On 4 November 2016, Reddit user u/DumbScribblyUnctious published a thread titled "Comet Ping Pong - Pizzagate Summary" to subreddit r/The_Donald (a community of Donald Trump supporters), which appears to have touched off a complex and detailed conspiracy theory involving WikiLeaks' release of e-mails from former Hillary Clinton presidential campaign chair John Podesta, child exploitation, and a Washington, D.C., pizzeria called Comet Ping Pong.
None of this elaborate conspiracy theory was true, as the New York Times noted:
None of it was true. While [Comet Ping Pong pizzeria owner James] Alefantis has some prominent Democratic friends in Washington and was a supporter of Mrs. Clinton, he has never met her, does not sell or abuse children, and is not being investigated by law enforcement for any of these claims. He and his 40 employees had unwittingly become real people caught in the middle of a storm of fake news.
“From this insane, fabricated conspiracy theory, we’ve come under constant assault,” said Mr. Alefantis, 42, who was once in a relationship with David Brock, a provocative former right-wing journalist who became an outspoken advocate for Mrs. Clinton.
Although the original "Pizzagate" post was deleted at some point between 4 and 21 November 2016, archived versions of it contained what appeared to be the original post in its entirety. (A subreddit dedicated to the controversy, r/pizzagate, was created in the interim.) A brief and incomplete summary of the theory espoused in the original post goes as follows:
Comet Pizza is a pizza place owned by James Alefantis, who is the former gay boyfriend of David Brock, the CEO of Correct The Record. It has been the venue for dozens of events for the Hillary campaign staff. John Podesta has had campaign fundraisers there for both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. John's brother and business partner Tony Podesta has his birthday party there every year. [https://i.sli.mg/1MqPHA.png]
It's also a dive that according to reviews and photos has hidden bathroom doors and creepy murals. The bathrooms in particular have murals exclusively of nude women, as well as a great deal of graffiti relating to sex. Reviews of the restaurant are bizarrely polarized. Websites describing it positively note that there are regularly "unsupervised children running around". Their menu include a pedophilic symbol, as do the signs and decorations of other neighboring businesses.
The music acts and the posters promoting same acts are bizarre in their presentation, content, and lyrical focus, but are still promoted as being "for all ages". The overtly sexual content would suggest otherwise.
The same has taken place in reference to videos recorded inside Comet Ping Pong by people that frequent their establishment as well as video referencing Comet Ping Pong positively from the exterior.
While initially not the central focus of the investigation at the onset, Comet Ping Pong is a much more overt and much more disturbing hub of coincidences. 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.
Several pages were linked to support the details of the claim (an e-mail in which David Brock was described as "batshit crazy" by Clinton associate Neera Tanden was among them) and the post primarily focused on Alefantis and his loose ties to the Clinton campaign via a former romantic relationship with David Brock of Media Matters for America.
Users tracked down Alefantis' purported Instagram account (since deleted or restricted), which they said hosted images of children, gay clubs, drugs, and generally "bizarre" or unsettling imagery:
James Alefantis' instagram late 11/5/16. by morning of 11/7/16 it was set to private.
We recently found the instagram account of James Alefantis. The contents of it are indescribably bizarre and the contexts of the posts and comment chains are weird. Alefantis does not have any children nor do his closest associates, but the photos seem to be a near constant assortment of different children of a variety of ages, intermingled between posts about gay bars, clubs, photos of common rape drugs, and piles of foreign currency. After it being trawled through for 24 hours it has been set to private. A large set of archived copies can be seen here in the next section. Similarly the instagram and twitter accounts of Comet Ping Pong are being edited selectively. The accounts of the people favoriting and commenting on these posts are equally bizarre in both content, context, and demeanor.
However, the photographs that the Instagram account purportedly hosted were instead, apparently, taken from the pages of various people who "liked" the restaurant's page on Facebook:
In a statement, the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department said it was monitoring the situation and is “aware of general threats being made against this establishment.” The F.B.I. said it “does not confirm or deny the existence of investigations.”
Most troubling for Mr. Alefantis and staff has been the use of children’s images, pilfered from the restaurant’s social media pages and the personal accounts of friends who had “liked” Comet Ping Pong online. Those photos have been used across dozens of websites. Parents, who declined to talk publicly for fear of retribution, have hired lawyers to get the photos removed.
Some of the photographs were apparently taken from random web sites:
— Marla Craig (@marla_mulder) November 5, 2016
Alefantis also said many of the photographs were of children of family and friends, not patrons of Comet Ping Pong:
"The most sickening part of this vicious attack has been the stealing of Instagram images, Facebook images of children, minors, aged 5, 7, and 8 years old that are then slapped across their chat boards as nothing but pawns," Alefantis says. "Yes, it’s scary to be attacked, it’s dangerous for business, but it's disgusting and filthy of these people to be posting photos on these websites. ... Someone should be prosecuting these people."
Alefantis says the photos have been lifted from his personal social media accounts, and those of his friends and employees—not from the restaurant. "Kids in the restaurant are completely safe, none of these people are going there, they're cowards," he says, emphasizing that this scandal only exists on the internet. Inside the restaurant it's business as usual ... While Alefantis says he can weather the storm, he's concerned about others who may not have as much community backing as he does. "I personally worry for the individuals who are being attacked and smeared and slandered and maligned and for other independent businesses or restaurants who are less established than Comet."
Scattered evidence from previously leaked Podesta communications was included, such as an e-mail about children orphaned after 2010's catastrophic earthquake in Haiti (along with information about adoption agencies and trafficking), or another thread claiming Clinton campaign manager John Podesta and his brother Tony Podesta were purportedly in Portugal at the time Madeleine McCann disappeared.
