In June, Justin Bieber went live on his Instagram account. Among the countless questions and comments directed at the pop star was one from a social media user who asked Bieber to touch his hat if he were a survivor of child sex trafficking. Bieber did subsequently adjust his beanie, but it's entirely likely that he'd never even noticed the request. However, for followers of the Pizzagate conspiracy, it offered proof of their belief in a powerful cabal of pedophiles who not only traffic kids for sex, but also physically abuse and even murder and cannibalize them in horrifying Satanic rituals.
The fact that no evidence supports this thoroughly debunked theory hasn't stopped Pizzagate, which first went viral in 2016 before making a resurgence in recent months, from spreading. Here's what you should know.
What the hell is Pizzagate?
It all started in early November 2016, when Clinton campaign manager John Podesta's email was hacked and the messages were published by Wikileaks. One of the emails, according to The New York Times, was between Podesta and James Alefantis, the owner of D.C. pizzeria Comet Ping Pong. The message discussed Alefantis hosting a possible fundraiser for Clinton.
Users of the website 4Chan began speculating about the links between Comet Ping Pong and the Democratic Party, according to the BBC, with one particularly vile connection burbling to the surface: the pizzeria is the headquarters of a child trafficking ring led by Clinton and Podesta.
Yes. The conspiracy theory that prominent members of the Democratic Party are somehow involved in a global child-trafficking ring took root on far-right conservative websites. According to the BBC, the conspiracy theory linking this very false theory to Comet kicked around 4Chan until someone posted a long document with "evidence" to an alt-right section of Reddit several days before the U.S. election. The alt right is a fringe group of far-right extremists—comprised, mostly, of white supremacists and old-fashioned racists—who share their views and various forms of propaganda online.
Also, the nation of Turkey is involved in the spread of Pizzagate.
Around mid-November, the BBC explained, a pro-government media outlet in Turkey started tweeting the conspiracy theory using the hashtag #pizzagate. The reason, according to The Daily Dot, is that supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan were trying to accuse opponents of hypocrisy. An actual child-abuse scandal had rocked a foundation connected to the Turkish government, and Erdogan's supporters were asking why people weren't also outraged over Pizzagate. In other words, it was meant as a distraction.
How does this involve Comet Ping Pong?
The 120-seat restaurant opened in D.C. in 2006 years ago and, according to The New York Times, is considered a kid-friendly place, with ping-pong tables and craft rooms. It's also played host to concerts by local musicians, including the band Fugazi.
Comet Ping Pong's owner, James Alefantis, is an artist and D.C.-native who was a Clinton supporter but had never met her, according to the Times. Alefantis has prominent friends in the Democratic party. Tony Podesta, brother of John Podesta, frequents the restaurant.
Alefantis was also in a relationship with David Brock, the founder of the website Media Matters for America. The Times described Brock as "a provocative former right-wing journalist who became an outspoken advocate for Mrs. Clinton."
The restaurant's staff and customers have come under frequent assault online because of this nonsense.
As fake news stories on far-right conservative blogs began to pile up and spread on Twitter, Reddit, and Facebook, the Facebook page and Instagram feed of Comet Ping Pong began filling up with comments to the tune of "we're on to you." It quickly spiraled out of control, with threatening messages pouring through. "I will kill you personally," one message read, according to the Times.
Alefantis and his staff of 40 people received threatening phone calls and text messages. Photos of customers' children posted online were taken and used in articles as evidence of the child-abuse ring. Many of those customers, the Times noted, hired lawyers to have the pictures removed.
As the threats mounted—including one person who showed up at the restaurant to investigate for himself—Alefantis contacted local police as well as the FBI. He also got in touch with Twitter, Facebook and Reddit in an effort to remove the posts and stories about the conspiracy theory.
None of it worked. The social media posts, texts and phone calls continued to mount.
The situation finally boiled over into real violence.
On the afternoon of Sunday, December 4 2016, 28-year-old Edgar Maddison Welch, of Salisbury, North Carolina, walked through the front door of Comet Ping Pong and pointed an assault rifle in the direction of an employee, according to the Associated Press. The employee fled and called police, but Welch fired his gun, possibly striking the walls, door, and a computer. No one was hurt.
Police surrounded the pizzeria, according to The Washington Post, which said Welch emerged about 45 minutes later, his hands in the air, to surrender to authorities. He told police he'd gone to the restaurant to "self-investigate" reports of the child-trafficking ring. He was carrying a Colt AR-15 rifle, a Colt .38 handgun, a shotgun and a folding knife. Police charged him with assault with a dangerous weapon, other weapons offenses and destruction of property.
