Pizzagate conspiracy theory
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Pizzagate is an allegedly debunked conspiracy theory that emerged during the 2016 United States presidential election cycle. The theory, which went viral, claimed that John Podesta's emails, which were leaked by WikiLeaks, contained coded messages referring to human trafficking and connecting a number of restaurants in the United States and members of the Democratic Party with a fabricated child-sex ring. The false theory has been extensively discredited by a wide array of organizations, including the District of Columbia Police Department.
This conspiracy theory emerged near the end of the 2016 United States presidential election cycle. On October 30, 2016, a reputed white supremacist Twitter account claimed the New York City Police Department, which was searching emails found on Anthony Weiner's laptop as part of an investigation into his sexting scandals, had discovered the existence of a pedophilia ring linked to members of the Democratic Party. Internet users reading John Podesta's emails released by Wikileaks in early November 2016 speculated that some words in Podesta's emails were code words for pedophilia and human trafficking. The theory also proposed that the ring was a meeting ground for satanic ritual abuse.
The theory was then posted on the message board Godlike Productions. The following day, the story was repeated on YourNewsWire citing a 4chan post from earlier that year. Adl-Tabatabai's story was then spread by and elaborated on by other fake news websites, including SubjectPolitics, which falsely claimed the New York Police Department had raided Hillary Clinton's property. The website Conservative Daily Post ran a headline falsely stating that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had confirmed that story.
Users on Twitter and 4chan searched the leaked emails of John Podesta for food-related "code words" that supposedly revealed the existence of a sex trafficking operation. For example, The New York Times reported that the phrase "cheese pizza" was thought by a poster to 4chan to be a code word for child pornography since they had the same initials. The allegations spread to "the mainstream internet" following a post on the website Reddit several days before the 2016 US presidential election. The post, meanwhile removed by the site, alleged the involvement of the Washington, D.C., business Comet Ping Pong:
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.
The story was picked up by fake news websites such as Infowars.com,[lower-alpha 1] Planet Free Will and the Vigilant Citizen, and has been promoted by alt-right activists such as Mike Cernovich, Brittany Pettibone, and Jack Posobiec. Other promoters included David Seaman, former writer for TheStreet.com, CBS46 anchor Ben Swann, and basketball player Andrew Bogut. On December 30, as Bogut recovered from a knee injury, members of /r/The_Donald community on Reddit promoted the false theory that his injury was connected to mild support for Pizzagate. Jonathan Albright, an assistant professor of media analytics at Elon University, said that a disproportionate number of tweets about Pizzagate came from the Czech Republic, Cyprus, and Vietnam and that some of the most frequent retweeters were bots.
Members of the Reddit community /r/The_Donald created the /r/pizzagate subreddit to further develop the conspiracy theory. The sub was banned on November 23, 2016 for violating Reddit's anti-doxing policy with Reddit posting a notice that "We don't want witchhunts on our site". Users had posted personal details of people connected to the alleged conspiracy. After the ban on Reddit, the discussion was moved to the v/pizzagate sub on Voat, a website similar to Reddit.
Some of Pizzagate's proponents, including David Seaman and Michael Flynn Jr., have evolved the conspiracy into a broader government conspiracy called "Pedogate". According to this theory, a "satanic cabal of elites" of the New World Order operate international child sex trafficking rings.
Turkish press reports
In Turkey, the allegations were reported by pro-government newspapers (i.e., those supportive of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan), such as Sabah, A Haber, Yeni Şafak, Akşam and Star. The story appeared on Turkey's Ekşi Sözlük and on the viral news network HaberSelf, where anyone can post content. These forums reposted images and allegations directly from the since-deleted subreddit, which were reprinted in full on the state-controlled press. Efe Sozeri, a columnist for The Daily Dot, suggested government sources were pushing this story in order to distract attraction from a recent child abuse scandal and from controversial pending legislation on child marriage.
Harassment of owners and employees
As Pizzagate spread, Comet Ping Pong received hundreds of threats from the theory's believers. The restaurant's owner, James Alefantis, told The New York Times: "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."
Some adherents identified the Instagram account of Alefantis and pointed to some of the photos posted there as evidence of the conspiracy. Many of the images shown were friends and family who had liked Comet Ping Pong's page on Facebook. In some cases, imagery was taken from unrelated websites and claimed to be Alefantis' own. The restaurant's owners and staff were harassed, threatened on social media websites, and the owner received death threats. The restaurant's Yelp page was locked by the operators of the site citing reviews that were "motivated more by the news coverage itself than the reviewer's personal consumer experience".
