Pizzagate is a debunked conspiracy theory which alleged that emails from John Podesta (Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign chairman), which were leaked by WikiLeaks, tied a number of pizzerias and members of the Democratic Party to a child-sex ring. The theory has been discredited by the District of Columbia Police Department who characterized it as a ‘fictitious conspiracy theory,’ and determined to be fake by multiple organizations including Snopes.com, The New York Times, and Fox News.
Several sites noted that purported evidence cited by the conspiracy theory’s proponents had been fabricated or taken from entirely different sources and photoshopped 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 purported victims.
Reports of this conspiracy theory emerged during the 2016 United States presidential election cycle, with ‘BuzzFeed’ tracing its origin to a tweet written by a ‘reputed white supremacist’ which claimed that emails found on Anthony Weiner’s laptop revealed the existence of a pedophilia ring linked to members of the Democratic Party. 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,’ and the following day, Sean Adl-Tabatabai (a former associate of professional conspiracy theorist David Icke), repeated the story 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 claimed the New York Police Department had raided Hillary Clinton’s property. ‘PolitiFact’ investigated the claims and found no evidence for them, writing that it failed to ‘rise above rumor or hoax.’
Around this time, Twitter and 4chan users started searching the leaked emails of John Podesta for food-related ‘code words’ that supposedly revealed the existence of a sex trafficking operation. For example, the word ‘pizza’ was thought to be a code word for pedophilia. The allegations spread to the mainstream internet following a post on the website ‘Reddit’ several days before the 2016 US presidential election. The post, since removed by the site, alleged of 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 websites such as ‘Infowars.com’ and the ‘Vigilant Citizen,’ and has been promoted by alt-right activists such as Mike Cernovich and Brittany Pettibone.
As the ‘Pizzagate’ hoax spread, Comet Ping Pong ‘received hundreds of threatening messages and phone calls from people who believed the story to be true.’ 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 used some of the posted photos to ‘prove’ their 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 random 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.’
‘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 (some of which included 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 implicate the 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, theorized connections to the CIA, and the Illuminati.
On December 4, 2016, a 28-year-old Salisbury, North Carolina man fired three shots in the restaurant with an AR-15-style assault rifle, striking walls, a desk, and a door. The suspect later told police that he had planned to ‘self-investigate’ the conspiracy theory. The man surrendered after he ‘found no evidence that underage children were being harbored in the restaurant,’ was arrested without incident and charged with assault with a dangerous weapon. No injuries were reported. The suspect 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,’ the suspect said that he regretted how he handled the situation but did not dismiss the conspiracy theory, and rejected the description of it as ‘fake news.’
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. After the shooting incident at Comet Ping Pong, Michael G. Flynn (son of Michael T. Flynn, President-Elect Donald Trump’s designate for National Security Advisor) 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, Michael G. Flynn was forced out of Trump’s transition team.
In Turkey, the false allegations were reported by mainstream newspapers and media organizations supportive of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, such as Sabah, A Haber, Yeni Şafak, Akşamand Star. The story appeared on Turkey’s Ekşi Sözlük (which shares similarities to Reddit) 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. These media accounts accuse the west of being hypocritical in criticizing Erdoğan or discussing child sexual abuse in the Ensar Foundation (which has links with the Turkish government), while alleged child sex abuse occurs within the United States. Thus, ‘The Daily Dot’ concluded that this was likely an attempt to draw attention away from child sexual abuse problems within Turkey. Additionally, the AKP (Erdoğan’s party) also recently proposed a draft bill that would have given amnesty to child abusers if they married their victims, and ‘BBC News Online’ says that Pizzagate provided a ‘distraction’ from the negative coverage the Turkish government was receiving over this.