On Sunday afternoon, a 28-year-old man walked into a pizzeria in Washington, D.C., with an assault rifle and attempted to expose a child-abuse ring.
He failed, of course, for the simple fact that there was no ring to break up, though that did not stop Edgar Maddison Welch of Salisbury, North Carolina, from firing his gun, one of three firearms authorities recovered on the scene. Comet Ping Pong has been the subject of dark and baseless rumors since early November, when a handful of messages from the pizzeria’s owner, James Alefantis, turned up in the leaked emails of John Podesta, then the chairman of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Somewhere in the constellation of Reddit, 4chan, and 8chan, self-appointed sleuths concluded that this and other food-related messages were evidence of a criminal syndicate. The food terms were code words for nefarious criminal activity, they claimed: “Cheese” meant “little girl,” “pasta” meant “little boy,” “sauce” meant “orgy,” and so on. In the emails, Alefantis mentioned his restaurant — and lo, proof that the pizzeria was hiding a torture dungeon in its basement that claimed some of the most prominent members of the Democratic party as clients.
If you’re having trouble comprehending how a theory this intensely bizarre gained enough credence to result in a shooting — one that fortunately ended with no injuries — it might be because major publications have struggled to find the words to describe the situation. The Washington Post called Pizzagate, as it has come to be known, “a false election-related conspiracy theory;” The New York Times referred to the theories simply as “false stories.”
Last month, in an effort to prevent unfounded rumors about his restaurant from spreading, Alefantis went so far as to hold an impromptu Q&A session with protesters outside the pizzeria, inviting several inside for a look around. The protesters filmed the encounter and tour, which did not feature the basement that has drawn so much attention — because Comet Ping Pong has no basement. No less an authority than the District of Columbia police force has disavowed the Pizzagate theories, calling them “a fictitious online conspiracy theory” after Welch’s arrest.
But rather than persuading believers to reconsider, the abundance of reports that discredit these theories have had the opposite effect. The more senior or neutral the party to deny the allegations, the more fervently the Pizzagaters dig in.
It’s clear now that the torrent of fake news and bizarre, politically motivated attacks is not just an election-cycle problem. The thirst for clickable, shareable stories has led to an epidemic of dubious reports and outright hoaxes disseminated across social media; coupled with the political echo chambers these platforms allow users to create, the stories catch like wildfire.
Facebook has scrambled to address the onslaught of fake news on its network, announcing after the election that it would begin to emphasize certain trusted publishers and do more to flag shady ones. Reddit eventually banned the Pizzagate subreddit altogether — more than two weeks after Donald Trump won the presidency. These things, in short, aren’t dying down. They’re growing.
That conspiracy-mongering has the outright endorsement of some members of Trump’s growing Cabinet hasn’t helped. The son of Michael Flynn, Trump’s pick for national security adviser, has openly propagated Pizzagate, tweeting “Until #Pizzagate proven to be false, it’ll remain a story.” (On Tuesday, Vice President-elect Mike Pence said that Mike Flynn Jr. has no role in the transition — despite the fact that Flynn has a transition email account.) The elder Flynn has also dealt in fake stories, tweeting a false account that claimed prosecutors found evidence linking Clinton to sex crimes against minors just days before the election; Politico found 16 occasions on which Flynn has shared “dubious factoids” since August 9. Steve Bannon, tapped to serve as Trump’s chief strategist, is the former executive chairman of Breitbart, a den of racist and xenophobic sentiment and conspiracies. And Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, a Trump adviser said to be in the running for agriculture secretary, routinely posts bogus stories on his Facebook account.
The president-elect, who was swept into the political spotlight on the back of his enthusiasm for a thoroughly debunked conspiracy that Barack Obama was born outside the United States, has shown little inclination to rein in the wilder beliefs of his base. There were many who hoped that the end of his campaign would bring a return to some semblance of normalcy — that the specter of the Oval Office would, through duty or necessity, usher in a more measured and somber Trump, one who might urge his followers to temper the online viciousness that defined his candidacy. Instead, he has doubled down on the vitriol and bluster of his campaign, insisting, among other things, that he lost the popular vote due to widespread voter fraud, of which there is no evidence whatsoever. Trump has fashioned the media writ large into his most effective punching bag, and continues to use it as such: On Monday, he tweeted that he is forced to continue using Twitter to state his positions because the press fail to cover him “accurately & honorably.” In other words: Trust only him. Everyone else is a liar.
A political fringe with radical and sometimes outlandish theories is not a creation of 2016. But it was this year that a subset of that fringe was emboldened to a degree that’s only now becoming clear. To those people, Trump’s victory was confirmation of their greatest fears and of the vital importance of their various quests, chief among them advancing the many fictions they were sold over the course of a long and vicious campaign. The old standbys — Benghazi, the Clintons as murderers, the shadow world of the Clinton Foundation — are joined by newer, stranger theories: that a performance by artist Marina Abramović is proof that Clinton is a satanist; that Marco Rubio is a closeted homosexual and addicted to cocaine; that Clinton aide Huma Abedin is tied to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Trump’s victory galvanized a cadre of supporters who have been taught to trust no one but him and his so-called “alt-right” emissaries, who take proof of the faults in their logic as evidence that the conspiracies are even more sinister than they previously believed. What happens when they’re redirected, an inevitability for a powder-keg hivemind whose members have been told they’re being plotted against? Might they turn on Trump himself, as some of his vocal supporters threatened to do at the first signs that his presidency might not be all that they were promised? Who’s steering the ship, and what happens when it becomes clear that no one can?
Conspiracy theories are cyclical. Already, message boards are whirring with new ones, explanations of how Welch and his assault rifle are merely misdirection, how the incident only strengthens the proof of the original theory. They say that the shooter at the pizzeria was a plant, a false-flag operation designed to take the heat off Comet Ping Pong. And rather than denounce the story, a line of unsupported paranoia and harassment that is now putting actual lives at risk, the nascent Trump administration has offered its tacit endorsement.
These things — the intricate webs of conspiratorial nonsense stitched together online, the scared and angry people who have been taught to believe in them — aren’t abstractions anymore. We’re left now to figure out how to extinguish these dangerous falsehoods, something made infinitely more difficult when the man responsible for making “post-truth” a legitimate buzzword is about to move into the White House. In the new year, who will fact-check the fakers?
An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified Steve Bannon as the founder of Breitbart. He is the former executive chairman.