On Sunday afternoon, a man later identified as 28-year-old Edgar Maddison Welch, of Salisbury, North Carolina, walked into the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington, D.C., armed with an AR-15 assault-style rifle. The Washington Post, citing police, reports that after Welch pointed his weapon at an employee and patrons fled in a panic, he unloaded the gun in the restaurant.
Following his arrest, Welch told authorities he traveled to Comet Ping Pong to “self-investigate” a Wikileaks-fueled fake news story that has been circulating on conspiracy sites like InfoWars — that Comet Ping Pong is at the center of a pedophilia ring involving some of Hillary Clinton’s closest aides. That story has come to be known as “Pizzagate.”
— Sharif Silmi (@bayreef) December 4, 2016
A Comet Ping Pong employee who spoke to ThinkProgress said they believed it was just a matter of time before something like the Sunday incident happened. The employee, who asked their identity be kept off the record, said staffers are no longer answering phone calls from non-local numbers.
“We get 30 to 40 calls a day about this bullshit,” the employee said. “There are staff members as young as 19 that work there and have to deal with this. It’s real, real sad.”
The Comet employee said staff has encountered numerous suspicious people who come in and start asking unusual questions about how long employees have worked there, what events hosted at the restaurant are like, and whether there are tunnels underneath the building. Some, including “citizen investigator” Jack Posobiec, have tried to live stream from Comet Ping Pong and been kicked out.
In an effort to tamp down suspicions, staff has “kept the back room lit so people can go and be nosy on their own,” the employee said, adding that Welch shot up an employee locker where he might’ve thought Pizzagate-related materials are being stored.
“If this doesn’t stop someone is going to get killed,” they said. “These people are angry, and they think we’re raping children so they feel justified saying anything to us.”
The employee said they’ve personally reached out to Facebook officials asking them to shut down Pizzagate groups.
“We can’t get it down, and they’re accepting no responsibility for this crap,” they said. “The blood will be on their hands. Something already did happen and it was inevitable in my mind.”
According to the employee, Comet staff is particularly concerned about what might happen at the restaurant when Trump supporters flock to town for inauguration weekend next month.
The real consequences of fake news
There’s no evidence to support the theory underpinning Pizzagate. The story is a lie. But that hasn’t stopped many people, including those with close ties to Donald Trump’s advisers, from continuing to push it.
Shortly after shots rang out inside Comet Ping Pong, Michael G. Flynn — son and chief of staff of incoming Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn — said Pizzagate remains a story.
As Flynn’s tweet circulated, he posted a string of tweets and retweets defending his position, including screencaps of direct messages CNN’s Jake Tapper sent pleading for him to disavow the fake Pizzagate story before someone actually gets shot.
— Michael Flynn Jr🇺🇸 (@mflynnJR) December 5, 2016
Flynn even retweeted a post alleging the Comet Ping Pong gunman is an actor.
The conduct of Michael Flynn mirrors that of his father, who is also conspiracy-minded. Shortly before the election, Flynn’s dad tweeted about a separate fake child sex scandal involving Hillary Clinton.
It’s becoming clear that fake news has very real impact.
A BuzzFeed analysis published shortly after the election found that “top fake election news stories generated more total engagement on Facebook than top election stories from 19 major news outlets combined” from August through Election Day.
Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg initially downplayed concerns about the possibility fake news on Facebook may have impacted the election result, but Facebook officials are now reportedly working on ways to ensure users are exposed to news stories featuring actual facts.
President-elect Donald Trump and his associates use their massive social media followings to disseminate fake news. A week ago, Trump, who has pushed conspiracy theories about climate change and autism, tweeted that he would have won the popular vote in the presidential election if “millions” of people had not illegally cast ballots.
Days later, a Trump supporter on CNN said she had heard from “the media” that “millions of illegals” had voted in the election. Asked about Trump’s fact-free tweet on Sunday, Vice President-elect mike Pence called it “refreshing.”
“Well, it’s his right to express his opinion as president-elect of the United States,” said Pence during an appearance on ABC’s This Week. “I think one of the things that’s refreshing about our president-elect and one of the reasons why I think he made such an incredible connection with people all across this country is because he tells you what’s on his mind.”
In August, InfoWars proprietor Alex Jones said he advised Trump about election fraud. The Daily Beast reports that Welch’s Facebook account “likes” both InfoWars and Jones. During an appearance on his show late last year, Trump praised Jones, who has said he thinks 9/11 was an “inside job” and called the Sandy Hook shooting that killed 26 people in an elementary school a “synthetic, completely fake — with actors, in my view — manufactured” hoax.
“Your reputation is amazing,” Trump told Jones during his December 2015 appearance on his show, adding that “I won’t let you down.”
In a statement released Sunday and published in the Post, James Alefantis, owner of Comet Ping Pong, decried the role fake news played in endangering his staff and patrons.
“What happened today demonstrates that promoting false and reckless conspiracy theories comes with consequences,” he said. “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.”