you can tap into something that's right and true. And that your detective work can actually help put the pieces together that has to be really appealing and helps accelerate some of these things along these channels that you were mentioning.


Shawn Walker: Yes, these claims then seem at least superficially credible. And then it makes it easier for them to be redistributed.


Michael Simeone: Yeah, it kind of reminds me of, of a cyber attack in a sort of way, you know, you can have a denial of service attack where a bunch of people go to a site, you know, bots really and then disable that site. We've heard of that. But this this seems like an interesting kind of human computer cyber attack thing. Maybe a crazy theory, but just this idea that we could take any site and point it out and say okay, everybody, I think this site is a front for, insert whatever kind of horrifying activity that you want, harvesting people's organs, any kind of human trafficking, Satan worship, right all these things are actually in the in the purview of QAnon conspiracy theory, but we could think of any terrible thing right. But if I want to say go to the Lowe's website, and here's my suspicion that they're covering up these terrible things. And if you get thousands of people to do it, they're going to come up with some meaning they're going to be very creative and create a new story around your website and what it is that you're doing.


Shawn Walker: It's also the timing is slightly interesting. In that a lot of folks are at home. A lot of folks are ordering furniture. So this is probably a really poor time for Wayfair to be involved in the conspiracy theory and receive all of this bad press and have to handle that because a lot of folks are ordering furniture a lot of folks are redecorating because people are hunkering down for the sort of long stay at home period of Coronavirus for the foreseeable future.


Michael Simeone: Yeah. And they become the victim of some mashup of a cyber attack and a fiction writers workshop on the scale of thousands of writers all using like Twitter,  Reddit and Instagram.


Shawn Walker: So instead of a denial of service attack, it's a denial of reality attack you mean? 


Michael Simeone: Ya, a denial of reality attack.What we are seeing is a kind of collective storytelling, does resemble some of the conventions of science fiction, in that you're trying to take whatever pieces of reality that you're able to observe, your internet browser, or whatever, and then use those as the base facts to spin into some other kind of projection. That seems to make sense, based on what you think the rules are.


Shawn Walker: So in a way, we could also describe this as a collective sense making where there's this initial seeding of the conspiracy theory and then the community collaborates to co create and scaffold in support of the conspiracy theory that's been hatched.


Michael Simeone: Yeah. But what makes this a little different, I'm with you on the collective sense making, but what are they making sense of? Exactly? So you know, a lot of conspiracy theories are trying to make sense of what's going on in politics or other kinds of events which are difficult to explain. Unless you have access to a power bureaucracy, what are we trying to explain with the Wayfair conspiracy?


Shawn Walker: Is it about explanation? I mean, is it is it maybe more about bringing people into the QAnon fold, and this is when I would argue sort of apolitical in a way out method to do that, because this is about children. This isn't about public policy. This isn't about Trump, or Biden, or anything else. This is this is a hook that is somewhat universal.


Michael Simeone: Okay, so I take your point that maybe we're not the sense making we're doing is we're trying to use this as a way to validate QAnon, or some of the conspiracy theories that make up QAnon. So this is really just a validation exercise for other kinds of beliefs.


Shawn Walker: And then as we recruit folks into this fold, and spread this information, so now we have these pathways that are open, and then we can continue to use those pathways for future conspiracy theories. And I mean, if we look at this almost through an information operations lens; and I'm not saying that this this isn't about a state actor doing these types of things. But these are similar sort of tactics of bringing folks into a fold. And then those become pathways that can be utilized in the future, because they're part of your, your community. And there's also ways to sort of solidify these traditional communities of QAnon, anti vaxxers and traditional influencers that are spreading mis and disinformation.


Michael Simeone: It definitely is a distributed attack of some kind on Wayfair. Like it wouldn't be surprising. It's it's certainly unsurprising how effective it is. When you get this many people making up stories about this digital storefront and a brand. You know, I would think, though, that it is a little political, only in the sense that QAnon is already a political thing. Because in QAnon the Clintons and Obama are part of some of these super secret, nefarious circles.


Shawn Walker: That commit all these different kinds of atrocities. So even the co-occurrence of the hashtags Obamagate and QAnon are all over this Wayfair stuff. So if you look at the timing, at least sort of an initial look at the initial release of this conspiracy didn't include that. And then the more political content gets layered on top.


Michael Simeone: You don't think that, I mean, that's that's an interesting development. You don't think that the initial investigation, investigation of the Wayfair site way back in June you don't think that was motivated? I guess it's impossible for us to know. But you're you're kind of maintaining that it's possible that somebody wasn't really fishing for validation of QAnon but then suddenly, people picked it up and use it as validation for QAnon?


