FROM PROCTER & GAMBLE TO WAYFAIR, WITCH HUNTS ARE ONE-SIZE-FITS-ALL
You may remember that Procter & Gamble were the original Wayfair.
See, Procter & Gamble–an American company behind everything from chips to soap to soap chips–ran into a ruckus after their president announced on national TV in 1998 that he’s a Satanist, and by the way he also thinks you’re all a bunch of rubes.
Or maybe it wasn’t 1998, maybe it was 1994? Accounts vary. It might also have been 1980–nobody seems to agree. Similarly, nobody agrees which now-obscure daytime diva hosted this devilish declaration: Sometimes it’s Phil Donahue, sometimes Sally Jesse Raphael, sometimes Jenny Jones, and sometimes Lamont Cranston.
By the way I made up one of those names, so if it filters into the rumor cycle in a few years we’ll know where it came from. Yes, as you can probably imagine based on the fact that you are smart enough to be able to read this sentence, the president of Procter & Gamble never said any such thing.
But this story has deviled the company for 40 years anyway. And if that seems strange to you, well, it shouldn’t: Turns out the spread of urban myths like this are entirely predictable. That being the case, you have to wonder why we never seem to predict them?
Snopes says that nobody really knows who started the Procter & Gamble scare. As the rumor spread, it started to stain Procter & Gamble’s bottom line: Some consumers boycotted the company, and a few even vandalized its properties.
According to sociologist Frederick Koenig’s 1985 book Rumors In the Marketplace, within a few years P&G were getting 500 messages per day decrying their Satanic sympathies, and they hired four full-time employees just to answer Mephistophelean missives. Kind of feels like they’re flexing on us somehow, but let’s move on.
If you’re wondering how the company eventually cleared its name…they didn’t. Although time diluted the rumors, many people in contemporary America still believe the story. And here’s the part that I really must emphasize: All of this happened BEFORE THE ADVENT OF THE INTERNET.
So if you’re someone trying to address the problem of misinformation in a modern setting…well, valar morghulis I guess.
That brings us to Wayfair, yet another tremendous megacorp I’ve actually never heard of before, this one based in Boston and selling furniture online. Or children? Apparently it could go either way for some people?
Now me, I’ve never mistaken an entertainment center for a kidnapped child. But a couple of weeks ago the conspiracy clods at #Qanon got it into their non-stick brainpans that when Wayfair customers buy furniture online they’re actually buying kidnapped kids…somehow?
Reuters reports that, like 60 percent of all worthless things on the Internet, this tall tale started on Reddit and then spilled over onto Twitter.
That Reuters story even quotes one specific teenager whom #Qucks claim is being sold by Wayfair and who debunked the story herself on her own Facebook. That kid’s got a bright future.
This is just Pizzagate by way of IKEA. And just as I have never ordered a pizza and received a child instead, I have similarly never bought throw pillows and been shipped a runaway. Ba’al only knows what the postage on that would be anyway.
“Child traffickers are probably smart enough to not do their horrible deeds on a public site when you can just use secure apps,” debunker Mike Rothschild (no relation) pointed out on his own site. Which, yeah.
Rothschild suggests that conspiracy rubes bought into Wayfair fare because the apocalyptic rhetoric of conspiracy thinking trains them to trust the word of their prophets and to automatically mistrust all outsiders.
I don’t doubt that this is true, but it’s only part of the story. In his 1993 book Satanic Panic, sociologist Jeffrey Victor notes that “rumors about kidnappings are a persistent tradition in folklore.”
Kidnapping rumor-panics focused on children are an almost universal feature of human culture. Says Victor, these fears are “symbols for worries about our children’s future” and, by extension, society’s future.
Similarly, the belief in an invisible conspiracy that commits brazen acts of evil (a movement that is somehow simultaneously secret and widely known) is a very old chestnut. Possibly older than the advent of actual chestnuts.
Anthropologist Sherrill Mulhern refers to this as the “myth of the blood cult conspiracy.” Naturally, these two flavors of panic overlap frequently: The Journal of Roman Studies explains that two thousand years ago, in the days of the pagan Roman empire, leading Romans believed that Christians ritually murdered children in secret rites.
After the Christianizing of the empire, suspicion of kidnapping and ritual murder fell on Jews in the form of the old blood libel story, which the Anti-Defamation League dates to at least the 12th century.
During witchcraft scares of the 16th and 17th century, superstitious folks believed that witches consumed the flesh of children and employed it for magical purposes–the witches in Macbeth included “finger of birth-strangled babe” in their brew.
Victor also writes that rumor-panics are most likely at times of great social stress and anxiety, when societies are in transition. A witch hunt provides general catharsis, even–or particularly–when there are no substantial results.
Conspiracy assholes and Anti-Satanists believe that they are part of a unique and special movement. In reality, they’re acting in accordance with very predictable, well-documented behavioral conventions–in many cases they might as well be scripted.
It is potentially wearying to realize that, seemingly, certain stupid human behaviors are inevitable–possibly even innate.
However, this also means that, to some degree, we can anticipate phenomena like witch hunts and moral panics. As a society, we have the tools to predict these outlandish outbursts, and to intervene when we recognize them.
So that just leaves the question: Why haven’t we?