ost Internet Conspiracy Theories are relatively harmless, just idiotic speculations passed around online by nutjobs and having no connection to the real world. But the Pizza-Gate CT was different: the Crackpots here came very close to actually killing people.
Cheese Pizza–also known as “Child Porn”
The Conspiracy Theory
A group of people including Hillary Clinton were holding child sex slaves as prisoners in a Washington DC pizza restaurant as part of a Satanic cult.
The CT fans gleefully declared that this discovery would ruin both the media and the Democratic Party, with one poster proclaiming, “We deserve to be paid attention. We deserve to have the matter taken seriously. And we deserve a media bringing the most relevant facts to our attention after having actually done some due diligence on the matter, which we do not currently have. The mainstream media has lied to us long enough about things like Trump having only a 1% chance of winning the election that the public has increasingly woken up to this fact — which is why Pizzagate is getting so much more attention than the Franklin scandal did. If Pizzagate turns out to have even a single-digit fraction of truth behind it, it may not just bring down the Clinton machine and Democratic Party, it may sound the death knell for the mainstream media as well.”
In 2016, during the US Presidential elections, someone hacked the personal email account of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, and posted them all on Wikileaks. (The Russian intelligence service at the time had a covert program to use hackers and false social-media accounts to spread disinformation designed to influence the American election, but although several Russians were subsequently indicted for hacking US political accounts, it is not definitely known if this was one of them.)
For months, a Conspiracy Theory was already being circulated on various alt-right Crackpot forums that Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton was gay and that she and many other prominent Democratic politicians were part of a pedophilia ring (“Pedo-Gate”) that would abuse children during blood-drinking Satanic rituals. So when Podesta’s emails appeared online, several fringe forums carried out “investigations” which combed through them looking for “evidence”. And since the crack investigators of the CTers always manage to “find” whatever it is they are looking for, they found it. In several emails, Podesta had mentioned the Comet Ping Pong, a pizza restaurant located in Washington DC. The CTers decided that this was one of the places where the “pedophilia ring” was meeting, and that Podesta’s references to “cheese pizza” was a code word that really meant “child porn” (apparently because they both begin with the same letters). As one person posted, “We discovered pedophile code words, as presented by the FBI…. Podesta was told that he left behind a black-and-white handkerchief ‘with a map that seems pizza-related’. This should be a obvious indication that we are now headed towards cyptic use of the word pizza.”
Another poster laid out an early version of the “scandal”: “Comet Pizza is a pizza place owned by James Alefantis, who is the former gay boyfriend of David Brock, the CEO of Correct The Record. It has been the venue for dozens of events for the Hillary campaign staff. John Podesta has had campaign fundraisers there for both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. John’s brother and business partner Tony Podesta has his birthday party there every year. It’s also a dive that according to reviews and photos has hidden bathroom doors and creepy murals. The bathrooms in particular have murals exclusively of nude women, as well as a great deal of graffiti relating to sex. Reviews of the restaurant are bizarrely polarized. Websites describing it positively note that there are regularly ‘unsupervised children running around’. Their menu include a pedophilic symbol, as do the signs and decorations of other neighboring businesses. The music acts and the posters promoting same acts are bizarre in their presentation, content, and lyrical focus, but are still promoted as being ‘for all ages’. The overtly sexual content would suggest otherwise. The same has taken place in reference to videos recorded inside Comet Ping Pong by people that frequent their establishment as well as video referencing Comet Ping Pong positively from the exterior. While initially not the central focus of the investigation at the onset, Comet Ping Pong is a much more overt and much more disturbing hub of coincidences. Everyone associated with the business is making semi-overt, semi-tongue-in-cheek, and semi-sarcastic inferences towards sex with minors. The artists that work for and with the business also generate nothing but cultish imagery of disembodiment, blood, beheadings, sex, and of course pizza.”
From there, the “story” spread from one Crackpot forum to another, growing larger and more embellished with each re-posting. Soon CTers were declaring (falsely) that Hillary Clinton’s apartment had been raided by police to search for child porn, then added (again falsely) that the FBI had investigated the CT claims and confirmed them. Posts soon began appearing on far-right websites and blogs claiming that a network of tunnels connected several buildings in the DC area, including the Comet Ping Pong, and that Satanic rituals were held in the basement of the pizza restaurant—and child sex slaves were kept there as captives.