Shawn Walker: No, what I'm saying is that the initial posts were less political. The initial posts you don't see you know what are considered by QAnon like left wing celebrities. The Obamas the Clintons, you don't see those connections initially. So if you enter the rumor sort of pathways if you even enter this rumor community, because you've been pulled in, because you're concerned about sex trafficking, those initial posts that are that were created in June and the initial posts in July, don't contain that content. And then that gets layered on over time, is what I've been seeing. Does that make sense?


Michael Simeone: So maybe implicitly political at the start only in the sense that if it's somebody hunting for QAnon theories, then we already know that they're probably going to be supporting President Trump, just by nature of the QAnon world. Maybe they weren't QAnon followers. I take your point. But either way, I don't know if it's ever possible for us to know exactly what the person's motivations were for, for doing this way back in June. But no matter what, what it is now, is  an intensely political manifestation of people kind of sharing and inventing misinformation by piecemeal, right? Anytime somebody goes to wayfair.com, types in a name, sees that piece of furniture, tweets about it and puts it on the same hashtag. They're now co writing that misinformation campaign, right?


Shawn Walker: And I didn't mean that this contents is apolitical. This is a way that we can look at the content keeps shifting with every iteration. So you then see layers added. So we have the initial sort of base conspiracy theory, in that here's Wayfair, this is expensive, this has girls names. This must be about child sex trafficking. And then with every iteration of the rumor, then there's now new layers. So if you look at the more recent content, you start to see connections to the Clintons, you start to see proposed connections to the Obamas to Ellen DeGeneres who has been brought into this conspiracy theory. So with every iteration, more layers of the sort of conspiracy onion get piled on top of the initial base root.


Michael Simeone: Yeah, and I'm thinking about scale at this point, right? So I'm convinced by your kind of generational explanation of this. Scale wise, you know, we're looking at, you know, we talked about that Instagram live feed where we got over a quarter million people viewing it. And then we'll never know because it was deleted. We've got tens of thousands of tweets about this, that are available through the keyhole that the Twitter Search API allows right now. Or at least from me on my account at home. How many Facebook interactions are we talking about?


Shawn Walker: So looking at this today on the 17th, there's some work by platforms like Twitter and Facebook and Instagram to remove some of this content. So we're seeing some of the rumored contents already been removed, but what's still accessible in the last 30 days, but most of this contents in the last since July 9, we have about 19,000 posts that are receiving one and a half million interactions, so interactions would be commenting, liking, sharing on Facebook. So we see 20,000 post ish, about 1.5 million interactions on Instagram, we see about 3300 posts with a little over 7 million interactions.


Michael Simeone: Yes, so it's impossible to know exactly how many of those were in support or not in support of this. But that appears to be a really big deal.


Shawn Walker: We do have information about those posts that are performing well. So basically those posts that have received the most interactions, the majority of those posts are in port of this conspiracy. There are sprinkled within this, there are human and child trafficking organizations. So organizations that try to prevent trafficking and try to help those that have experienced that. So these are anti trafficking organizations. So we see spattered between these conspiracy theories are these other organizations saying we don't know about  Wayfair, that's not the point. Let's talk about the problems of human trafficking and use this as an opportunity to educate and to stop the spread of human trafficking.


Michael Simeone: Now I see. So I feel like in some ways, experts and advocates are trying to do what they can with the situation in the sense that hopefully this can call attention to something terrible without stoking the credibility, or really enhancing the credibility of something that's gotten, gotten out of control.


Shawn Walker: Yes. And we also see content going back a bit, bit to your discussion of, you know, truth, and we don't know if the truth yet is that we're still seeing posts that are circulating that are saying, you know, these are just allegations the allegations have been investigated, but you know, they have been, you know, they've been debunked by a plethora of news organizations. So, you know, this is kind of over, but this continues to circulate because of the veracity of the claims.


Michael Simeone: It goes back to that, you know, that line from the Scottsdale couple, this cannot be stated false until it is proven false. That is permission to believe it forever. And, you know, I don't think it's controversial to think that many people participating in this conspiracy, feel very similarly, is that you have to prove it's wrong. Because the truth is so outrageous. So if we have all these terrible things happening, we're in a panic, we have to prove it wrong. Otherwise, we have to believe it, because how could we not believe it? Because it's so terrible. The cost for not believing it is so high. And so how do we have evidence that's commiserate with what they believe is the high cost and the veracity, the hyperbole of the claims in a way? Yeah, yeah. Like the one thing that the misinformation has has done is inflate the stakes of investigating the Wayfair Furniture Company, for sure.


Shawn Walker: You know, the downside for Wayfair I know that you know, there is the saying that any publicity is good publicity. Not necessarily sure in this case except this right. Yeah. Except for human trafficking. That's the claim allegations. That's the asterick, especially child trafficking claims is that there's no good way for Wayfair out of this. I mean, they just have to wait for basically this to settle. I guess there's a question of the folks that are propagating these rumors would they have purchased from Wayfair anyway, but you know, there's there's not a good way for  Wayfair to get out of this except for just waiting it out.


