If you were in the US during the 20216 Presidential Election campaigns you’ll probably remember Pizzagate. What you may have forgotten, or were not made aware of, is that a gay-owned business was caught up in its epicentre. You might have thought that it was all over with, but you’d be wrong. Like the anchovies on a pizza Pizzagate keeps returning.
Let’s start at the beginning. The 2016 Presidential Election was between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
In October 2016 Wikileaks began publishing the hacked emails of John Podesta, Chair of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and former White House Chief of Staff. Some people, mainly far-right activists, read them and claimed they contained code words for paedophilia and. Their claims were later posted on fake new websites and spread by Trump supporters and this created the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory.
But what has it got to do with pizzas? Someone on the social media forum 4chan spotted references in the emails to going out for a pizza, and for some unexplained reason claimed the word “cheese pizza” was code for “child pornography” (c.p.). Several Wikileaks emails mentioned a gay man called James Alefantis, the owner of a Washington DC pizza restaurant and bar called Comet Ping Pong (hence “Pizzagate”). James knew John Podesta’s brother Tony, who had eaten at the restaurant.
From this the 4chan user claimed that the restaurant was the location of a child pornography ring that included senior figures in the Democratic Party associated with Clinton’s presidential campaign. James Alefantis was also the ex-boyfriend of David Brock, a journalist and social commentator and a prominent Hillary Clinton supporter in the media, dragging Clinton even further into the alleged child trafficking ring.
A Reddit user posted a document alleging proof of child sex abuse, inferring that everyone associated with Comet Ping Pong - staff, customers and guest performers - were involved in sex with minors and that performers generated “cultish imagery of disembodiment, blood, beheadings, sex”. It’s no surprise that any mention of sex is guaranteed to get people’s attention and the story was soon picked up by the mainstream media and alt-right activists.
As Pizzagate got bigger so did the lies. It even got to a stage where people pointed to a t-shirt James Alefantis was seen wearing that read “I (heart) l’Enfant”. Twisting James’s name to Jim Alefantis, then to the similar sounding phrase “Je t’aime l’enfants” (“I like children” in French) and finally to “I (heart) l’Enfant” the Pizzagate theorists claimed it was Alefantis’s coded admission to his paedophile activities. In fact, “I (heart) l’Enfant” referred to a bar in Washington named after the city’s 18th century planner, Pierre l’Enfant.
Some of those who fell for the fake news posted photographs from James Alefantis’s social media accounts as further proof of his involvement. In some cases, images were taken from unrelated sources. Alefantis and his staff were harassed and threatened on social media, and Alefantis received death threats. Several bands who had performed at the pizzeria also faced harassment. Other businesses close to Comet Ping Pong received death threats and harassment.
Pizzagate began to get out of control when in December 2016 Edgar Welch from North Carolina went to Comet Ping Pong and fired a rifle three times at the building. He had read about a secret bunker under the restaurant that was used to imprison children and subject them to sexual abuse. Welch wanted to be seen as a national hero - a rescuer of children. He surrendered without further incident after police surrounded the restaurant and he was arrested. It was soon proven that there was no bunker and that photos of it that appeared on the internet were of another unrelated property. Welch pleaded guilty and was sentenced to four years in prison. He was released on 28th May 2010.
The conspiracy theory was soon debunked by fact-checking websites and news organizations. Much of the evidence cited by the conspiracy theorists were taken from entirely different sources and manipulated to fit their theory. On 8th December 2016, Hillary Clinton herself responded to the Pizzagate theory, and about the dangers of fake news.
Despite being debunked, Pizzagate continued to spread on social media. On 25th January 2019, more than two years after Pizzagate began, Comet Ping Pong suffered an arson attack. Employees quickly extinguished the blaze and nobody was injured.
In 2020 Pizzagate was used by the far-right QAnon group who widened the conspiracy to include international figures and an international sex-trafficking ring involving celebrities like Ellen Degeneres, Oprah Winfrey and Bill Gates. Weirdly, this revival of the theory became popular on the youth-orientated social media TikTok
Pizzagate theorists then dragged singer Justin Beiber into the conspiracy. At one point in a live Instagram video he adjusted the black beanie hat he was wearing, apparently unaware that someone had earlier posted a comment asking Justin to do just that if he was a child victim of Pizzagate. There’s no indication that Bieber even read this comment among the thousands of others being posted every minute. Eventually, Justin had to make an announcement that he had no connection to the Pizzagate theory or child trafficking.
Will Pizzagate ever leave us? Perhaps not. As long as there are manipulative people with sad little lives based only with delusions of their own self-importance in the world, and as long as there are people gullible enough to believe them, there’ll always be fake news and conspiracy theories. Creating a conspiracy theory is easy. I could start a few myself involving Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion’s choice of neo-Nazi symbolism, or the Black Lives Matter leaders appropriating donations to pay for their own luxury millionaire lifestyles. Hang on, those are actually true…. aren’t they?