Pizzagate Rears Its Head Again, and Not Just Because of Elon Musk

A shape-shifting conspiracy theory that’s grown ancient by internet standards finds a new audience, again, with help from the world’s richest man.
Elon waving his little fingers in the air onstage
 Musk speaks during the Satellite 2020 at the Washington Convention CenterMarch 9, 2020, in Washington, DC (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

Over the past several weeks, Elon Musk, a business genius, has further devalued Twitter, the website he owns and insists on calling X, by posting things and engaging with things supportive of Pizzagate. The 2016 conspiracy theory makes no sense on its own terms and has been repeatedly and roundly debunked anyway, including by a gun-wielding citizen carrying out his own investigation. (He found there were no children being held in the basement of Comet Ping Pong, which does not have a basement.) 


Musk isn’t alone; as usual, he is amplifying to his massive audience but also following it. Independent of him, Pizzagate has been and is making a real resurgence in conspiratorial and far-right spaces, and leaking into what we might have once called the mainstream. Boosting Pizzagate theories serves a number of purposes for those who do so: It’s a way to talk about the real problem of human trafficking in exaggerated, lurid terms; sow a useful distrust in “elites”; and drive engagement. It doesn’t hurt that you can make some money in the process. 

On November 27, Musk posted and later deleted without comment a meme supporting Pizzagate, with the caption, “Does seem at least a little suspicious.” He had also responded to a user promoting Pizzagate the previous week. It’s all part of his seeming determination to post about and reply to conspiracy theories, even when such posting stands to cost X a lot of money and even when they’re noxiously antisemitic. (Pizzagate is but one example of the “nocturnal ritual fantasy,” wherein evildoers are imagined to meet in secret, often literally below ground, to ritually abuse children, an idea that has its roots in the antisemitic blood libel of the Middle Ages.)  This follows a noticeable increase in the week preceding his post for searches for Pizzagate-related terms. Musk’s curious posting decisions—and, perhaps, reporting on them—appears to be driving an increased interest in these terms; among the ones spiking online is “elon musk pizzagate.” 


Whatever else he’s doing, Musk is clearly trolling. This isn’t a matter of mind reading. His business strategy for X—a business that is suing a media outlet over their reporting on it—involves positioning it as the free speech-loving alternative to legacy media. This gives him incentive to toy with “forbidden” ideas in search of attention, scolding headlines, and, perhaps not incidentally, the approval of disaffected young men, whose adulation he seems to desperately seek. (Musk often reposts and responds to laddish internet humor that’s long worn thin, and is so desperate for people to find him funny online he once tried to hire a popular Twitter user named Alan Hanson to do his tweeting for him.) His Pizzagate posting feels like more of the same. For many younger Internet users, Pizzagate wasn’t a trend they got to participate in the first time around. Now, it has the whiff of an alluring piece of internet lore, an edgy urban legend to be trotted out for attention, shock value, and maybe a few extra followers. 

This is also not the first time Pizzagate and related human trafficking conspiracy theories have found new life, or even the first time this year. In 2020, as the New York Times reported at the time, the teens of TikTok discovered the conspiracy theory; the term was banned on the platform the same week the Times ran its story. That fall, the platform announced it would tighten enforcement on QAnon-related hashtags and accounts. (Various enforcement-skirting terms do still have plenty of Pizzagate content.) In July of this year, Pizzagate, QAnon, and related terms all saw jumps on Google Trends after the release of Sound of Freedom, a film based on the purported exploits of disgraced anti-trafficking activist Tim Ballard. The film’s star, Jim Caviezel, has repeatedly promoted QAnon talking points, though Alejandro Monteverde, the movie’s director has denied the film has any links to QAnon.  


Musk is joined this time by a variety of curious bedfellows, among them Canadian conspiracy theorist and frequently arrested anti-mask activist Chris Sky, who recently tweeted, “*WARNING*  FBI CONFIRMS PIZZAGATE is real. Think of how much MONEY and MEDIA was used to ‘debunk’ this ‘conspiracy theory’!” 

Sky is mashing together a few different claims here. The emphatically untrue idea that a mainstream institution has “confirmed” that Pizzagate is “real” first began making the rounds this summer, when Instagram posts circulated claiming that the Wall Street Journal had somehow confirmed the facts of Pizzagate. (In fact, the Journal was reporting on something equally disturbing, but actually real: that pedophiles were using Instagram to sell child sexual exploitation material, and that the platform’s algorithms helped people interested in viewing such material find the sellers. More recently, the same reporting team found that Instagram’s Reels would happily show a salacious stream of content “to users its algorithm decides might have a prurient interest in children.”) 


In his post, Sky added, “now you know why I work directly with SAVING A CHILD because we cannot TRUST those in POWER.” Saving a Child is an organization that says it funds charities working to combat child sex trafficking, sexual exploitation, and teen suicide. The most prominently-featured group it says it funds is Operation Underground Railroad, which has been mired in controversy after its founder, Ballard, left following allegations of sexual misconduct. He is facing a series of lawsuits from women accusing him of grooming and sexual abuse; their lawyer says he “literally trafficked” them.

