“Pizzagate” redirects here. For the pizza-throwing incident at a 2004 football match, see Battle of the Buffet
Pizzagate is a debunked conspiracy theory that emerged during the 2016 United States presidential election cycle alleging that John Podesta‘s emails, which were leaked by WikiLeaks, contain coded messages referring to human trafficking and connecting a number of restaurants in the United States and members of the Democratic Party with a fabricated child-sex ring. It has been extensively discussed in the media and discredited by a wide array of sources across the political spectrum, described as a “fictitious conspiracy theory” by the District of Columbia Police Department and determined to be false by multiple organizations including Snopes.com, The New York Times, and Fox News.
2016 conspiracy theory
This conspiracy theory emerged near the end of the 2016 United States presidential election cycle. BuzzFeed News traced its origin to a tweet written by a “reputed white supremacist” on October 30, 2016 that claimed the New York City Police Department, which was searching emails found on Anthony Weiner‘s laptop as part of an investigation into his sexting scandals, had discovered the existence of a pedophilia ring linked to members of the Democratic Party. Internet users reading John Podesta’s emails released by Wikileaks in early November 2016 speculated that some words in Podesta’s emails were code words for pedophilia and human trafficking. The theory also proposed that the ring was a meeting ground for satanic ritual abuse. Other claims that the theory proposed include the use of handkerchief codes (interpreted from a widely-cited email mentioning a “pizza-related” handkerchief), the alleged use of pedophile symbols in the logos of various organizations, and John Podesta and his brother Tony Podesta‘s alleged connection to the disappearance of Madeleine McCann.
The theory was then posted on the message board Godlike Productions. The following day, Sean Adl-Tabatabai (a former associate of 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 falsely claimed the New York Police Department had raided Hillary Clinton‘s property. The website Conservative Daily Post ran a headline falsely stating that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had “confirmed” this story.
Users on Twitter and 4chan searched the leaked emails of John Podesta for food-related “code words” that supposedly revealed the existence of a sex trafficking operation. For example, The New York Times reported that the phrase “cheese pizza” was thought by a poster to 4chan to be a code word for child pornography since they had the same initials. The allegations spread to “the mainstream internet” following a post on the website Reddit several days before the 2016 US presidential election. The post, meanwhile removed by the site, alleged the involvement of the 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 fake news websites such as Infowars.com,[a] Planet Free Will and the Vigilant Citizen, and has been promoted by alt-right activists such as Mike Cernovich and Brittany Pettibone. Other promoters included David Seaman, former writer for TheStreet.com, CBS46 anchor Ben Swann, and basketball player Andrew Bogut. On December 30, as Bogut recovered from a knee injury, members of /r/The Donald subreddit upvoted a post claiming that his injury was connected to mild support for Pizzagate. Sports Illustrated and Mashable debunked this claim, pointing out that Bogut was an “incredibly injury-prone” basketball player. Jonathan Albright, an assistant professor of media analytics at Elon University, said that a disproportionate number of tweets about Pizzagate came from the Czech Republic, Cyprus, and Vietnam and that some of the most frequent retweeters were bots.
Redditors from the subreddit /r/The Donald created the /r/pizzagate subreddit to further develop the conspiracy theory. The sub was banned on November 23, 2016 for violating Reddit’s anti-doxing policy with Reddit posting a notice that “We don’t want witchhunts on our site”. Users had posted personal details of people connected to the alleged conspiracy.
After the ban on Reddit, the discussion was moved to the v/pizzagate sub on Voat, a website similar to Reddit, where discussion continues.
Turkish press reports
In Turkey, the allegations were reported by pro-government newspapers (i.e., those supportive of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan), such as Sabah, A Haber, Yeni Şafak, Akşam and Star. The story appeared on Turkey’s Ekşi Sözlük 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. A columnist in the The Daily Dot suggested government sources were pushing this story, after a recent child sexual abuse scandal, in order to distract attraction from controversial pending legislation on child marriage.
Harassment of owners and employees
The pizzeria, Comet Ping Pong, was threatened by hundreds of people who believed in the Pizzagate conspiracy theory.
As Pizzagate 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”.