Several bands who had performed at the pizzeria also faced harassment. For example, Amanda Kleinman of Heavy Breathing deleted her Twitter account after receiving negative comments connecting her and her band to the conspiracy theory. Another band, Sex Stains, had closed the comments of their YouTube videos and addressed the controversy in the description of their videos. The artist Arrington de Dionyso, whose murals are frequently displayed at the pizzeria, described the campaign of harassment against him in detail, and averred of the attacks in general that "I think it’s a very deliberate assault, which will eventually be a coordinated assault on all forms of free expression." The affair has drawn comparisons with the Gamergate controversy.
Pizzagate-related harassment of businesses extended beyond Comet Ping Pong to include other nearby D.C. businesses such as Besta Pizza, three doors down from Comet; Little Red Fox; the popular bookstore Politics and Prose; and the French bistro Terasol. The businesses received a high volume of threatening and menacing telephone calls, including death threats, and also experienced online harassment. The co-owners of Little Red Fox and Terasol filed police reports.
Brooklyn restaurant Roberta's was also pulled into the hoax, receiving harassing phone calls, including a call from an unidentified person telling an employee that she was "going to bleed and be tortured". The restaurant became involved after a since-removed YouTube video used images from their social media accounts to imply they were a part of the hoax sex ring. Others then spread the accusations on social media, claiming the "Clinton family loves Roberta's".
East Side Pies, in Austin, Texas saw one of its delivery trucks vandalized with an epithet, and was the target of online harassment related to their supposed involvement in Pizzagate, alleged connections to the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Illuminati.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation investigated Pizzagate-related threats in March 2017 as part of a probe into possible Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections.
Comet Ping Pong shooting
On December 4, 2016, Edgar Maddison Welch, a 28-year-old man from Salisbury, North Carolina, fired three shots in the restaurant with an AR-15-style rifle, striking walls, a desk, and a door. Welch later told police that he had planned to "self-investigate" the conspiracy theory. He surrendered after he "found no evidence that underage children were being harbored in the restaurant" and was arrested without incident. No one was injured.
Welch told police he had read online that the Comet restaurant was harboring child sex slaves and that he wanted to see for himself if they were there. In an interview with The New York Times, Welch later said that he regretted how he had handled the situation but did not dismiss the conspiracy theory, and rejected the description of it as "fake news". Some conspiracy theorists believed that the shooting was a staged attempt to discredit their investigations.
On December 13, 2016, Welch was charged with one count of "interstate transportation of a firearm with intent to commit an offense" (a federal crime). According to court documents, Welch attempted to recruit friends three days before the attack by urging them to watch a YouTube video about the conspiracy. He was subsequently charged with two additional offenses, with the grand jury returning an indictment charging Welch with assault with a dangerous weapon and possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime.
On March 24, 2017, following a plea agreement with prosecutors, Welch pleaded guilty to the federal charge of interstate transport of firearms and the local District of Columbia charge of assault with a dangerous weapon. The charges carry maximum sentences of ten years each; however advisory guidelines recommend a sentence of 18 to 24 months and 18 to 60 months on the federal and District charges, respectively. Welsh also agreed to pay $5,744.33 for damages to the restaurant. Welch was sentenced to four years in prison on June 22, 2017.
On January 12, 2017, a Louisiana man, Yusif Lee Jones, pleaded guilty in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana to making a threatening phone call three days after Welch's attack, to Besta Pizza, another pizzeria on the same block as Comet Ping Pong. He said that he threatened Besta to "save the kids" and "finish what the other guy didn't." Jones faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
The conspiracy theory has been widely discredited and debunked. It has been judged to be false after detailed investigation by the fact-checking website Snopes.com and The New York Times and numerous news organizations have debunked it as a conspiracy theory, including New York Observer, The Washington Post, The Independent in London, The Huffington Post, The Washington Times, Los Angeles Times, Fox News and the Miami Herald. The Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia characterized the matter as "fictitious".
Much of the purported evidence cited by the conspiracy theory's proponents had been taken from entirely different sources and made to appear as if they supported the conspiracy. Images of children of family and friends of the pizzeria's staff were taken from social media sites such as Instagram and claimed to be photos of victims. The Charlotte Observer noted the diverse group of sources that had debunked the conspiracy theory, pointing out this included the Fox News Channel in addition to The New York Times.
On December 10, 2016, The New York Times published an article that analyzed the claims that the theory proposed. They emphasized that:
- The theory claimed "cheese pizza" was code for "child pornography", since the term had been used in this context previously on the website 4chan. This was extrapolated to other mentions of food in non-political emails. However, as The New York Times pointed out, the "Podesta brothers were famous in Washington circles for their Italian cooking and big salon and fund-raising dinners, often cooked by their mother."
