#PizzaGate proves it doesn’t matter what’s true as long as enough people believe it.
Comet Ping Pong is a restaurant, ping-pong parlor and event space in the Chevy Chase neighborhood of Washington DC. It’s been open for ten years. And a vociferous group of online “researchers”?—?Infowars listeners, Reddit posters and Roseanne Barr, who never met a right-wing conspiracy theory she didn’t like?—?believe it’s at the center of a child trafficking and molestation enterprise in service of the Satanic demon Moloch.
Bet you didn’t see that coming. Welcome to #pizzagate, one of the weirdest things to hit the internet in some time.
Pizzagate is almost impossible to sum up coherently, as most conspiracy theories are, but I’ll do my best.
It all starts with the hack of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta’s email, released by Wikileaks in the weeks leading up to the election. The massive dump revealed, unsurprisingly, that the Dem establishment was in the tank for Clinton the whole time and worked to deny Bernie Sanders the nomination.
There was also a lot of unrelated material in Podesta’s emails, which shouldn’t surprise anybody who’s ever had an email account. Personal conversations, junk mail, forwarded articles, you name it. One of those emails mentioned Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic, who was having Podesta’s brother Tony over for a dinner related to a Kickstarter campaign he contributed to.
Abramovic’s artwork often involves blood, either animal or her own, and the right-wing outrage machine immediately decided to frame it as devil worship, claiming that Podesta and Clinton joined her in a variety of occult rituals. After the election, some dedicated posters were still determined to cement the Satanic connection.
So, conspiracists began circulating a list of supposed code words used by pedophiles to arrange their sexual activities. With these words, you could see the Podesta emails in a whole new light and truly understand the meaning behind all the food talk.
And this is where #pizzagate goes off the rails. That list of “code words?” It’s not from any law enforcement agency. It came from 4chan. It’s fake. No law enforcement officer or child advocate I spoke to had ever heard of them.
This shouldn’t be surprising, because just a month or so before that, 4chan attempted to do the same thing with racial slurs, claiming that “Google” was slang for “African-American” and “Skype” replaced “Jew.” While that one didn’t catch on so well, the “pizza code” was immediately accepted by the anti-Clinton crowd. Conspiracy theorists now had something to chew on, and they immediately started scouring the Podesta emails for more mentions of “pizza.”
Naturally, they found a few (I just searched my Gmail and found 152 messages with “pizza” in them). One of the mentions led them to Comet Ping Pong.
Comet is owned by a gay man named James Alefantis, who used to date Clinton strategist David Brock. Tony Podesta is a frequent patron of Comet. It’s a neighborhood pillar that, according to Yelp, serves pretty good pizza.
Three photos on Comet’s Instagram account showed children eating there, one with her hands masking-taped to a table. An employee of the restaurant had a drawing of a penis on his Instagram. Some weird bands have played there. Taken individually?—?or in the context of a busy, urban restaurant?—?none of this meant anything. But when marinated in the feverish minds of internet denizens desperate for meaning, it meant that Comet Ping Pong was involved in Satanic child molestation.
As I write this, #pizzagate has spun wildly out of control. Theorists believe it implicates Barack Obama and Joe Biden in child sexual abuse and the Clintons in demonic sacrifice, and they’re now demanding that President-Elect Trump take action and bring all involved parties to trial or risk impeachment.
All this, without a single real victim of child sexual exploitation or any evidence of one. Just a few weird photographs and a whole lot of internet outrage.
Let’s be frank: Child molestation is a terrible crime and deserves punishment. But only 10% of child sexual assaults are committed by strangers. And the “pizza” code from 4chan has no basis in reality. Sane people look at the reams of speculation in #pizzagate and see the internet out of control. Again.
This is far from the first time that a Reddit-led witch hunt has resulted in real-world consequences. After the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, users believed they’d discovered the three culprits in crowd photographs and widely distributed their names and photographs. The only problem was that none of their targets were involved—and one, student Sunil Tripathi, had been missing before the bombing and killed himself. The furious processing of information led Reddit down a blind alley and smeared the names of innocent men.
That’s just one of many, many similar incidents: a day care in Salt Lake City with its reputation destroyed by Reddit. Anonymous doxing the wrong cop in the Mike Brown shooting. The list goes on and on. Crowdsourcing investigations can work, but they can also lead to serious screw-ups.
Last week, Reddit administrators deleted the site’s largest #pizzagate thread and shut down the dedicated subreddit, to the outrage of many. It still continues to bubble up on Twitter and less popular sites like Gab and Voat, with a core of dedicated believers frantically trying to convince the rest of the world.
What makes it so easy for these online communities to believe conspiracy theories? It’s a combination of a number of factors.
Obviously, our old friend confirmation bias comes into play. Nobody wants to think they’re wasting all their time on an investigation that’s going to come up with nothing. So #pizzagate discussion threads don’t contain any debunking or critical questioning, just attempts to make newly-discovered evidence conform to the existing hypothesis. It’s like “Jeopardy,” where they come up with the answer first and then ask the questions.
In addition, most of the major participants are fairly socially isolated and culturally illiterate. The panic about “All Ages” being on show posters at Comet Ping Pong is a great illustration of this. Washington DC’s hardcore punk scene, led by bands like Fugazi, has always prioritized shows where no alcohol is served, so teens can enjoy the music. It doesn’t mean toddlers are coming to noise rock shows, like the #pizzagate proponents claim. It simply means alcohol isn’t served at the events.
The reaction to Marina Abramovic’s artwork, and Tony Podesta’s collection in general, is another good example. Abramovic’s work is challenging and violent, exploring the limits of mind and body. It’s certainly not for the squeamish. But ascribing occult motivations to it is, frankly, silly. It’s the same Puritan moral panic that blames heavy metal music for teen suicide.
The worst thing about all of this is the very real effect it’s having on Comet Ping Pong’s employees. The restaurant is receiving hundreds of threats a day, with believers surreptitiously video recording employees and customers to feverishly find “evidence.” Alefantis commented to the New York Times that he’s “done nothing for days but try and clean this up and protect my staff and friends from being terrorized.”
The lesson of #pizzagate is simple: In the post-factual America, it doesn’t matter what can be proven, as long as enough people believe it. Hopefully these people will move on and leave Alefantis and his restaurant alone.
But what happens when they don’t get the victories they want? Will the minds behind #pizzagate move on to some new imagined atrocity, some other innocent victim? Or is Comet Ping Pong doomed to always be connected with a horrible crime that never even existed?