How pro-Trump conspiracy theorists concluded this pizzeria is home to the imaginary Hillary Clinton paedophilia and Satanism ring
Walk in to Comet Ping Pong, a neighbourhood pizzeria about 3km from the White House, and it does not scream out: “Satanic den”.
Yet according to a fanciful and downright bizarre conspiracy theory sweeping the pro-Donald-Trump internet, the hipsterish restaurant, where customers can play table tennis and enjoy a slice, is at the centre of a devil-worshipping paedophilia ring, frequented by Hillary Clinton and other Democratic Party elites.
So persistent has been the ludicrous theory that the freewheeling Reddit site has banned the “Pizzagate” conspiracy board, citing its policy against posting the personal information of others.
It has also led to some very real harassment of the people caught up in the theory, including the owner of the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria, James Alefantis.
Alefantis has received hundreds of death threats over the past couple of weeks, he told the New York Times this week, after Pizzagate enthusiasts decided that his restaurant was the secret headquarters of a child sex-trafficking ring run by Clinton and members of her inner circle.
None of the wildly accusatory claims are true or remotely plausible. Alefantis told the Times that he asked Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, YouTube and the FBI to help him stop the conspiracy theorists, who are using photos of his own kids as “evidence.”
For some parts of the internet, the leak of stolen emails from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta provided an opportunity to scour for evidence of wrongdoing. As the Washington City Paper noted, that included a huge search for stronger ties between convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein and the Clintons.
What those sleuths found instead were lots of references to “pizza”.
The theorists homed in on the fact that some of the e-mails talked about a fundraiser at Comet and praised the “pizza” that Alefantis baked for Clinton aide John Podesta’s birthday. A friend of Podesta’s sent him an email asking if he wanted a handkerchief that had “pizza-related” drawings on it.
From there it was a hop, skip and a leap into the implausible as the theorists concluded that “pizza” referred not to a tasty meal, but was code for victims of child sex trafficking, prompting the headline on alt-right sites: “How 4Chan Uncovered the Sick World of Washington’s Occult Elite”.
Alefantis says he has never met the Clintons. As close as he got was dating David Brock, a conservative turned Clinton defender who runs the conservative-bashing website Media Matters. They broke up five years ago.
The pizzagate theory made its way onto r/The_Donald, the huge, Trump-supporting subreddit, until the hunt spawned its own subreddit, r/Pizzagate, which quickly attracted a dedicated team of internet investigators.
“Pizzagate” has yet to produce any evidence for its extremely weighty and life-ruining accusations, but every debunking of its claims - including the one in the Times - has only convinced its believers that they must be right, and that the circle of paedophiles and sympathisers trying to cover up their findings must be even bigger and more powerful than they imagined.
The same goes for Reddit’s ban. In a post on r/The_Donald after the Reddit ban, one former moderator of the board dedicated to unravelling Pizzagate said that the “entire mod team and everyone else is tightening up our opsec and putting on our battle-armour.”
“We have all made life insurance videos. We have all vowed to continue this fight. You have only increased our number. This morning we were numerous, tonight we are legion,” they wrote, promising that the hunt would soon return to the web with a vengeance. For now, they’ve relocated to Voat, a popular Reddit alternative created in protest of Reddit’s enforcement of its rules.
Reddit does not generally ban conspiracy theories, or the boards dedicated to them, from their site just for existing. What crossed the line with Pizzagate was the repeated posting of private information on the boards from sleuths who believed they were identifying paedophiles or those working to help them. An r/The_Donald post from a moderator asked the board to immediately report any personal information being posted there in the wake of Pizzagate’s demise, to help spare their community from the same fate.
Although Pizzagate began in a frenzy of wild accusations against Clinton in the days before the election, the conspiracy has only gained interest after Trump’s victory. As it does, it’s drawing more and more public and private citizens into the fray.