- Theorists linked the conspiracy to Comet Ping Pong, through similarities between company logos and symbols related to Satanism and pedophilia. However, The Times noted that striking similarities may also be found in the logos of a number of unrelated companies, such as AOL, Time Warner, and MSN.
- A photograph was circulated purporting to show President Barack Obama playing ping pong with a child inside Comet Ping Pong. The original picture hangs framed in the White House, where it was taken.
- Theorists claimed an underground network beneath Comet Ping Pong; however, the restaurant actually has no basement, and the picture used to support this claim was taken from another facility.
- Theorists claimed to have a picture of restaurant owner Alefantis wearing a T-shirt endorsing pedophilia. However, the image was of another person entirely, and the shirt, which read "J' ❤ L'Enfant," was actually a reference to the L'Enfant Cafe-Bar in DC, whose owner was pictured in the image, and which itself was named after Pierre Charles L'Enfant, designer of much of the layout of Washington, D.C.
- Theorists claimed John and Tony Podesta kidnapped Madeleine McCann using police sketches that were, in fact, two sketches of the same suspect taken from the descriptions of two eyewitnesses. Furthermore, the claim that the brothers were in Portugal at the time of the kidnapping was sourced only to the conspiracy website Victurus Libertas, notable for, among other things, suggesting that the Queen Elizabeth II is a reptilian alien.
Additionally, no alleged victims have come forward, nor has any physical evidence been found.
In an interview with NPR on November 27, 2016, Comet Ping Pong owner James Alefantis referred to the conspiracy theory as "an insanely complicated, made-up, fictional lie-based story" and a "coordinated political attack." Syndicated columnist Daniel Ruth wrote that the conspiracy theorists' assertions were "dangerous and damaging false allegations" and that they were "repeatedly debunked, disproved and dismissed."
Despite the conspiracy theory being debunked, it continued to spread on social media, with over one million messages using hashtag #Pizzagate on Twitter in November 2016. Stefanie MacWilliams, contributor for Planet Free Will who wrote an article about Pizzagate, was reported in the Toronto Star as saying, after the Comet Ping Pong shooting, that "I really have no regrets and it's honestly really grown our audience." Pizzagate, she said, is "two worlds clashing. People don't trust the mainstream media anymore, but it's true that people shouldn't take the alternative media as truth, either."
On December 8, Hillary Clinton responded to the conspiracy theory, speaking about the dangers of fake news websites. She said, "The epidemic of malicious fake news and fake propaganda that flooded social media over the past year, it's now clear that so-called fake news can have real-world consequences."
A poll conducted by Public Policy Polling on December 6–7, 2016, asked 1,224 U.S. registered voters if they thought Hillary Clinton was "connected to a child sex ring being run out of a pizzeria in Washington DC?" The poll showed that 9% said that they did believe she was connected, 72% said they did not, and 19% were not sure.
A poll of voters conducted on December 17–20 by The Economist/YouGov asked voters if they believed that, "Leaked e-mails from the Clinton campaign talked about pedophilia and human trafficking - 'Pizzagate'." The results showed that 17% of Clinton voters responded "true" while 82% responded "not true"; and 46% of Trump voters responded "true" while 53% responded "not true."
Alex Jones and InfoWars
After the Comet Ping Pong shooting, Alex Jones backed off from the idea that the D.C. pizzeria was the center of the conspiracy. On December 4, Infowars.com uploaded a YouTube video that linked Pizzagate to the November 13 death of a sex-worker-rights activist. The video falsely claimed that she had been investigating a link between the Clinton Foundation and human trafficking in Haiti and it speculated that she had been murdered in connection with her investigation. According to the activist's former employer, her family and her friends, her death was in fact a suicide and she was not investigating the Clinton Foundation. By December 14, Infowars had removed two out of three of its videos related to Pizzagate. In February 2017, Alefantis' lawyers sent Jones a letter demanding an apology and retraction. Under Texas law, Jones was given a month to comply or be subject to a libel suit. In March 2017, Alex Jones apologized to Alefantis for promulgating the conspiracy theory, saying "To my knowledge today, neither Mr. Alefantis, nor his restaurant Comet Ping Pong, were involved in any human trafficking as was part of the theories about Pizzagate that were being written about in many media outlets and which we commented upon."
Michael T. Flynn and Michael Flynn Jr.
In November 2016, Michael T. Flynn, then on President-Elect Donald Trump's transition team and Trump's designate for National Security Advisor, posted multiple tweets on Twitter containing conspiratorial material regarding Hillary Clinton alleging that Clinton's campaign manager, John Podesta, drank the blood and bodily fluids of other humans in Satanic rituals, which Politico says "soon morphed into the '#pizzagate' conspiracy theory involving Comet Ping Pong". On November 2, 2016, Flynn tweeted a link to a story with unfounded accusations and wrote, "U decide - NYPD Blows Whistle on New Hillary Emails: Money Laundering, Sex Crimes w Children, etc...MUST READ!" The tweet was shared by over 9,000 people, but was deleted from Flynn's account some time between December 12–13, 2016.
