Fake News, Real Consequences: How An Online Smear Campaign Led To An Offline Threat In DC
An armed gunman entered Comet Ping Pong in the Chevy Chase neighborhood of northwest Washington, DC Sunday afternoon, prompting a partial lockdown of the surrounding area. The man- now identified as 28-year-old Edgar Maddison Welch of Salisbury, North Carolina- entered the popular family establishment, brandished a rifle at employees, and fired the rifle inside of the restaurant. After he was apprehended, Welch told police he had come to “self investigate” a fake online conspiracy theory involving Comet, normally known for its wood-fired pizzas, local music and art shows, and, of course, free ping-pong tables.
Known as “Pizza-gate”, the fake news story alleged that owner James Alefantis was running a pedophilia ring in Comet’s basement, with support from Hillary Clinton and her campaign chairman John Podesta. The story began being spread via sites like 4chan and Reddit shortly before the election, after Alefantis’ name was featured in a fundraising memo to Podesta uncovered by Wikileaks.
While the story has been widely discredited, it gained a sizable following online, with videos and articles purporting to contain evidence of the pizza parlor being a hub for child abuse receiving thousands of views. These materials, and associated theories, were spread by many alt-right outlets, and even by prominent members of President-Elect Donald Trump’s campaign, most notably by Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, his choice for national security advisor.
This theory also gained traction outside of the US, most notably in Turkey. There, the spread of this story seems to have been used to distract people from news of a controversial bill put forth by members of President Erdogan’s party that seeks to give amnesty to child abusers if they married their victims.
The alt right conspiracy theorists and their followers repeatedly attacked Alefantis and Comet even after the election, posting negative reviews and making threats online to him, as well as his employees. There were even several protesters who gathered outside Comet and posted a YouTube video of their interaction with Mr. Alefantis as he welcomed them into his establishment. Alefantis, in an interview earlier with the Washington City Paper, also indicated that attackers used pictures of children from his Instagram account and also made threats to other businesses in the area.
Suspect at #cometpizza apprehended great job @DCPoliceDept
Mr. Welch was thankfully apprehended without injuring anyone. However, his actions, and the existence of “Pizzagate” in general, cast a new light on the fake news phenomenon. No longer are these sites simply cheap methods of misinformation and smear tactics. The coordinated and deliberate nature with which fake news trolls went after Mr. Alefantis and his business suggest they are sophisticated enough to potentially mobilize online attacks against specific targets. They may also be convincing enough to get their most extreme consumers to take extreme actions. Mr. Welch’s attack will hopefully be a one-off event. However, greater vigilance of fringe sites is needed by law enforcement and fact checkers alike to ensure this is the case.
In the meantime, locals have already begun efforts to support Comet Ping Pong after Sunday’s ordeal. It seems fake news are no match for the offline bonds Comet has built in the Chevy Chase area for the past decade. Such bonds are easy to make when pizza is involved.