Washington (AFP) - An assault rifle-wielding gunman's appearance at a Washington pizzeria that was falsely reported to house a pedophile ring has elevated worries over the unrelenting rise of fake news and malicious gossip on the internet.
No one was injured when 28-year-old Edgar Maddison Welch strode into the Comet Ping Pong restaurant, packed with families on a Sunday afternoon, and fired off a round from his AR-15.
Police quickly arrested him, discovering two more weapons, and said he had told them he drove up from North Carolina to personally investigate "Pizza-gate" -- the stories that Comet was a center for child abduction linked to defeated Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and a top advisor.
But it raised to a new level the danger of the profusion of false news stories and rumors spread over the internet and in social media, much of it aimed at fortifying the views of various political and social groups.
Welch's intrusion and the constant online harassment of Comet and neighboring shops sent jitters through the tony Chevy Chase neighborhood of northwest Washington, where Vice President-elect Mike Pence recently rented a home.
"What happened today demonstrates that promoting false and reckless conspiracy theories comes with consequences," Comet owner James Alefantis said in a statement Sunday.
"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 traveled to the capital even though the false story about Comet had been extensively debunked. It nevertheless survived and spread further on the internet helped by news-like websites like Infowars, and Facebook posts and Twitter messages by people with huge audiences and significant political connections.
- From fringes to forefront -
Rejecting the rebuttals about Comet, Infowars, popular with conspiracy theorists and the so-called alt-right ultra-conservative movement, continued to link Comet to child abduction rings, offering no evidence.
Michael G. Flynn, the son of Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, named to be powerful national security advisor to President-elect Donald Trump, added support to that story in a tweet Sunday after the incident.
"Until #Pizzagate proven to be false, it'll remain a story," he said. He also retweeted the comments of others promoting the fake stories about Comet.
The incident raised questions about Gen. Flynn himself. He had not commented publicly on Comet, but in early November he tied Clinton to pedophile rings in a tweet of his own.
"U decide - NYPD Blows Whistle on New Hillary Emails: Money Laundering, Sex Crimes w Children, etc...MUST READ!," he wrote ahead of the November 8 election.
On Welch's Facebook page, he mixed "like" endorsements for a number of conservative Christian groups with similar "likes" for Infowars and its founder Alex Jones.
While fake news stories and deliberately falsified gossip has always been a part of US politics, experts say that the internet has increased the speed and breadth by which they travel, and appears to make them more indelible.
"The details of what has become known as the '#PizzaGate' conspiracy theory do not merit mentioning; the issue itself would be laughable were it not being driven from the fringes to the forefront by prominent figures associated with national security," said an analysis from the Soufan Group, a private security consultant.
"Even after a real-world near-miss situation, the perpetuation of the conspiracy on a forum such as Twitter -- which has clearly shown itself to be immune to facts -- magnifies the impossibility of proving baseless allegations to be false."