After the shooting incident at Comet Ping Pong, Michael Flynn Jr., Michael T. Flynn's son and also a member of Trump's transition team, tweeted:
On December 6, 2016, Flynn Jr. was forced out of Trump's transition team. Spokesman Jason Miller did not identify the reason for Flynn Jr.'s dismissal; however, The New York Times reported that other officials had confirmed it was related to the tweet.
- On December 9, 2016, Alex Jones defended Infowars against the characterization of it as fake news, saying, according to The Washington Times: "In an effort to try and censor the liberty movement and free speech, the mainstream media is now attempting to label legitimate news sources like Infowars as 'fake news' to push towards a government-led shut down of Infowars.com." Others have disagreed, for example U.S. News labeled InfoWars as a fake news website to avoid "at all cost".
- Zupello, Suzanne (December 29, 2016). "13 Most WTF Stories of 2016". Rolling Stone. Retrieved December 31, 2016.
Welch was inspired to drive from North Carolina to Washington D.C., armed with an assault rifle, to save enslaved children from the hidden chambers beneath Comet Pizza. Only one problem – there was neither a sex ring nor underground caverns with shackles of former slaves.
- Huang, Gregor Aisch, Jon; Kang, Cecilia (December 10, 2016). "Dissecting the #PizzaGate Conspiracy Theories". The New York Times. Retrieved December 10, 2016.
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- LaCapria, Kim (December 2, 2016). "A detailed conspiracy theory known as "Pizzagate" holds that a pedophile ring is operating out of a Clinton-linked pizzeria called Comet Ping Pong". Snopes.com. Retrieved November 30, 2016.
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- Alam, Hannah (December 5, 2016). "Conspiracy peddlers continue pushing debunked 'pizzagate' tale". Miami Herald. Retrieved December 7, 2016.
One might think that police calling the motive a 'fictitious conspiracy theory' would put an end to the claim that inspired a gunman from North Carolina to attack a family pizzeria in Washington over the weekend
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Though debunked by sources as diverse as The New York Times, Fox News Channel and the web hoax investigator Snopes.com, more than a million messages have traversed Twitter since November about #Pizzagate.
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a nutty conspiracy theory about a child sex ring run from a Washington, D.C., pizzeria
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Michael Flynn Jr, the son of the President-elect’s pick for national security adviser, was among those supporting the debunked Pizzagate conspiracy theory that led to a man opening fire in a Washington restaurant.
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Flynn tweeted a fake news story in November on the #Pizzagate hoax, an absurd claim tying Clinton to a made-up underground child molestation ring based out of a Washington, D.C. pizza place named Comet Ping Pong.
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A false story alleged that Hillary Clinton and her campaign chairman, John Podesta, were involved in a child sex ring based out of Comet Ping Pong
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A North Carolina man armed with an assault rifle was arrested Sunday inside a popular Washington D.C. restaurant that became a center of conspiracy theories driven by fake news stories that went viral before the presidential election.
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The dangerous and damaging fake allegations against a businessman and his employees simply trying to make a living have been repeatedly debunked, disproved and dismissed.
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... Flynn posed a tweet containing the hashtag "#spiritcooking," a reference to a bizarre rumor alleging that Clinton's campaign manager, John Podesta, took part in occult rituals in which people consume blood and other bodily fluids. That rumor, based on a wild reading of some Podesta emails that had been released by WikiLeaks, also took off on websites such as the Drudge Report and InfoWars, run by Trump-supporting conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. The "#spiritcooking" rumor soon morphed into the "#pizzagate" conspiracy theory involving Comet Ping Pong, which alleges that virtually the entire D.C. establishment ... is involved with or covering up a satanic plot to traffic in, sexually abuse and murder children.
- Bender, Bryan; Hanna, Andrew (December 5, 2016). "Flynn under fire for fake news". Politico. Retrieved December 5, 2016.
- Smith, Allan (December 5, 2016). "Michael Flynn's son spars with Jake Tapper over fake 'pizzagate' story that led armed man to go to restaurant". Business Insider. Retrieved December 5, 2016.
- Rosenberg, Matthew (December 5, 2016). "Trump Adviser Has Pushed Clinton Conspiracy Theories". The New York Times. Retrieved December 6, 2016.
- Faulders, Katherine (December 6, 2016). "Mike Flynn Jr. Forced Out of Trump Transition Amid Fake News Controversy". ABC News. Retrieved December 7, 2016.
- Media related to Pizzagate at Wikimedia Commons