‘Pizzagate’ Conspiracy Theory Leads to Shots Fired in Pizzeria

Twenty-eight-year old North Carolinian Edgar M. Welch was arrested, and no one was hurt in the incident, but the owner of the pizza place, James Alefantis, his employees, and neighboring businesses are deeply worried.
December 5, 2016, 8:00pm
Foto von rob_rob2001 via Flickr

Fake news, viral conspiracy theories, and social media trolling took a dangerous, real-life turn yesterday in a Washington, DC pizzeria.

Around 3 PM this past Sunday, a man fired a rifle in Comet Ping Pong, the beleaguered pizza joint that has been the target of false, politically motivated rumors tying it and its employees to absurd allegations of a child sex abuse ring involving Hillary Clinton and her campaign chief, John Podesta. The shooter claimed to be "self-investigating" the rumors.

Twenty-eight-year-old North Carolina resident Edgar M. Welch was arrested, and no one was hurt in the incident, but the owner of the pizza place—James Alefantis—as well as his employees and neighboring businesses are deeply worried. They say the FBI and the police have not been taking the threats against them seriously enough.

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The insanity all began when WikiLeaks published a collection of emails from the personal Gmail account of John Podesta in October and November of this year. A few days prior to the election, users on 4chan pointed out that Podesta had communicated with Comet Ping Pong's owner about possibly participating in a fundraiser for Clinton. That's when dozens of articles began to spring up on far-right and fringe websites such as The New Nationalist and The Vigilant Citizen, alleging—with absolutely no proof whatsoever—that the pizza place was ground zero for a child sex ring led by Clinton and Podesta.

#PIZZAGATE: The Mysterious Death Of A Human Trafficking Investigator - https://t.co/zJWixdcKtC

— infowars (@infowars) December 4, 2016

Yes, it sounds ridiculous—because it is. As The New York Times reports, Alefantis has never met Clinton, "does not sell or abuse children, and is not being investigated by law enforcement for any of these claims." But that didn't stop the conspiracy theorists. Dozens of threats against Alefantis and his employees have been made through both social media and email, and other businesses in the area have also been targeted. Local restaurant owner Sabrina Ousmaal told the Times, "The FBI and the police were notified repeatedly of these death threats and calls, emails, online posts. Nothing was done. I am appalled and horrified. Do people need to die for something to be done?"

Even Michael G Flynn, the son and top aide to the incoming National Security Adviser, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, has been publicly propagating the Pizzagate conspiracy and the need to investigate it.

Until #Pizzagate proven to be false, it'll remain a story. The left seems to forget #PodestaEmails and the many "coincidences" tied to it. https://t.co/8HA9y30Yfp

— Michael G Flynn (@mflynnJR) December 5, 2016

Want evidence??? I must've really hit a nerve @Cernovich @bakedalaska @JackPosobiec @PrisonPlanet @Rambobiggs @RealAlexJones pic.twitter.com/wRlPX8lrPy

— Michael G Flynn (@mflynnJR) December 5, 2016

During the incident, people inside the pizzeria fled as police shut Connecticut Avenue down. Meanwhile, police with rifles and protective gear surrounded the place. One of the oldest and most esteemed independent bookstores in the nation, Politics and Prose, was also put on lockdown. Police found two additional guns: one on Welch and the other in his car.

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Alefantis said, "What happened today demonstrates that promoting false and reckless conspiracy theories comes with consequences. 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."

In the past few weeks, many experts have suggested that fake news played a strong role in the election of Donald Trump and the normalization of "alt-right" rhetoric, as partisan media outlets have capitalized on not only the deep-seated distrust of mainstream media, but also the feelings of marginalization and disenfranchisement with the American political system. Now, these stories are quite literally endangering the lives of a pizzeria owner and his employees, customers, and neighbors.

Some have given it a catchy name and a hashtag—#Pizzagate—but, let's also call it what it is: a politically motivated falsehood that hasn't been effectively contained and diminished by those who control all the levers of power in our increasingly divided country.