Editor’s Note: This story has been updated throughout.
The real-life consequences of a made-up conspiracy theory swirling around a popular D.C. pizzeria became all too real when a gunman walked into the venue Sunday afternoon.
During the presidential campaign, some elements of the alt-right began fueling the conspiracy that Comet Ping Pong was in fact the site of a pedophilia ring used by high-ranking members of the Democratic Party, dubbing that supposed conspiracy “Pizzagate.”
The D.C. Police Department arrested 28-year-old Edgar Maddison Welch of Salisbury, North Carolina, outside the kid-friendly pizza and music venue. Witnesses say that Welch went through the restaurant carrying an AR-15 and tried to enter a staff area in the back of the building. He reportedly fired multiple shots inside, though no one was injured. He reportedly told the police that he’d come to “self-investigate ‘Pizza Gate,” which the department noted is “a fictitious online conspiracy theory.”
One employee speculated that the gunman was looking for the purported tunnels in which children were stashed and tortured, according to the conspiracy theory. That “theory” came from hacked private email exchanges including Hillary Clinton campaign Chairman John Podesta that were and published by WikiLeaks in troves during the final weeks of the presidential elections.
Conspiracists began seizing on pizza-related emails in the leaks, suggesting that it was evidence of something nefarious and arguing that “pizza” was actually a code for illegal sex trafficking. An email Podesta received about pizza at Comet Ping Pong was about pedophilia, they reasoned.
The conspiracy is untrue and easily disprovable. For example, the sex ring is supposed to be run out of the restaurant’s basement, but the owner told the BBC, “We don’t even have a basement.”
The fake news began proliferating on websites like 4chan and Reddit, especially a Reddit forum frequented by Trump supporters and the alt-right. The Reddit community “Pizzagate,” created for the purpose of discussing the supposed conspiracy, was banned recently because individuals began posting personal and confidential information there.
On his Facebook account, on which he goes by Maddison Welch, the would-be shooter likes both InfoWars and its host Alex Jones. The website has published innumerable stories about Pizzagate including videos alleging that “Pizzagate is global,” calling the “pedophile scandal” a “worldwide network.” Jones himself has tweeted about it to his nearly 500,000 followers as recently as Sunday. A Google search with the words “Alex Jones pizzagate” returns about 190,000 results.
Following the incident over the weekend, Jones—who frequently pushed the Pizzagate theory on his site—released a new video alleging that Welch is part of another conspiracy.
“Everyone’s focusing on some pizza place mentioned in emails instead of the tens of thousands of other emails that are clearly dealing with pay for play and getting people hired at the State Department and all sorts of illegal stuff,” Jones alleges. He goes on to say that the emails employ “code words” that are similar to words law enforcement uses for the “sex trade.” “There’s clearly something there,” he concludes.
Welch was also recently implicated in another a violent incident in North Carolina. In October, he struck a 13-year-old boy with his car, seriously wounding the teenager, according to WBTV. Witnesses said Kenyatta Belton was walking with friends when Welch drove down the middle of the road, taking up both lanes of traffic. Welch allegedly struck Belton with his car, leaving him with injuries to the head, torso, and leg. Police used a tourniquet to slow the bleeding from Belton’s chest while they waited for a helicopter to airlift to a hospital for treatment. It is unclear whether Welch faced charges.
Welch’s criminal history stretches back to 2007. He has pleaded guilty to drug and alcohol charges, including possession of up to a half ounce of marijuana, possession of controlled substances, driving after consuming alcohol, and driving with an open container of alcohol, the Charlotte Observer reports.
The conspiracy theory prompted a flood of death threats into Comet Ping Pong, which began arriving over texts, Facebook messages, and on Twitter, The New York Times reported. One man apparently took the conspiracy theory seriously enough to go to the pizzeria himself.
“A lot of us saw he had a gun and we all started getting our families out,” Sharif Silmi, who was present during the incident, told Washingtonian. He later tweeted that he held Jones “responsible for putting my family in danger today.”
Patrons may think twice about visiting the family-friendly venue now that an armed man has been taken into custody there. Just this week, the pizzeria announced that it would now have security personnel at all of its music concerts due to the threats it had received. Several staffers had left their jobs after pictures of their families were posted around the internet by conspiracists.
And for Podesta and other Democratic Party officials who have been fond of eating and holding fundraisers there, it is yet another slap in the face. They not only lost an eminently winnable presidential election, but now their favorite pizza parlor is under siege too and arguably for the same reason: fake news.
— Additional reporting by Gideon Resnick and Kelly Weill.