The idea that elites, media, and the mainstream are all engaged in a concerted coverup of Pizzagate—that we “cannot trust those in power,” in Sky’s words—is useful for a variety of fringe figures. Last week, the exceedingly weird right women’s magazine Evie joined the fray with a blog post pontificating, “Have We Been Gaslit into Believing Pizzagate Was a Hoax?” The crux of the theory came at the end of a long, digressive, and exceedingly unreadable recap of the past seven years of Pizzagate lore; the author Nicole Dominique wrote, “If Epstein and Maxwell were known to traffick [sic] minors, is it really that far-fetched to think that there's a network of rich and influential people trafficking children?” 


This isn’t, of course, a far-fetched thing to think at all, though it’s not clear what it has to do with anything here. Epstein’s very real crimes—and the fact that he was able to commit them with virtual impunity for a very long time—are always mentioned whenever there’s a resurgence of any conspiracy theory about child abuse or trafficking, or when a right-wing star like Ballard or Andrew Tate is accused of trafficking. (There also tends to be an insistence that Epstein and his friends have not been investigated by the dread MSM or the government, which is just not true.)

But Pizzagate and its supporters for the most part didn’t mention Epstein when the theory first circulated in 2016, focusing instead on more politically current and useful figures. Specifically, the accusation was that then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and a cabal of people connected to the Democratic Party trafficked children from the basement of a pizza parlor. (They did not.) This was rooted in an insistence that references to pizza found in hacked emails were in fact references to trafficked children. 

Like QAnon after it, though, it’s clear that the term “Pizzagate” has begun to lose its distinct meaning, says the author and journalist Mike Rothschild. “It doesn’t mean what it used to mean.” (He’s written a book about QAnon and a new one, Jewish Space Lasers, about antisemitic conspiracy theories surrounding the Rothschild family.) 


Pizzagate, Rothschild says, is more of catch-all term for the idea that elites are secretly trafficking, and perhaps ritually abusing, children. In other words, it's gone from a specific conspiracy theory with a fairly static cast of villains to a more general idea, a nebulous concept of trafficking, cover-ups, ritual abuse, and elites—though, seemingly, only ones opposed by whoever’s making insinuations.  

“It doesn’t matter that the Pizzagate was debunked,” Rothschild adds. For conspiracy peddlers, “the term means whatever you want it to mean.” 

The other huge difference between the previous rounds of Pizzagate revival is that many of its major promoters have, of course, returned to X/Twitter after Musk mass-unbanned a large number of far-right and QAnon promoting accounts. Among them are first-generation Pizzagate promoters like Liz Crokin, who describes herself as a journalist. Crokin breathlessly covered every development related to Musk tweeting about Pizzagate, hoping, she wrote, that Musk would screen a Pizzagate-promoting documentary on the platform. 

“Elon is not someone I would bet against or underestimate,” she wrote. “Let’s see what happens!” (She also accused VICE of being part of the conspiracy, posting that we covered Musk’s posts the same day a “former contributor” to VICE was sentenced to prison for crimes against children. The defendant in question, Efrem Zelony-Mindell, appears to have written two pieces for VICE in 2016; earlier this month, they were sentenced to 90 months in prison for the distribution of child sexual exploitation material.


There are also newer characters, like Dominick McGee, who goes by the name Dom Lucre and was banned and then unbanned by Musk’s Twitter after posting child sexual abuse imagery on the app. (He was supposedly doing so to make a point about the horrors of pedophilia, and reportedly using images connected to Peter Scully, a notorious pedophile who has already been convicted and sentenced to prison.)  McGee has energetically promoted Pizzagate, writing on November 21st, “Revelations are coming for everyone. Soon @LizCrokin won’t be only person screaming that Pizza Gate is real. A strong majority of political and justice system has been compromised by their lust of children. I am fully aware of how absurd that might sound to some but it is an unfortunate truth that everyone will soon accept.”  

The post, which includes a clip of Crokin insisting Pizzagate is real and has not been debunked, has been viewed more than two million times. (McGee also posted it on Instagram, where it was flagged as false information but remains up.)

As verified Twitter users, Crokin and Lucre stand to make money from these tweets, as do other conspiracy peddlers, Rothschild points out. “They’re not pounding away on Telegram,” he says. “They’re back on Twitter and get ad revenue coming in from this. It’s in their interests to crank out as much of this stuff as possible, make it as inflammatory as possible. If it goes viral, it’s not just internet clout, it’s money.” 

In the future, Rothschild says, “I would expect more fringe grifters and third-tier podcast personalities to pick up on this stuff,” because it’s a reliable lightning rod for attention, controversy, and the money that comes with it. 

And Musk’s role, too, is as notable as it is worrisome. As someone who’s insinuated himself deeply into the daily workings of the government with influential Pentagon contracts, and continues to become more and more of a household name with his ownership of, and relentless antics on, Twitter, any conspiracy theory he promotes will inevitably be incorporated back into the mainstream discussion. It’s an endless recursive loop of outrageous claims and attempts to debunk them that somehow only fill the chaotic space Musk has created with more attention-grabbing, profitable, and ever-renewing hot air.  And perversely, one of its main effects may simply be to keep people concerned about sex trafficking focused on claims that are demonstrably not true– and not on ones that are.