On Sunday afternoon, a lone gunman entered the Comet Ping Pong restaurant, a popular pizza and family establishment in Washington D.C., and fired several shots. No one was struck by these bullets, and police quickly detained the man. According to the Washington Post, Police Chief Peter Newsham stated his belief that the incident was not terror related, although the gunman’s motive remains unclear.
[UPDATE: The New York Times reveals how the gunman reportedly told police that he entered the restaurant to “investigate” Pizzagate (the theory is explained below), which only adds to the bizarre nature of this story.]
Newsham was also quick to note that this restaurant was tied to fake news and conspiracy theories, which circulated earlier this year, about the Clinton campaign. He clarified, “We’re aware of that and right now we have nothing to tie it into those concerns that have been raised on social media.” The theories, collectively known as Pizzagate, resulted in social media attacks and death threats against the restaurant’s staff and their families.
The bizarre claims within Pizzagate accused Hillary Clinton and her campaign chief, John Podesta, of running a child sex ring through the restaurant. This theory was even spread by retired General Michael Flynn, who recently landed a national security advisor offer from Donald Trump. After restaurant owner James Alefantis began to receive insults, he googled the matter, only to be appalled at what he read:
When Mr. Alefantis discovered that his employees were getting similar abusive messages, he looked online to unravel the accusations. He found dozens of made-up articles about Mrs. Clinton kidnapping, molesting and trafficking children in the restaurant’s back rooms. The articles appeared on Facebook and on websites such as The New Nationalist and The Vigilant Citizen, with one headline blaring: “Pizzagate: How 4Chan Uncovered the Sick World of Washington’s Occult Elite.”
None of it was true. While Mr. Alefantis has some prominent Democratic friends in Washington and was a supporter of Mrs. Clinton, he has never met her, does not sell or abuse children, and is not being investigated by law enforcement for any of these claims. He and his 40 employees had unwittingly become real people caught in the middle of a storm of fake news.
Alefantis had to contact the FBI, police, and Facebook to remove the articles with some success, but the damage was done. Employees continued to receive threats. The BBC points towards the story as an illustration of the ease with which fake news spreads. The outlet interviewed Alefantis, who pointed out how conspiracy theorists didn’t even bother to verify the accuracy of key details, including the allegation that the sex ring operated out of the building’s basement: “We don’t even have a basement.”
Regardless of accuracy, the alt-right (which is the label that white nationalists and neo-Nazis enjoy hiding behind) pushed these theories, which were also reportedly embraced by supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. These supporters accused those who wouldn’t criticize this fake sex ring as hypocritical (after people called out a real child abuse scandal at a foundation linked to the Turkish government), and the intricacies are bonkers:
All Turkish pro-government papers, including mainstream publications … ran similar stories about the PizzaGate, using the very same images and claims from a (now banned) subreddit to convince their readers on how serious and deep-rooted the scandal was. Columnists penned articles that the PizzaGate is a part of the globalist conspiracy against Turkey, and one article even remarked that the “Teenage” in pizza-eating Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles now makes sense as a pedophilia reference after PizzaGate.
The Daily Dot also points out how a fake viral video claimed to show the restaurant “delivering children to politicians and business people.” All of this was fake, of course. And Sunday’s incident doesn’t appear to be related at all, but it’s simply one more terrifying event plaguing the employees of Comet Ping Pong restaurant.