What Is The Pizzagate Conspiracy Theory?

The propagation of fake news stories during this election cycle has been a popular topic of conversation recently. But now its become more than just an ideological problem. On Sunday, a fake news story about the "pizzagate" conspiracy theory reportedly drove a man to enter a popular Washington D.C. pizza restaurant with an assault rifle, which he fired off, in an attempt to investigate the false story on his own.

So what is "pizzagate," exactly?

Late last month, just days before the election, a story began circulating that Hillary Clinton and her campaign manager, John Podesta, were involved in a child sex operation that was based out of Comet Ping Pong, a popular restaurant and bar in Washington D.C.

According to Buzzfeed News, which created a timeline that tracked the evolution of the "pizzagate" conspiracy theory, it all started with a tweet from a "white supremacy Twitter account that presents itself as belonging to a Jewish lawyer in New York." The tweet quoted a Facebook post from a woman who appears to be in Missouri, according to BuzzFeed, alleging that an NYPD source told her that there were emails found during an investigation into former congressman Anthony Weiner that the Clintons and Weiner were involved in an "international child enslavement and sex ring."

From there, fringe and alt-right message boards and news sites ran with the story. Those stories were then used by the original twitter account as proof to verify its allegations, even though those stories were all based off its original tweet. The owners of the Comet Ping Pong, as well as law enforcement officials have all denied the allegations, but that has not slowed the spread of the conspiracy theory.

But on Sunday, the baseless, fake news conspiracy theory made a very real and violent impact. According to news reports, at around 3 p.m., a man entered Comet Ping Pong with an assault rifle, and aimed it at a restaurant worker. Police said that in an interview after his arrest, the suspect said he had come to the restaurant to investigate the pizzagate theory. Customers and staff were able to escape the building and alert the police, no one was injured and the man was arrested about 45 minutes later. But the incident shocked storeowners and patrons that were in the neighborhood.

Comet Ping Pong's owners and employees have been the target of menacing threats and harassment online, according to owner James Alefantis. Other stores in the vicinity, like long-standing bookstore Politics and Prose, as well as coffee shop Little Red Fox, have also been swept up in the conspiracy theory and have been the target of threats, according to reports. Little Red Fox's owner Matt Carr, told The Washington Post that he feared the "pizzagate" theory would drive someone to violence, as it did on Sunday. Alefatnis released a statement condemning the supporters of this conspiracy theory.

What happened today demonstrates that promoting false and reckless conspiracy theories comes with consequences. I hope that those involved in fanning these flames will take a moment to contemplate what happened here today, and stop promoting these falsehoods right away.

But judging by Twitter, "pizzagate" supporters were not deterred by Sunday's incident and found ways to justify the event as a plot to silence them. Some pushed back against the accusations that their support of the fake story spurred the violent incident and were sticking steadfastly to their message that the children allegedly at risk needed to be saved.

While this conspiracy theory was easy to ignore when it existed solely online, this attack is proof positive of the real-life dangers that can come of propagating fake news stories.