Michael Simeone: Yeah, either that or pay some influencers to start talking about Walmart instead. Actually went on the Walmart website and found a couple of the books that were causing a big deal on the Wayfair conspiracy scene. The same books were being staged in some of the Walmart furniture, it could be proof that Walmart is on the conspiracy too or people who staged furniture tend to have a really limited selection of books that they're using. Interestingly enough, the QAnon conspiracy,or the QAnon message boards just lit up today. So after being dark for about two weeks, a lot of messaging about the Coronavirus and the Steele Dossier, but absolutely nothing about the Wayfair furniture controversy.


Shawn Walker: So are you going to make the reposit that the Wayfair allegations and conspiracy theory now we're on the downslope to this basically dying out? 


Michael Simeone: One thing that I think is interesting about this is that it helps us understand the relationship between conspiracies like QAnon and misinformation. That the messages from  Q are not some kind of font of information. And it's not just a set of marching orders. A lot of this does look like marching orders. And I think people treat it that way. But that's not all it is. People are able to make up stories on their own power, participate in stories on their own power and using their own resources and time. And so this really does have a life of its own. It is capable of sustaining itself in the absence of specific instructions or even any messages at all.


Shawn Walker: So in a way, they're like their own ecosystems where, but some of that leaks out. So if there's no new drops from Q, then I guess that you could say that the followers of Q start to investigate some of their own rumors and conspiracies. Yeah, exactly.


Michael Simeone: It resembles fan fiction and a lot of ways because the conspiracy invites people to do their own research to check their own stuff. But to proceed as if they are already right. It could be a very generative approach for basically writing your own part of this bigger story. And I think that's what we see in this Wayfair case where people go to the website, they're looking at all different kinds of furniture with people's names, they're cross referencing that with you know, people who are missing and then making up stories about that, it really is a co authored conspiracy theory such that even when the kind of source or one of the supposed sources of some of these pieces of information isn't even explicitly referencing this stuff, it can still be part of the same basic mythology. Let's go back to the scale for a second, we talked about hundreds of thousands if not reaching into the millions of interactions across different platforms. And a whole lot of it was in support. And we talked about why that's significant, because we see misinformation, having such a key role in making sure this really explodes as a story. But the petition circulating around Twitter asking people to petition the White House to demand to stop this human trafficking from Wayfair. Do you want to guess how many signatures that petition has on it right now?


Shawn Walker: Well actually I know, but about 3000 or something is that right.


Michael Simeone: 3300. So that's a pretty big difference, millions of interactions and only 3400 signatures. How do you account for something like that?


Shawn Walker: That there's so many?


Michael Simeone: There's so many social media interactions, but if you were to just look at this, if you if we were evaluating petitions and looking at this, I would say, no one's really taking this very seriously yet this media story seems to tell seems to have a different account. 


Shawn Walker:  Well, I there are kind of two things that are going on, one, this is the problem that political that organizations, social movements, even commercial organizations have is the conversion factor. So converting someone from your interactions on social media, so you interact with them, they follow you, they like your content, they post it, they comment, for example. And then now you want them to do something outside of that sphere, social media, purchase a product, sign a petition, participate in a protest movement, and I'm not equating this conspiracy theory with those movements. But the conspiracy theory has some of this similar attributes where we want to take the energy that we've created in some of these social media spaces, and then have that turn into action outside of those spaces. So that's where we have this high attrition, so we might have thousands and tens of thousands of posts, millions of interactions, but that doesn't convert very well outside of those communities to get people to do different types of activities. The other is how many of these are genuine actors, versus how many of these are social media posts or interactions are being amplified by, you know, multiple accounts, by sock puppets, by bots, and other types of actors?


Michael Simeone: Yeah, and I think to that last point, I took a glance at some of the meta bot monitoring service to see what the activity was for Wayfair. And you saw some not as much as say, the President of the United States, but some bot activity around the hashtag for Wayfair. And that that Twitter account for Wayfair.  Back to your point about it being very difficult to go from, you know, social media activity to action in the in the real world. I think it doesn't help that for this particular flavor of conspiracy and misinformation. It's that detective work that actually is the important stuff. Because all of this is framed as an information war in the first place. So just by getting the information out there, you're doing your job, you don't have to show up anywhere, you don't have to make any change in the government. Your job is to go to war with the media.


Shawn Walker: I mean, it's also a problem outside of social media places. I mean, if you're in a club, and you go to that meeting, now they want you to do something outside of that meeting, then there are very few number of folks that are willing to do that. So in some ways, maybe if we consider, you know, QAnon followers, as a bit of a social group, and they want to interact with each other. They want to like you're saying, this sort of hunt, this a bit of a spar or war with a media, if you want to call it that. That's the activity that they're there for.  They're not there to sign petitions, and necessarily make changes in the government.