Additional evidence was presented in collage format, visually "linking" unrelated Instagram screengrabs, a number of individuals supposedly involved, purported coded signaling for pedophiles (such as a butterfly or a "play, eat, drink" insignia which could be abbreviated "PED"), and assertions that underground tunnels linked adjacent business (which themselves also use pedophilia code in their materials):
Imagery widely believed to be code for pedophiles to signal one another was a common theme in the myriad Pizzagate theories. Purported symbols such as butterflies and spirals were increasingly spotted in unrelated places, creating the impression that conspiracy was as vast as it was nebulous.
(As we have noted in the past, fear of "pedophile code" imagery is occasionally the basis for panic, but law enforcement officials believed that the symbols themselves are used among adults to signal preferences, not as labels for children, not as markers placing them in any danger.)
On 6 November 2016, Washington City Paper summarized the claims, noting that the rumors originated with long-circulating claims about Bill Clinton and Jeffrey Epstein, and confirming Alefantis' link to Brock:
Trump supporters on sites like Reddit and 4chan have long been looking for a stronger connection between Clinton and Jeffrey Epstein, a financial tycoon and sex offender whose plane Bill Clinton sometimes used. The Wikileaks release of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta's hacked emails inspired a feverish, and mostly hapless, search for salacious scandal evidence, while PolitiFact calls the evidence for a Clinton sex network "ridiculously thin."
Late this week, Trump supporters on 4chan and Reddit began to focus on "Pizzagate"— innocuous connections between Podesta and emails mentioning pizza that they claimed were far more sinister than they initially appeared.
Why, they wondered, did Podesta have a handkerchief with a "pizza-related" map on it? And why did Podesta get so many emails about eating pizza?
The answer to any reasonable person would be that Podesta eats pizza sometimes. Indeed, Alefantis says, "pizza's always a big thing in politics." ... To the alt right, though, "pizza" became a suspected code word for illegal sex trafficking. ... In one 2008 email released by Wikileaks, Alefantis thanked Podesta for attending a fundraiser at the restaurant but regretted not making him a pizza. That drew amateur theorists' attention to the restaurant's murals, which they declared "creepy," and the sliding doors in front of the restaurant's bathrooms, dubbed "hidden rooms."
In the period between 6 November 2016 and 21 November 2016, social media users continued to examine purported links to the pizzeria. Not long after Comet Ping Pong became the center of myriad ambiguous child abuse theories, the business' Yelp page was locked down by the site's operators, along with the following note:
This business recently made waves in the news, which often means that people come to this page to post their views on the news ... While we don’t take a stand one way or the other when it comes to these news events, we do work to remove both positive and negative posts that appear to be motivated more by the news coverage itself than the reviewer’s personal consumer experience with the business.
By 15 November 2016, Alefantis told Washington City Paper the rumors showed no sign of abating, and had begun to affect adjacent venues (who were, according to the conspiracy theory, connected to the pizza restaurant by underground tunnels, apparently including a non-governmental organization across the street that works with Haitian orphans).
The Pizzagate/Comet Ping Pong social media investigation bore striking similarity to a similar Reddit-based panic concerning a "creepy day care" in January 2015. The Fun Time Kidz Day Care conspiracy quickly spiraled into offline harassment and in-person surveillance, but nothing came of the deeply scrutinized claims.
On 1 December 2016, Comet Ping Pong announced the addition of stronger security measures due to then-ongoing harassment, some of which affected nearby businesses:
Articles [about Pizzagate have] proliferated on websites that publish intentionally fake news stories ... The conspiracy-peddling spilled over into the real world as Comet Ping Pong, Alefantis, and his restaurant’s employees started receiving threatening phone calls, text messages, and social-media messages. Neighboring businesses like Little Red Fox and Politics & Prose have reported receiving some spillover abuse as the “Pizzagate” rumors continue to fester.
Via Facebook update, the venue stated:
Comet Ping Pong, like any respectable venue, is dedicated to creating a safe and inviting space for all of our concert-goers. There have been no hostile situations at the venue, and we do not anticipate any altercations as much of the harassment has occurred online, but as we have before we now have security present at every show. If you have any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact the Comet Ping Pong Live Music page or any of the show staff.
On 4 December 2016, police detained an unidentified man who entered Comet Ping Pong carrying an assault rifle and allegedly fired one shot:
A North Carolina man was arrested Sunday after he walked into a popular pizza restaurant in Northwest D.C. carrying an assault rifle and fired one or more shots, D.C. Police said, prompting patrons and employees to flee.
The incident caused panic, with several businesses going into lockdown as police swarmed the neighborhood after receiving the call shortly before 3 p.m.
Police Chief Peter Newsham said the lone suspect in his late-20s walked in the front door of Comet Ping Pong and appears to have fired one or multiple shots into the ground after employees and patrons had fled. The suspect, who police say is from Salisbury, N.C., has not been identified and his motives were not clear. Police said charges were pending ... Vivek Jain, of Potomac, Md. was eating lunch inside Banana Leaf, a nearby Indian restaurant, when Comet patrons came rushing inside. He said Banana Leaf was locked down for about 90 minutes.
“A bunch of people ran in from Comet and said a man walked in with a gun,” Jain said.
Although the Pizzagate controversy remains a high-interest conspiracy, we are unable to locate any substantive aspect of the claims that could be fact-checked or otherwise held up to the light to determine their veracity. And while rumors about pedophilia and child trafficking remain standard in urban folklore, roughly 90 percent [PDF] of assaults on children in the U.S. are committed by a friend or family member, a number reiterated by the United States Department of Justice. Most [PDF] abuse of the nature alleged is committed by family members, family friends, or other trusted adults — without the use of coded toys or pizzeria sex rings.