Several bands who had performed at the pizzeria also faced harassment. For example, Amanda Kleinman of Heavy Breathing deleted her Twitter account after receiving negative comments connecting her and her band to the conspiracy theory. Another band, Sex Stains, had closed the comments of their YouTube videos and addressed the controversy in the description of their videos. The artist Arrington de Dionyso, whose murals are frequently displayed at the pizzeria, described the campaign of harassment against him in detail, and averred of the attacks in general that “I think it’s a very deliberate assault, which will eventually be a coordinated assault on all forms of free expression.” The affair has drawn comparisons with the Gamergate controversy.
Politics and Prose was among some of the D.C. businesses that were also harassed due to the Pizzagate conspiracy theory.
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 imply they 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 Central Intelligence Agency, and the Illuminati.
Comet Ping Pong shooting
US v Welch Affidavit in Support of Criminal Complaint (full text)
On December 4, 2016, Edgar Maddison Welch, a 28-year-old Salisbury, North Carolina man, allegedly fired three shots in the restaurant with an AR-15-style rifle, striking walls, a desk, and a door. Welch later told police that he had planned to “self-investigate” the conspiracy theory. He 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 one was injured.
Welch 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, Welch 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”. Some conspiracy theorists believed that the shooting was a staged attempt to discredit their investigations.
On December 13, 2016, Welch was charged with one count of “interstate transportation of a firearm with intent to commit an offense” (a federal crime). According to court documents, Welch attempted to recruit friends three days before the attack by urging them to watch a YouTube video about the conspiracy. He was subsequently charged with two additional offenses, with the grand jury returning an indictment charging Welch with assault with a dangerous weapon and possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime, each charge carrying a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. Welch pleaded not guilty to all charges.
On January 12, 2017, a Louisiana man, Yusif Lee Jones, pleaded guilty in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana to making a threatening phone call three days after Welch’s attack to Besta Pizza, another pizzeria on the same block as Comet Ping Pong. He said that he threatened Best to “save the kids” and “finish what the other guy didn’t.” Jones faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
The conspiracy theory has been widely discredited and debunked. It has been described as false by the fact-checking website snopes.com and The New York Times. Other criticisms of the conspiracy theory came from the New York Observer, The Washington Post, The Independent in London, The Huffington Post, The Washington Times, Los Angeles Times, Fox News and the Miami Herald. The Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia characterized the matter as “fictitious”.
Much of the purported evidence cited by the conspiracy theory’s proponents had been taken from entirely different sources and made 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 victims. The Charlotte Observer noted the diverse group of sources that had debunked the conspiracy theory, pointing out this included the Fox News Channel in addition to The New York Times.
On December 10, 2016, The New York Times published an article that analyzed the claims that the theory proposed. They emphasized that:
- The theory claimed “cheese pizza” was code for “child pornography,” since the term had been used in this context previously on the website 4Chan. This was extrapolated to other mentions of food in non-political emails. However, as the Times pointed out, the “Podesta brothers were famous in Washington circles for their Italian cooking and big salon and fund-raising dinners, often cooked by their mother.”
- Theorists linked the conspiracy to Comet Ping Pong, through similarities between company logos and symbols related to Satanism and pedophilia. However, The Times noted that striking similarities may also be found in the logos of a number of unrelated companies, such as AOL, Time Warner, and MSN.
- A photograph was circulated purporting to show President Barack Obama playing ping pong with a child inside Comet Ping Pong. The original picture hangs framed in the White House, where it was taken.
- Theorists claimed an underground network beneath Comet Ping Pong; however, the restaurant actually has no basement, and the picture used to support this claim was taken from another facility.
- Theorists claimed to have a picture of restaurant owner Alefantis wearing a T-shirt endorsing pedophilia. However, the image was of another person entirely, and the shirt, which read “J’ ❤ L’Enfant,” was actually a reference to the L’Enfant Cafe-Bar in DC, whose owner was pictured in the image, and which itself was named after Pierre Charles L’Enfant, designer of much of the layout of Washington, DC.
