How ‘Pizzagate’ Evolved From A Fringe Online Conspiracy To A Real-Life Threat

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A man interrupted a quiet Sunday afternoon at northwest Washington, D.C.’s Comet Ping Pong by allegedly entering the popular pizza restaurant with an AR-15 assault rifle and firing off one or more shots.

Edgar Maddison Welch, 28, of Salisbury, North Carolina, reportedly told police he had come to “self-investigate” Pizzagate, a bizarre election-related conspiracy theory that holds that Hillary Clinton is the leader of a child sex trafficking ring run from the restaurant’s basement. No one was injured, but Welch was arrested and charged with assault with a dangerous weapon, according to the Washington Post.

The disturbing incident speaks to the real-life dangers of fake news. In the weeks since the “Pizzagate” conspiracy first burbled up on social media, the restaurant’s staff received a steady stream of harassment and even death threats. Welch’s Sunday arrest actually added fire to the fabricated story, pushing some allies of President-elect Donald Trump to allege that he was a “plant” sent in to discredit the websites that pushed the conspiracy.

Like so many election-year rumors, this one started on Twitter. A Buzzfeed investigation into the origins of the conspiracy determined that the first instance of Clinton’s supposed involvement in an “international child enslavement ring” came from a white supremacist Twitter account that masquerades as the account of a New York-based Jewish lawyer.

The Oct. 30 tweet came two days after FBI Director James Comey announced that the agency was looking at an additional batch of emails related to Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state. The tweet alleged that the New York Police Department had “evidence” that Clinton was at the “center” of the ring, pulled from emails found during the investigation into former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY), who allegedly exchanged lewd texts with an underage girl. Weiner’s now-estranged wife Huma Abedin was a longtime Clinton aide.


Edgar Maddison Welch (AP)


From this tweet, the invented story quickly boomeranged around the fake-news universe. It cropped up on conspiracy theory hubs including 4Chan and the Godlike Productions message board. Bogus news sites including YourNewsWire.com and SubjectPolitics.com picked it up, peppering in new information from anonymous FBI and NYPD sources purportedly confirming Clinton’s involvement and claiming that the former secretary of state’s home was raided. The version of the story published Nov. 2 by True Pundit, a fake news site that also pushed the false claim that Clinton wore an earpiece during a debate, broke into the mainstream.

On Nov. 3, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, then a Trump campaign adviser and now Trump’s choice to be his national security adviser, shared a tweet linking to the True Pundit story along with the comment, “U decide – NYPD Blows Whistle on New Hillary Emails: Money Laundering, Sex Crimes w Children, etc…MUST READ!”

Though the article does not reference Comet Ping Pong by name, it features the same bogus allegations from unnamed law enforcement sources claiming “evidence” that Clinton, her aides, and some members of Congress were involved in “child exploitation” and “sex crimes with minors.”

Emails hacked from Clinton campaign manager John Podesta and released online by WikiLeaks provided further fodder for the conspiracy. One exchange between Podesta and Comet Ping Pong owner James Alefantis discussing a fundraiser for the Clinton campaign prompted 4Chan and Reddit posters to muse that the restaurant was part of a larger child trafficking ring run by Democratic operatives. Trump boosters like alt-right media persona Mike Cernovich asked if some words used by Podesta were “code” for discussing the ring. Alefantis knew Podesta casually through his brother Tony Podesta, a Washington lobbyist and frequent customer, according to the New York Times.

As the fake news stories spread, the restaurant became the target of escalating and increasingly disturbing harassment. Alefantis told the Times he received hundreds of death threats in texts and on social media. Photos of staffers’ children were used in the false articles as evidence that the restaurant was cover for a pedophilia ring, and in a preview of Welch’s visit, at least one person stopped by the restaurant to investigate the allegations personally.

As the Daily Beast pointed out, Welch’s Facebook page indicates that he is a fan of both InfoWars and its editor, Alex Jones, prominent boosters of the “Pizzagate” myth. The site has pushed stories and videos claiming that “Pizzagate is global” and a “worldwide” network,” which Jones has pushed on his personal Twitter account.

Welch also has a checkered background that includes a number of arrests for drug and alcohol offenses, according to the Charlotte Observer. In October, he seriously wounded a 13-year-old boy when he hit him with his car. It is unclear if he faced charges for the incident.

Despite these troubling details, “Pizzagate” truthers believe that Welch is just another cog in this sprawling Democratic conspiracy.

Jack Posobiec, who describes himself on Twitter as the special projects director of a group called Citizens4Trump, fired off a slew of tweets alleging that Welch’s actions were a “false flag” effort to “push for censorship of independent news sources.”

Michael G. Flynn, the son of Trump’s designee as national security adviser who served as his father’s chief of staff, on Sunday shared a link to Posobiec’s account, backing up his unfounded allegations.

He has since posted around a dozen “Pizzagate”-related tweets, and his social media feeds are littered with other fake news articles and retweets from members of the white nationalist alt-right.

While the younger Flynn appears to have a more developed obsession with conspiracy theories, his father’s apparent shared penchant for fake news is disturbing given the prominent role he will play in the next administration. CNN reported Monday that Michael G. Flynn has an official White House transition email address.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Allegra Kirkland is a New York-based reporter for Talking Points Memo. She previously worked on The Nation’s web team and as the associate managing editor for AlterNet. Follow her on Twitter @allegrakirkland.
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