It’s been a wild week online for model and internet celebrity Chrissy Teigen and her husband, musician John Legend. It began with an inauspicious flight to nowhere: An eight-hour flight from Los Angeles to Tokyo that made a U-turn four hours in, after crew apparently realized one passenger was on the wrong plane. Teigen and Legend were aboard too, and Teigen’s humorous, frustrated Twitter dispatches went viral, a hellish yet relatable anecdote of holiday travel screw-ups.
As ever online, lighthearted content was shadowed by something far more sinister. Teigen is among Twitter’s most visible personalities, and a couple of days after the LAX-LAX flight, she and Legend found themselves at the center of an internet conspiracy regarded as a mutant successor to Pizzagate, the well-popularized and much-mocked child sex trafficking conspiracy based on the leaked emails of former Hillary Clinton campaign manager John Podesta and such notable assumptions as the idea that “cheese pizza” might be a coded reference to “child porn.” Teigen amplified the situation when she screenshotted and reposted a series of bizarre accusations by Liz Crokin, a self-proclaimed “investigative journalist” whose Twitter feed is devoted to Pizzagate and other varieties of anti-Clinton conspiracy.
“Chrissy Teigen’s daughter dressed as a hot dog, Alice in Wonderland & a pineapple but note [pizza] emoji!” Crokin wrote, alongside costume photos of Teigen and Legend’s toddler daughter. To the conspiracy-initiated, Crokin’s caption was packed with allusions to child abuse and cover-ups. “#followthewhiterabbit,” she added, an overt Alice in Wonderland reference to the “rabbit hole” of online conspiracy research. (Crokin has subsequently tried to backtrack, maintaining that she merely meant to say that Teigen runs “in [a] circle with people who rape, torture & traffic kids.”)
Teigen and Legend pushed back strenuously against Crokin’s accusations, as one might expect celebrities to do after learning that their names and images have been co-opted to promote a false criminal conspiracy based on an emoji. “You need to take my family’s name out of your mouth before you get sued,” Legend tweeted. “YOU POSTED MY DAUGHTER AND HAVE 50,000 PEOPLE ACCUSING ME OF BEING IN A PEDO RING,” Teigen wrote. “I don’t care HOW you backtrack or WHAT you deleted. I have it ALL. I’m the last person you are fucking with. You are DONE with me and my family. You are going to court.”
Twitter responded by de-verifying Crokin’s account, but online conspiracy rot always goes deeper. Teigen’s very public battle has attracted public attention to a scheme known as “#TheStorm,” a sort of grand unified conspiracy theory that is, in essence, an attempt to justify the belief that Donald Trump’s presidential administration is dedicated to a secret, ongoing battle against a vast international cabal of child sex traffickers.
Given the real-world evidence to the contrary, the backbending necessary to reach this conclusion is considerable. Naturally, believers are convinced that the Trump administration had no untoward contact with Russian interests. Instead, the story goes, Robert Mueller’s special council investigation is itself a cover-up of the “real” investigation into a litany of supposed bad actors, including Clinton, Podesta, Barack Obama, the Democratic Party, the FBI, the Department of Justice, Marina Abramovic, Hollywood celebrities, billionaires, executives, targets of preexisting anti-Semetic conspiracies, anyone who’s posed for a photo with any of the above, and so on. In message boards posts and tweets, conspiracists claim that thousands of people have been secretly indicted, or even already secretly arrested. A sidebar conspiracy posits that some of the accused may be alien invaders present on Earth in order to feed on the organs of ritually sacrificed children, a twisted, post-Pizzagate riff on David Icke’s Reptilians.
The purported documentation is vast, and the supposed logical connections beggar belief. A key distributor of much of this specious evidence (and another hashtag in Crokin’s tweet) is “Q Anon,” an anonymous poster on the infamously lawless message board 4chan who claims to hold Q-level security clearance, a designation used by the Department of Energy. Conspiracists believe the anonymous poster is a person, or perhaps several people, close to Trump. 4chan posts attributed to “Q” mostly take the form of unanswered leading questions, vague to the point of meaninglessness; even Alex Jones’ conspiracy outlet Infowars has described them as “cryptic.” But to believers, the messages are clues to “real” events occurring outside the usual scope of reality, and their piecemeal, anonymous internet publication is an invitation—to 4chan randos, the #MAGA Twitter echo chamber, and your paranoid cousin on Facebook—to “investigate.” The result is an ever-growing list of supposed suspects, and as of this weekend, celeb couple Chrissy Teigen and John Legend are on it.
There is, of course, nothing stopping anyone with an internet connection from writing their own list of leading questions, anonymously publishing it on 4chan, signing it with a “Q,” and tabbing over to Twitter to promulgate an increasingly convoluted labyrinth of nonsense: That’s just how the post-factual information economy works. And it’s not as though left-leaning, anti-Trump internet personalities are immune from fantastic thinking: see compulsive thread-writers like Eric “Game Theory” Garland (who’s lately taken to the idea that there exists a grand conspiracy to call him a conspiracy theorist) and various false #Resistance accounts presenting themselves as moles inside federal agencies. But most of these players have been disregarded, or exposed, or at least mocked into oblivion. On the other, more noxious side of the internet, the insanity is still ramping up.