Earlier, Welch allegedly drove his Buick LeSabre into a teenage pedestrian in North Carolina, according to Slate. The 13-year-old "suffered head, torso, and leg injuries, WBTV reported. Welch stayed at the scene until police arrived, WBTV added, although a witness said it appeared Welch didn't try to avoid striking the pedestrian.
In a statement after the incident at Comet, Alefantis called out the dangers of fake news. "What happened today demonstrates that promoting false and reckless conspiracy theories comes with consequences," he said. "I hope that those involved in fanning these flames will take a moment to contemplate what happened here today, and stop promoting these falsehoods right away."
Welch wasn't the only would-be vigilante to target Comet Pizza.
— Matt Pearce 🦅 (@mattdpearce) December 5, 2016
Welch, who told The Times that he believed that Hillary Clinton had personally murdered children, isn't the only person to target the pizzeria in person. In 2019, Ryan Jaselskis walked into the restaurant and set a curtain on fire. Employees and a customer were able to put out the flames before the fire spread. Jaselskis, who had a history of mental illness, was sentenced to spend four years in prison in April.
The shooting didn't stop someone close to Trump from inflaming the situation.
Shortly after the incident at Comet Ping Pong, Michael Flynn, Jr., the son of Trump's former national security advisor Ret. Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, tweeted his support of the conspiracy theory:
The story Michael Jr. shared on Twitter suggests Welch's actions were meant as a "false flag" and will now be leveraged to push for censorship of independent media, according to Politico.
Michael Jr. isn't just Flynn's son, he was his chief of staff and, according to The Washington Post, his closest adviser. But he might be taking after his dad in spreading baseless rumors. The elder Flynn, who led chants of "lock her up" at the Republican National Convention, tweeted a link to a fake news story claiming police in New York had found a link between Clinton, her staff and the child-sex ring.
So why didn't Pizzagate go away?
Many aspects of Pizzagate were eventually folded into the broader QAnon conspiracy theory, which posits that Donald Trump is secretly engineering the downfall of the deep state and its cabal of elite pedophiles. Obviously, non of that is at all true.
But Pizzagate came roaring back in 2020, when the theory, once associated primarily with older Trump supporters, found a new, younger audience on platforms like TikTok. And while the theory has spread, it's become less overtly political, morphing to falsely accuse celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres and Chrissy Teigen, and brands like Wayfair.
Wait, what does Wayfair have to do with this?
In July, a Reddit user sparked a viral conspiracy theory with a post about, of all things, cabinets being sold by the online furniture retailer Wayfair. The cabinets, which all cost more than $10,000, had been given female names as their product titles on the website. Soon, the theory that Wayfair was trafficking children disguised as furniture was spreading around the internet. Wayfair refuted it by explaining that the items earned their high prices because they are industrial-grade cabinets, and that an algorithm had named the products. Still, that didn't stop believers from doing their signature deranged deep dive into attempting to connect the company to child abuse.
— Verum Bellator (@VerumBellator1) July 18, 2020
And because Ellen DeGeneres has a partnership with Wayfair, Pizzagaters decided that she's somehow in on the kid smuggling. Chrissy Teigen attracted the conspiracists' attention after some of her old tweets surfaced, while Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel, who took breaks from their late night shows this summer, were interpreted by the Pizzagate-addled as attempting to dodge their involvement in the conspiracy.
So people really take this idea seriously?
New York Times reporter Sheera Frankel said in an interview that pandemic lockdown-induced boredom may be helping to fuel some of the interest in Pizzagate on TikTok. Teens she spoke to said that they'd shared conspiracy videos just because it seemed like fun.
But some, like Welch, take Pizzagate dangerously seriously. At one Trump rally, a woman tearfully told writer Jeff Sharlet that the Clintons literally eat children—there are plenty of true believers. And in 2019, the FBI identified extreme conspiracy theorists as a domestic terrorist threat.
Luckily, some platforms are moving to squash the spread of this viral mythology. In July, Twitter purged thousands of QAnon associated accounts, and implemented measure to prevent the amplification of QAnon content, and TikTok followed by blocking QAnon hashtags.
It's unclear just how effective this will be in stopping the spread, as conspiracists tend to hop ship for rival platforms in the wake of crackdowns. But hopefully, vigorous moderation can help confine Pizzagate to the margins of the web.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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