Pizzagate is a debunked conspiracy theory that went viral during the 2016 United States presidential election cycle. The conspiracy theory has been extensively discredited and debunked by a wide array of organizations, including the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia.
In the fall of 2016, the personal email account of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton‘s campaign manager, was hacked in a spear-phishing attack, and his emails were subsequently made public by WikiLeaks. Proponents of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory falsely claimed that the emails contained coded messages referring to human trafficking and connecting several U.S. restaurants and high-ranking officials of the Democratic Party with an alleged child-sex ring involving the Washington, D.C. restaurant Comet Ping Pong.
Members of the alt-right and other opponents of Clinton‘s presidential campaign spread the conspiracy theory on social media outlets such as 4chan and Twitter. A man from North Carolina traveled to Comet Ping Pong to investigate this conspiracy, during which he fired a rifle inside the restaurant. In addition, the restaurant owner and staff received death threats.
This conspiracy theory emerged near the end of the 2016 United States presidential election cycle. On October 30, 2016, a white supremacist Twitter account that presented itself as belonging to a Jewish lawyer in New York included a display of a claim that 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. Proponents also claimed 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 Your News Wire citing a 4chan post from earlier that year. The Your News Wire article was then spread by pro-Trump websites, including SubjectPolitics.com, 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 original Reddit post, since removed some time between November 4 and 21, 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, 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, basketball player Andrew Bogut, and Minecraft creator Markus Persson. 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 witch-hunts 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 G. Flynn (Michael Flynn‘s son), 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 re-posted 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 restaurant 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 and 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. Welch saw himself as the potential hero of the story—a rescuer of children. He surrendered after officers surrounded 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 speculated 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. Welch also agreed to pay $5,744.33 for damages to the restaurant. U.S. District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson sentenced Welch to four years in prison on June 22, 2017; at the sentencing hearing, Welch apologized for his conduct and said that he had been “foolish and reckless.”
On January 12, 2017, a Louisiana man 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.”
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 the New York Observer, The Washington Post, The Independent in London, The Huffington Post, The Washington Times, the 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:
- 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 similarities were also found in the logos of a number of unrelated companies, such as AOL, Time Warner, and MSN.
- 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, 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 is 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.
No alleged victims have come forward and no physical evidence has been found.
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, who wrote an article promoting the conspiracy on Planet Free Will, was subsequently reported by the Toronto Star as saying, “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 Pizzagate-related videos.
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 sometime 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; “Until #Pizzagate proven to be false, it’ll remain a story. The left seems to forget #PodestaEmails and the many ‘coincidences’ tied to it.” 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.