Michael Simeone: I guess on several levels, right. A petition doesn't make any sense of your job as information warfare. Why would you sign a petition? If you don't trust the government? Why would you sign a petition? If you're a really large, disorganized group of folks, it's going to be hard to go from talk to action. All those things add up to the fact that of course, we have millions of people on social media and only a couple thousand signing a petition.


Shawn Walker: And you also have to share personal information on the petition? So there's a another conversion there is that you have to give your name, you have to give your email address, and that's different than your handle, whatever you're using to participate in the QAnon community.


Michael Simeone: So this is, this seems almost like a Pizzagate for furniture. I know the parallel isn't perfect. But it's an example of people getting really fixated on something, monitoring it in their own way, and then coming up with stories and misinformation that tend to spread and be appealing and encourage other people to do the same.


Shawn Walker: In some ways, this looks like a sort of replay of that same scenario, but now applied to a furniture company. And many of the same players that were accused during Comic Ping Pong and the Pizzagate conspiracy theory.


Michael Simeone: Yeah. Well, well, where do you think this all goes? Do you think in a week people are going to care about this at all? Or do you think this is still going to have legs for people in seven days?


Shawn Walker: I think in the wider community, so mainstream media, folks that don't follow QAnon, I think this is going to die out. In the QAnon communities, which right now are actually becoming more mainstream. So we have, as we've discussed previously, we have more and more politicians that are following open followers of Q.


Michael Simeone: Yeah, I mean, I had a comment a couple weeks ago how you can't go into Costco and buy QAnon apparel. However, I learned that you can go to amazon.com and buy plenty of QAnon apparel.


Shawn Walker: Just you have to wait for enough QAnon members to petition Costco I guess.


Michael Simeone: Yeah, although they're bad at petitioning but you were on your were on a thread about where all this stuff could be going?


Shawn Walker: Well, I think this will continue to circulate. I mean, because conspiracy theories never really die out. They're a bit of sort of asymptotic, right, where they approach it many times they approach zero, but there's still someone circulating someone researching that. And it's kind of waiting for the moment for that conspiracy theory to then connect to something that's happening or have an opening, and then let it re-emerge.


Michael Simeone: This goes in the archives as a reference that helps validate some of this stuff, but it might not be as hot as it was this week.


Shawn Walker: Yeah, and so until that sort of the rerun of the story becomes something that might be popular. It doesn't really play again, but it does stick around in the archives, like you're saying. Okay.


Michael Simeone: Well, I wonder if we can learn anything from this that would make us feel good about the world.


Shawn Walker: Like no.


Michael Simeone: This is, I feel like this is all darkness.  If it calls attention to and allows advocates of, for stopping human trafficking and brings more visibility to that issue, I suppose that is certainly a silver lining. It is just a little strange, to say the least, that this is how we have to get there.


Shawn Walker:  A bit of  a dark silver lining, which I mean,  it could be a potential opportunity to raise awareness for human trafficking. And we see evidence of anti human trafficking organizations trying to use this as an opportunity to educate the public about the issue. So as you know, newsmedia members of newsmedia call these organizations to ask about these claims. They're like, whoa, Wayfair, doesn't matter. We're not going to touch that. That's that's someone else's issue. But let's actually talk about human trafficking. So that's, that's a possibility. I think there are much more efficient ways for us to bring up the issues of human trafficking. But at least these organizations can use the situation in some of these hyperbolic claims and conspiracy theories for good.


Michael Simeone: Yeah, feels like falling down the mountain to get to the picnic when there was a perfectly good trail to get there. But yeah, I think so.


Shawn Walker:  Kind of sitting on the ant hill.


Michael Simeone: Yeah, exactly, exactly. Okay. So I think that was actually a pretty reasonably coherent account of how we got from point A to point B. I think we're learning a little bit this, I like this conversation, because it's different. There's some of the misinformation that we're looking at is a little bit different from some of the other cases that we've looked at. But also really like some of the things that we got to observe in this case, namely, how participatory all of this was, it'll be interesting to see how some of that participation manifests itself and misinformation events that you and I both can really bet money are going to happen in the next week or so.


Shawn Walker: And we're also seeing many emerging themes as we look at some of these events. We started to see the co-creation of narratives, using similar techniques, we see the information is trafficed through similar basically pathways. This is a good example of how those pathways can be used for something that's even more hyperbolic than the misinformation I think we've discussed in the past.


Michael Simeone: Yeah, and it just goes to show you that bots and other kinds of automated systems are really great at misinformation. But nobody beats human beings when it comes to doing a really good job at misinformation. So, thank you all for joining us on this one. That's all the time we have for today, and we will see you on the next one.

For questions or comments, use the email address data science@asu.edu. And to check out more about what we're doing, try library.asu.edu slash data