On December 4, 2016, 28-year-old Edgar Welch used his AR-15 to open fire at Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington D.C. Despite firing several rounds, no one was injured and Welch eventually surrendered himself to authorities. The online conspiracy theory known as “Pizzagate” inspired this violent and potentially lethal outburst.
What led this North Carolina man to such extreme behavior? Welch wanted to investigate the child sex-slavery ring underneath Comet Ping Pong pizzeria. A sex-slavery ring that did not exist.
According to Esquire, the Pizzagate scandal all began in November of 2016 when Hilary Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta, has his email hacked and leaked onto Wikileaks. One of the emails, according to The New York Times, was between Podesta and James Alefantis, the owner of D.C.’s Comet Ping Pong. The message discussed the possibility of Alefantis hosting a fundraiser for Clinton at his establishment.
Speculation and a wide variety of interpretations of the leaked emails evolved throughout online chat rooms like 4Chan. This led some people to the conclusion that the pizzeria was actually a headquarters for a child human trafficking ring led by Clinton and Podesta. Alt-right groups used this misinformation as propaganda throughout various forms of social media prior to the election.
While this conspiracy spread throughout the media, Comet Ping Pong staff received threatening messages and phone calls. “I will kill you personally,” one message read, according to The New York Times. Photos of customers’ children were also posted online and used in articles as evidence of the child-abuse ring. As threats mounted up, Alefantis contacted the FBI and local police in fear of the safety of his employees and their families.
This theory, however, did not limit itself to the borders of the United States. As reported by Esquire, the Turkish government became involved when pro-government twitter accounts launched a series of tweets using #Pizzagate. Meanwhile, these accounts were harshly criticized by anti-government activists who claimed the tweets were just a distraction to the actual child abuse scandal facing the Turkish president.
As reported by CNN, Josh Earnest, White House press secretary said, “I think there’s no denying the corrosive effect that some of these false reports have had on our political debate and that’s concerning in a political context. It’s deeply troubling that some of those false reports could lead to violence.”
The implications of this occurrence have clearly exposed the dangers of posting on social media. According to the Financial Times, critics are asking whether companies such as Facebook and Google have a responsibility to block such content.
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, has pledged to introduce tools that will make it easier to flag fake stories; while Twitter recently suspended several accounts belonging to members of “alt-right” groups, saying the network’s rules “prohibit targeted abuse and harassment,” says the Financial Times.
Taking on the fake news phenomenon has now proved to be a concerning factor in the upcoming evolution of technological advancements as it relates to our political system and the safety of the American public.
“My name has been torn to shreds,” Comet Ping Pong owner said to Reveal News. “And then there are all these other people that continue to perpetuate these conspiracy theories and lies online, and there are absolutely no repercussions for these people, and I wonder when they will be held accountable.”