This is a ridiculous and completely true story that illustrates the dangers of the spread of fake news. Pizzagate is a conspiracy theory that gained virility during the 2016 United States election. In the fall of 2016, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta, was hacked in a spear-phishing attack. His emails were made public by WikiLeaks and some viewers claimed that the emails contained coded messages that connected several United States restaurants to human trafficking.
On October 30th, 2016, a white supremacist Twitter account made a claim that the New York City Police Department discovered the existence of a pedophilia ring linked to members of the Democratic party. Later that fall, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta, was hacked in a spear-phishing attack which allowed his emails to be made public over WikiLeaks. Some viewers speculated that the emails contained code words for pedophilia and human trafficking, identifying several restaurants across America as fronts for child-sex rings (Aisch, 2016). The conspiracy ran through message boards, 4chan and Reddit, and was spread by fake news sites and promoted by alt-right activists. Jonathan Albright, an assistant professor at Elon University said that a large number of Pizzagate tweets came from the Czech Repbulic, Cyprus, and Vietnam, and that some of the most frequent retweeters were bots (Fisher et al., 2016).
The online conspirators identified a Washington D.C. Pizzeria, Comet Ping Pong, as one of these speculated fronts. The restaurant’s owner, staff, patrons, and even the bands that performed were bombarded with threats and harassment over social media. The owner, James Alefantis, told New York Times that “From this insane, fabricated conspiracy theory, we’ve come under constant assault. I’ve done nothing for days but try to clean this up and protect my staff and friends from being terrorized” (Kang, 2016). Some of the other businesses in D.C. that received related harassment was Besta Pizza, Little Red Fox, the Bookstore Politics and Prose, and the French Bistro Terasol. However, allegations reached up to Brooklyn and as far as Texas and many faced harassment and death threats (Fisher et al., 2016).
This situation came to a peak when on December 4th, 2016, Edgar Maddison Welch walked into Comet Ping Pong pizzeria with an AR-15 rifle. He believed the conspiracies and decided to take action to “self-investigate” and rescue those who may be contained in the restaurant, effectively and heroically putting an end to this trafficking ring (Aisch, 2016). Welch didn’t seem to intend to harm anyone unless given proof of the allegations, as he allowed staff and customers, those including children, to escape the premise. He fired three shots, at a wall, desk, and a door, and fortunately, no one was injured in the situation (US v Welch, 2016). Welch surrendered to police officers and was arrested without incident.
Welch’s criminal allegation stated that “Welch appears to have been motivated, in part, by unfounded rumors concerning a child sex-trafficking ring that was being perpetrated by high-profile individuals at the Comet Ping Pong restaurant.” Furthermore, it explains that police found text messages in which Welch tried to recruit two friends to help him attack the restaurant. Two days before the shooting, Welch asks a friend referred to as “C” if they were “down for the cause.” Welch explains that his cause is “Raiding a pedo ring, possibly sacraficing [sic] the lives of a few for the lives of many. Standing up against a corrupt system that kidnaps, tortures and rapes babies and children in our own backyard… defending the next generation of kids, our kids, from ever having to experience this kind of evil themselves[.] I’m sorry bro, but I’m tired of turning the channel and hoping someone does something and being thankful it’s not my family. One day it will be our families. The world is too afraid to act and I’m too stubborn not to” (US v Welch, 2016). It’s clear that “Pizzagate” was a very real injustice to Welch; it wasn’t some spoofy joke on Reddit or unfounded idea conjured up by a 4chan user.
This story is a great example of the harm that misinformation can do. While the situation ended without anyone getting hurt, many people were harassed, doxed, and sent death threats, several businesses suffered from these unfounded claims, and a man was convinced enough to potentially kill before being sentenced to four years in prison.
Aisch, G., Huang, J., & Kang, C. (2016, December 10). Dissecting the #PizzaGate Conspiracy Theories. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/12/10/business/media/pizzagate.html
Fisher, M., Cox, J. W., & Hermann, P. (2016, December 06). Pizzagate: From rumor, to hashtag, to gunfire in D.C. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/pizzagate-from-rumor-to-hashtag-to-gunfire-in-dc/2016/12/06/4c7def50-bbd4-11e6-94ac-3d324840106c_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.7c199c444647
Kang, C. (2016, November 21). Fake News Onslaught Targets Pizzeria as Nest of Child-Trafficking. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/21/technology/fact-check-this-pizzeria-is-not-a-child-trafficking-site.html
US v Welch Affidavit in Support of Criminal Complaint, Https://www.courthousenews.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/pizzagate-affidavit.pdf (United States District Court for the District of Columbia December 12, 2016).