Crimes against reality

My debut novel Sockpuppet has developed a nasty habit of coming true. It’s the story of a compromised but decent female politician who’s brought down by a cooked-up online scandal – and the amoral tycoon who rises in her wake. If all that sounds a little familiar following the US election, it’s only one of a number of parallels that have surfaced in the real world. This isn’t because I’m some kind of Nostradamus. In writing Sockpuppet I was simply shedding light on the way our online and offline lives have started crashing together. In particular, I wanted to write about an increasingly common form of illegality that I call crimes against reality. 

Crimes against reality don’t usually end in bloodshed. Their ammunition is public opinion, their shotgun barrel the internet; and the victims are people’s reputations. When they’re committed, these crimes seem trivial, even ludicrous – but their consequences can be lethal. 

The role of crime fiction is to delve into the darkest nooks of the human condition – and in the era of fake news, it’s hard to imagine richer source material than crimes against reality. By way of evidence, let’s consider the real-life story of Hillary’s hacked emails. A sequence of events that was way more far-fetched than anything in my novel, but which had shattering consequences for us all.

A pizza the action

As the geopolitical bushfire rages around us, the most outlandish events have started seeming commonplace. Still, it’s truly bizarre that in a great democracy, a general election could have hung on the antics of a rag-tag bunch of state-sponsored hackers, lurking in some Petersburg basement. What makes this even more implausible is the sheer absurdity of all those conspiracy theories and fake-new stories that swarmed around Hillary Clinton during her campaign. But here’s the genius of the villains of this piece. These were crimes with global repercussions, but while they were going on, they seemed to most of us trivial, even ludicrous – until it was far too late. 

A classic piece of misdirection, if ever there was one.

Take Pizzagate. Have you heard of Pizzagate? Well, I’m afraid I’m going to have to lead you briefly through the murky world of alt-truth. Hold your nose before you enter, and be warned: this story contains adult themes.

We’ve all heard about the haul of emails that were lifted from the the Clinton campaign, almost certainly by Russian hackers, then published by that white-haired ball of self-aggrandisement known as Julian Assange. What’s less widely-reported is how users of the anarchic discussion forum called Reddit picked up those emails, added a sprinkling of their own insane logic, and created a parallel reality. A reality that subsequently leaked out into the actual world through the medium of fake news. The nexus of this nonsense was a popular pro-Trump subreddit named r/The_Donald. If you were looking for epically creative conspiracies, The_Donald was your go-to place. You’ve heard of the wisdom of crowds? Well, here was their paranoid schizophrenia.

Take the following email, sent by New York performance artist Marina Abramović to lobbyist Tony Podesta, whose brother John also happened to be Hillary’s campaign manager.

Dear Tony, I’m so looking forward to the Spirit Cooking dinner at my place. Do you think you would be able to let me know if your brother’s joining? All my love, Marina

Dark, isn’t it? 

Well, clearly, no. The mail refers to a fundraising dinner that Podesta, an art collector, had paid to attend. ’Spirit Cooking’ is a recurring performance art piece in which Abramović enacts surreal spells. But this entirely discoverable explanation failed to appease the denizens of The_Donald, who fell with glee on the ironic spells that Abramović uses in her artwork (example: “With a sharp knife, cut deeply into the middle finger of your left hand. Eat the pain.”) Based on this zany source material, the Donaldites concluded that the Podestas were initiates of a devil-worshiping cult, populated exclusively by the monied DC elite. 

Adding 2 and 2, our friendly redditers came up with 666. 

Fuelled by this thrilling revelation, they returned to the hacked emails with renewed vigour. Thus started a massive crowd-sourced investigation that makes the Da Vinci Code look like Channel 4 News. They uncovered emails connecting John Podesta with Comet Ping Pong, a Washington pizza joint. From which they concluded that this grubby restaurant was the HQ of said satanic cult. They found weird banter in some of Podesta’s mails. From this they derived a secret code that, when decrypted, painted a horrifying picture of the goings-on in Comet Ping Pong’s basement. ‘Cheese pizza’ was child pornography. ‘Ice cream’, a rent boy. ‘Sauce’, an orgy.


Lies and consequences

All of this is, clearly, immensely stupid. Yet Pizzagate had real-world consequences. Not least when a man named Edgar Maddison Welch arrived at Comet Ping Pong bearing a loaded assault rifle, to ‘investigate’ the scandal. Shots were fired, though thankfully nobody was hurt. The greater damage was the web of half-believed insinuation that enveloped Hillary Clinton and destroyed the momentum of her campaign. It’s true that FBI Director James Comey, along with many others, has to take a share of blame for all that went down last November; but given how close the election ran, the nonsense-mongers of Reddit were at least partly to blame for the Trumpocracy that’s taking root in the White House. 

Nobody will ever prove how much of this mayhem was directly caused, or facilitated, by agents of the Russian state, and how much was just the mischief of a bunch of randoms on the internet. The perpetrators of this kind of online fakery tend to remain anonymous. Mysteries will continue to abound. 

Which, to conclude my sorry tale, is exactly why I chose to write a thriller about a rogue chat-bot that triggers a political crisis and threatens to destroy the lives of two very different women. If you choose to pick up Sockpuppet, I can promise you a riotous ride – but maybe as well you’ll uncover a truth or two about the world of alternative facts.

This piece first appeared on the Crime Files blog.