On Thursday, as the Federal Communications Commission was abolishing net neutrality, a conservative website produced a video intended to explain why it thinks net neutrality isn't all that important to internet freedom. That video immediately drew controversy, however, as it featured FCC Chair Ajit Pai dancing alongside an apparent Pizzagate conspiracy theory. So, what exactly does this mean?
The FCC's vote to eliminate net neutrality was preceded by widespread panic among advocates of a free and open internet, who argued that net neutrality was, in the words of one advocate, "the secret sauce that has made the internet awesome." Pai, who opposes net neutrality and voted to repeal it on Thursday, attempted to diffuse that criticism in a video, posted at the Daily Caller, in which he lists "7 Things You Can Still Do On The Internet After Net Neutrality."
Those seven things are all innocuous online activities (taking selfies, posting pictures of food to Instagram) that no one ever claimed, in the first place, would be threatened by net neutrality repeal. In any event, Pai says in one part of the video that you'll still be able to "ruin a meme" after net neutrality, and to demonstrate this, dances to the "Harlem Shake" with several Daily Caller employees. One of those employees is apparently a former Pizzagate conspiracy theorist named Martina Markota.
Pizzagate is a debunked conspiracy theory that sprouted up during the final days of the 2016 presidential campaign. The theory, which appears to have originated on a pro-Donald Trump subreddit, claimed that Hillary Clinton and senior members of her campaign team were operating a child prostitution ring out of a Washington, D.C. pizzeria. Proponents pointed to emails from the Clinton team that discussed "cheese pizza," claiming that this was actually code for "child porn."
To be entirely clear, Pizzagate did not have any basis in fact and was easily debunked after it gained traction. Although the owners of the pizzeria in question received death threats after the conspiracy went wild, no evidence was ever discovered that the restaurant was involved in any sort of sex trafficking. In December 2016, a man named Edgar Maddison Welch drove to the pizzeria in an attempt to "investigate" Pizzagate. He found no evidence, but did fire a rifle in the building, and is now serving a four-year prison term.
This brings us back to the FCC. Markota, who danced next to Pai in the Daily Caller video, recorded a separate video in February in which she appeared to endorse the Pizzagate conspiracy. She removed the video on Thursday shortly after it started drawing attention; however, segments of it have since been posted on Twitter. In one, Markota claims that the hacked emails from Clinton's campaign had "a lot of code words," and that "cheese pizza" was one of them. When asked by BuzzFeed if she believes in Pizzagate, Markota did not deny it, and simply said "embrace the mystery."
Markota has fervently denied any involvement with Pizzagate. She said in a statement on Twitter, "I never mentioned any DC pizza joint, please provide evidence of such. Any commentary I had on pizzagate was about my experience on the deep web in 2014 when I found out the code word for child porn is 'cheese pizza'. That's it." Pai, for his part, told The Washington Post that he's unaware of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory.
That said, Pai's participation in that video drew a lot of criticism for reasons that had nothing to do with Pizzagate. Some believed that, by dressing up like Santa Claus and playing around with light saber in a goofy internet video on the eve of the historic vote, the FCC chair was effectively mocking proponents of net neutrality.
Others accused Pai of creating a straw man argument and intentionally avoiding the substantive arguments against repealing net neutrality, while others simply thought it was in poor taste for an official as powerful as the FCC chair to dismiss the importance of net neutrality with such a jokey attitude.
Open internet advocates were already furious with the FCC for abolishing net neutrality. Pai ostensibly made that video in an attempt to assuage those concerns and assure skeptics that they have nothing to worry about. Judging by the online response, it doesn't look like he succeeded.