- Theorists claimed John and Tony Podesta kidnapped Madeleine McCann using police sketches which were, in fact, two sketches of the same suspect taken from the descriptions of two eye witnesses. Furthermore, the claim that the brothers were in Portugal at the time of the kidnapping was sourced only to the conspiracy website Victurus Libertas, notable for, among other things, suggesting that the Queen of England was a reptilian alien.
Additionally, no alleged victims have come forward, nor has any physical evidence been found.
Community messages in front of Comet Ping Pong following the shooting
In an interview with NPR on November 27, 2016, Comet Ping Pong owner James Alefantis referred to the conspiracy theory as “an insanely complicated, made-up, fictional lie-based story” and a “coordinated political attack.” The Seattle Times wrote that the conspiracy theorists’ assertions were “dangerous and damaging false allegations” and that they were “repeatedly debunked, disproved and dismissed.”
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. Stefanie MacWilliams, contributor for Planet Free Will who wrote an article about Pizzagate, was reported in the Toronto Star as saying, after the Comet Ping Pong shooting, that “I really have no regrets and it’s honestly really grown our audience.” Pizzagate, she said, is “two worlds clashing. People don’t trust the mainstream media anymore, but it’s true that people shouldn’t take the alternative media as truth, either.”
After the Comet Ping Pong shooting, Alex Jones backed off from the idea that the D.C. pizzeria was the center of the conspiracy. On December 4, Infowars.com uploaded a YouTube video that linked Pizzagate to the November 13 death of a sex-worker-rights activist. The video falsely claimed that she had been investigating a link between the Clinton Foundation and human trafficking in Haiti and it speculated that she had been murdered in connection with her investigation. According to the activist’s former employer, her family and her friends, her death was in fact a suicide and she was not investigating the Clinton Foundation. By December 14, Infowars had removed two out of three of its videos related to Pizzagate.
On December 8, Hillary Clinton responded to the conspiracy theory, speaking about the dangers of fake news websites. She said, “The epidemic of malicious fake news and fake propaganda that flooded social media over the past year, it’s now clear that so-called fake news can have real-world consequences.”
A poll conducted by Public Policy Polling on December 6–7, 2016, asked 1,224 U.S. registered voters if they thought Hillary Clinton was “connected to a child sex ring being run out of a pizzeria in Washington DC?” The poll showed that 9% said that they did believe she was connected, 72% said they did not, and 19% were not sure. The full results, organized according to which candidate the respondents supported in the 2016 presidential election, were as follows:
Opinion of whether Hillary Clinton is connected to a child sex ring run from a Pizzeria in DC
|Survey of 1,224 registered voters conducted December 6–7, 2016, margin of error 2.8%
A poll of voters conducted on December 17–20 by The Economist/YouGov asked voters if they believed that, “Leaked e-mails from the Clinton campaign talked about pedophilia and human trafficking – ‘Pizzagate’.” The results showed that 17% of Clinton voters responded “true” while 82% responded “not true”; and 46% of Trump voters responded “true” while 53% responded “not true.”
Michael T. Flynn and Michael Flynn Jr.
In November 2016, Michael T. Flynn, then on President-Elect Donald Trump‘s transition team and Trump’s designate for National Security Advisor, posted multiple tweets on Twitter containing conspiratorial material regarding Hillary Clinton alleging that Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta, drank the blood and bodily fluids of other humans in Satanic rituals, which Politico says “soon morphed into the ‘#pizzagate’ conspiracy theory involving Comet Ping Pong”. On November 2, 2016, Flynn tweeted a link to a story with unfounded accusations and wrote, “U decide – NYPD Blows Whistle on New Hillary Emails: Money Laundering, Sex Crimes w Children, etc…MUST READ!” The tweet was shared by over 9,000 people, but was deleted from Flynn’s account some time between December 12–13, 2016.
After the shooting incident at Comet Ping Pong, Michael Flynn Jr., Michael T. Flynn’s son and also a member of Trump’s transition team, 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, 2016, Flynn Jr. was forced out of Trump’s transition team. Spokesman Jason Miller did not identify the reason for Flynn Jr.’s dismissal; however, The New York Times reported that other officials had confirmed it was related to the tweet.