The CT really took off, however, when a newspaper in Turkey published a story which repeated the claims. Some mainstream media in the US reprinted the Turkish story (usually to laugh at it), but a conspiracy-prone Internet forum of Donald Trump supporters at Reddit, known as The_Donald, set up a new subgroup called Pizza-Gate to “investigate” the claims. From here, the CT spread to other conspiracy sites such as InfoWars and Breitbart, then to a series of YouTube videos, and finally on to some mainstream Republican forums. Among those who helped spread the Pizza-Gate Conspiracy Theory were Michael Flynn, President-Elect Trump’s selection for National Security Advisor, and his son Michael Flynn Jr., as well as Senator Rand Paul and some of his aides, and Republican activist Jack Prosobiec.
Meanwhile, The_Donald members at Reddit began publicly posting the names, addresses and phone numbers of the owner of the Comet Ping Pong restaurant, most of the employees, and even some local band members who had played gigs there. That launched an intense campaign in which conspiracy fans flooded the employees with threatening phone calls and death threats, and also posted threatening messages online in places like Yelp and TripAdvisor.
This practice, known as “doxxing”, had long been a favorite tactic of the extremist Internet community as a way to bully and intimidate people that they don’t like. In some cases, people have been “swatted”—a deadly tactic in which someone obtains the home address of an Internet opponent and then makes a false phone call reporting a hostage situation at that address, leading fully-armed police SWAT teams to swoop in. Several deaths are known to have resulted from Internet “swatting” actions, but because the perpetrators are anonymous online, few people are ever arrested for it.
But when The_Donald Reddit forum began “doxxing” people who had even the remotest connection to the DC pizza restaurant (which later expanded to include a number of other local businesses as the Conspiracy Theory grew), Reddit decided that things were getting out of hand and closed the Pizza-Gate forum down. The_Donald members responded by moving it to a different Internet platform called Voat. And, of course, Reddit became part of the conspiracy: “Reddit CEO Steve Huffman banned the Pizzagate research community from Reddit on bogus grounds, accusing them of engaging in a ‘witch hunt,’ even though they only used publicly-available information and never called for vigilantism or harassment of any kind. Later, he announced that he will get laser eye surgery to prepare for an apocalypse. The article references the ‘debunked’ Pizzagate movement and fake news as the main reason for his doomsday prediction…. Twitter has been actively censoring #Pizzagate by removing it off the list of popular hashtags.”
In December 2016, a Crackpot from Salisbury NC named Edgar Maddison Welch, who had been eagerly devouring all the Pizza-Gate posts on Reddit and Voat, decided to take matters into his own hands. Armed with an AR-15 rifle, Welch drove from North Carolina to Washington DC and entered the Comet Ping Pong, determined to, as he put it, “self-investigate”, and to free the “child sex slaves” that the Internet cranks were telling him were being held prisoner there. After firing three rifle shots inside the restaurant, Welch had enough time to make a search of the building before the cops moved in and arrested him. He found no child sex slaves. He also found that the building didn’t even have a basement.
Welch eventually pleaded guilty to a series of charges, apologized to the judge for being “foolish and reckless”, and was sentenced to four years of jail followed by three years of probation. At The_Donald and other Crackpot forums, meanwhile, some cranks continued to speculate that Welch himself was part of the Conspiracy against them, and was a “false flag” double agent secretly working for the Deep State government to “discredit” them.
The whole Pizza-Gate incident illustrates perfectly how some of the Crackpot contingent on the Internet can get itself worked into a froth by silly speculations with no evidence other than hate, paranoia, and fanaticism. It also shows how willing they are to bully people in the real world based on their idiotic Internet fantasies.
The Pizza-Gate CT also entered the realm of real-world politics, when investigators found that the original “story”, which began in one of the Internet’s dark corners, had been magnified and spread into the mainstream by a whole series of “bots”—automated social-media accounts in Macedonia, the Czech Republic and Cyprus that traced back to the Russian government. This was part of strongman Vladimir Putin’s attempt to influence the American elections by planting false stories and stirring up racial and partisan division and rancor in various online political forums. Pizza-Gate and its mechanics therefore became a part of the investigations being carried out by special prosecutors into the Russian disinformation program and its connections to the Donald Trump presidential campaign.