Fake news became all too real when a North Carolina man entered a Washington pizzeria with a semi-automatic rifle in an attempt to "self-investigate" a false but persistent conspiracy theory about Hillary Clinton.
The baseless theory is that the business was a front for a child sex ring run by Clinton and her campaign manager.
Edgar Maddison Welch, a 28-year-old man from Salisbury, N.C., walked into Comet Ping Pong in the capital around 3 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 4. Police said he pointed his gun at a worker, who fled, and then Welch started firing the rifle inside the restaurant.
Patrons and other employees also ran away, police said. The suspect, who allegedly had an AR-15-style rifle and other weapons, surrendered to police and was charged with assault with a dangerous weapon. There were no reported injuries.
Welch is a divorced father of two daughters who has a minor criminal record of drunken driving and drug charges. He hit a pedestrian with his car in October but was not immediately charged, and had been dropped as a volunteer firefighter shortly before he went to Washington.
Welch told police he was there to check into unfounded rumors that Comet Ping Pong, which hosts children's parties and occasionally small concerts, was actually part of what the Internet has dubbed "Pizzagate."
According to police documents released after Welch's arraignment, the 28-year-old "stated that 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." He then "surrendered peacefully when he found no evidence that underage children were being harbored in the restaurant."
D.C. police described Pizzagate as "a fictitious online conspiracy theory" in announcing Welch's arrest. But where did this theory come from?
The conspiracy theory spread through viral emails, discussion threads and social media in the weeks leading up to Election Day.
The rumor first began after WikiLeaks released Clinton campaign manager John Podesta's emails.
Users at the online forum 4Chan noticed Podesta corresponded with Comet Ping Pong pizzeria owner James Alefantis, discussing a potential Clinton fundraiser.
Buzzfeed reported that the idea of a pedophilia ring masterminded by Clinton and her allies started with an Oct. 30 tweet by a reputed white supremacist Twitter account that claimed Clinton aide Huma Abedin's emails contained lascivious details about the former secretary of state.
The tweet cited a Facebook user's status that alleged Clinton "has a well-documented predilection for underage girls" and was involved in "an international child enslavement and sex ring."
From there, various conspiracy theory sites began spinning out versions of the elaborate but unproven story. (A popular Reddit post detailing the theory has since been removed.)
The gist of the fake Pizzagate theory is that Podesta's repeated use of the word "pizza" in emails detailed in the WikiLeaks release was actually a code word for pedophilia. Comet Ping Pong was allegedly the base for secret rooms in which Clinton and her allies kidnapped and imprisoned children to be sexually abused, tortured or even sacrificed in the name of Satan. Democrats in both Clinton's campaign and the federal government have colluded to hide the abuse, the theory alleges.
Some sites have claimed that various details about the pizzeria "prove" that Comet Ping Pong uses coded language and symbols to advertise its secret business to pedophiles. Random pictures of children have been appropriated to falsely illustrate the fake ring's so-called victims.
The story has circulated on various fake news sites for weeks, although some have since been taken down.
There has been no evidence that any such sex ring exists. But that hasn't stopped conspiracy theorists from harassing Comet Ping Pong, its employees and even neighboring businesses.
Comet Ping Pong
Let's go back to Alefantis, who said he has never met Clinton but supported her presidential bid. The 42-year-old Alefantis was once in a relationship with David Brock, a former conservative commentator who now runs the liberal site Media Matters For America.
The New York Times reported in early November that Alefantis noticed a sharp uptick in his social media traffic in the weeks leading up to the election. People he didn't know began to send death threats and vulgar messages. Employees and their families also were threatened via social media and text messages.
Alefantis filed a police report about the harassment, and authorities have had to intervene before. One man who believed the fake theory posted video from inside the restaurant and was told by police to leave, the Times reported.
After Welch fired his weapon inside the popular restaurant, Alefantis blamed the prevalence of fake news and those that spread it for the troubles at Comet Ping Pong.
"What happened today demonstrates that promoting false and reckless conspiracy theories comes with consequences," he said in a Facebook post. "I hope that those involved in fanning these flames will take a moment to contemplate what happened here today, and stop promoting these falsehoods right away."
Welch spoke to the New York Times in a story posted online Wednesday, saying he had "wanted to do some good and went about it the wrong way."
Welch said he did not like the term fake news, but has listened to conspiracy theorist radio host Alex Jones in the past and didn't trust the mainstream media. He said he went to the pizzeria after reading several stories about the rumored sex ring and had wanted to "shine some light on it," but didn't say why he entered Comet Ping Pong with a rifle.
"I regret how I handled the situation," he told the New York Times.
Even as traditional news outlets have debunked Pizzagate, supporters of the wild theories have argued that attention from the mainstream is only proof that the media is in on the coverup. The hashtag #Pizzagate filled Twitter with users doubting the coverage of Welch's activities at Comet Ping Pong, including media denials of Pizzagate's validity.
A new conspiracy theory materialized once people discovered that Welch had an Internet Movie Database profile that listed acting credits in a couple of independent films. Some dubbed Welch a "crisis actor" who had been hired to participate in the Comet Ping Pong event. The incident Sunday, the theory maintained, was a "false flag" operation designed to make it appear there was no wrongdoing at the restaurant.
One notable conspiracy theorist is Michael Flynn Jr., son of potential incoming national security adviser and retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn. The elder Flynn has previously shown support to other conspiracy theories that Clinton is tied up with alleged money laundering and sex crimes unrelated to Comet Ping Pong.
The younger Flynn tweeted he was skeptical of reports that Pizzagate wasn't real. "Until #Pizzagate proven to be false, it'll remain a story. The left seems to forget #PodestaEmails and the many 'coincidences' tied to it," the tweet Sunday read.
He also retweeted Citizens For Trump special projects director Jack Posobiec alleging Washington D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham found no connection between Welch and Pizzagate.
We could find no evidence that Newsham said that, only that he initially told the Post the incident was likely not "terrorist related."
The official press release from D.C. police maintained that Welch himself admitted he was there because of the conspiracy theory: "During a post arrest interview this evening, the suspect revealed that he came to the establishment to self-investigate 'Pizza Gate.' "
After the firestorm over the tweet, President-elect Donald Trump fired the younger Flynn from his transition team.
Contact Joshua Gillin at [email protected] Follow @jpgillin