Comet Ping Pong, a Washington DC pizzeria, has been the central obsession of some of the Internet’s most, well, creative conspiracy theorists for several months now.
“Pizzagate” theorists have convinced themselves, on the basis of weird conjectures and bizarre leaps of illogic, that the pizzeria is the front for an international pedophile ring involving Hillary Clinton, John Podesta, and other political bigwigs. The owners and staff of Comet Ping Pong and several nearby businesses have been harassed and threatened by Pizzagate true believers since the theory first took form on 4chan.
On Sunday, one of these true believers showed up at the restaurant with an assault rifle, firing off several rounds before being taken into custody by police, who said he told them he was there to “self-investigate” Pizzagate. (Why his “investigation” required a rifle I don’t know.) No one, thankfully, was hurt — most or all of those in the building apparently fled before the shots were fired — but the incident is a troubling reminder of the ways in which fake news can have real-life consequences. Sometimes involving guns.
The Pizzagate theory seems to be an almost pure product of “apophenia,” the tendency of human beings to find seemingly meaningful patterns in random data. In this particular case, Pizzagaters have convinced themselves that references to “pizza” and “hot dogs” in the giant pile of Podesta emails leaked by Wikileaks are actually coded references to child sex trafficking. The more baroque versions of the theory, harking back to the “Satanic Panic” of decades past, posit that there are Satanic rituals involving human blood and child rape taking place in secret tunnels beneath Comet Ping Pong.
But this is a Satanic Panic with a decidedly Trumpian alt-right twist. The theory has been pushed hard by a motley crew of alt-rightists and fellow travelers — from Infowars to the Daily Stormer, from Mike Cernovich to Theodore “Vox Day” Beale.
Somehow I doubt this will be the last time someone with a gun goes after an enemy of the alt-right.