Users on the far-right message board site 4chan have been spreading a baseless conspiracy theory, reminiscent of the false Pizzagate conspiracy theory, claiming that Google Maps reveals a child, human, or drug trafficking ring and other nefarious activity. Some users have even been calling the conspiracy theory “Pizzagate 2.0.”
On August 19, a user on “/pol/” — 4chan’s “politically incorrect” message board — posted an image from Google Maps showing places in Texas listed on the platform as aquariums with combinations of two letters in front of them, asking, “WTF did I stumble on?” Fellow users in response baselessly claimed that the Google Maps locations showed some kind of trafficking ring, along with suggesting a tunnel network connecting them.
Over the following days, users created dozens of threads called “Texas Aquarium General,” where users would look into other locations listed on Google Maps as aquariums with two letters in their name, posting screenshots and addresses. According to a Media Matters review of internal data, the term “aquarium” was used more than 1,700 times on “/pol/” between August 19 and 25. Users also expanded their conspiracy theory research to places apparently listed on Google Maps as other types of businesses with two letter names and locations in other states, encouraging each other to “keep digging.”
Going even further, users also shared documents listing locations in other states around the country that were supposedly tied to the conspiracy theory.
Some users also claimed to have visited the locations in person or promised to go investigate for themselves. One user claimed to have “had to hop a gate to get here” and attached blurry images to argue the location was not in fact an aquarium, while another user wrote about a location in North Carolina and promised to “check it out tomorrow, record it and upload my experience.”
The conspiracy theory has since moved from 4chan to other far-right message boards and online communities. Users on the far-right forum TheDonald cited 4chan to look into the conspiracy theory as well and visit locations supposedly tied to it. Users on the “r/conspiracy” subreddit also posted the conspiracy theory, which moderators removed, resulting in users creating a separate subreddit and Discord dedicated to the conspiracy theory, according to online misinformation and extremism researcher Ben Decker.
Some supporters of the QAnon conspiracy theory (which also originated on “/pol/”) have shared the conspiracy theory, citing 4chan and asking for “help” to look into it, and the conspiracy theory has been shared by users on right-wing social media platforms including Truth Social and Gab. And, as noted by Decker, the conspiracy theory has also spread on more mainstream platforms such as Facebook.
As experts told Vice, many of these listings on Google Maps are likely not accurate, and signifies no grand conspiracy whatsoever.
The spread of the conspiracy theory comes after 4chan, and “/pol/” in particular, played an instrumental role in spreading the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which falsely alleged there was a child trafficking ring in a Washington, D.C., pizzeria and resulted in a gunman opening fire inside the crowded restaurant in December 2016. Users on the site and that message board have continued in the years since to organize, including against other businesses they claim are hosting nefarious activity, and to spread misinformation.
In fact, 4chan users have claimed their supposed findings with this new conspiracy theory are so significant that some have called it “Pizzagate 2.0.” As one user wrote, “Anons have been digging 24/7 since this came to light, and the more we know, the more it looks like child trafficking with links to other illegal activities” – although, as with Pizzagate, there is no evidence for the conspiracy theory.