WASHINGTON -- The internet rumor had the makings of a bizarrely sordid scandal involving a top political aide to Hillary Clinton, allegations of pedophilia and a restaurant in an upscale part of Washington.
It ended in death threats against a small business owner — and became a shocking case study in the dangers of the growing prevalence of “fake news.”
The fake news phenomenon has sent major internet companies scrambling to respond amid claims that bogus reports that proliferated ahead of the US presidential election may have skewed the result.
This episode started in October after WikiLeaks published a batch of hacked emails from John Podesta, the chairman of Clinton’s presidential campaign. Journalists and others have pored over the tens of thousands of stolen communications in search of politically relevant information.
But some readers honed in on a handful of innocuous messages recounting a Clinton fundraiser involving James Alefantis, the owner of a popular Washington pizzeria called Comet.
Almost immediately, “pizzagate” was born as right-leaning conspiracy theorists on the discussion sites 4chan and Reddit claimed Comet was not just a purveyor of pizza and beer but in fact a sinister front hiding a politically connected pedophile ring. Word quickly spread.
“They’ve apparently uncovered an elite child trafficking network which celebrates its tendencies using code words and disturbing artworks,” alleged the website The Vigilant Citizen, which claims to study symbols.
In this world, nothing was innocent. Nude paintings on the walls were suspect. Patterns on a child’s dress or the menu revealed supposed pedophile symbols and a picture of a girl playing with masking tape was evidence of sexual abuse.
Theorists even resorted to the French language in search of potential codes: the name James Alefantis was supposedly derived from the French phrase for “I love children.”
As the November 8 election drew near, hundreds of threatening messages flooded Alefantis’s Instagram account. The restaurant’s Facebook page was also barraged with negative comments.
“My first reaction was there’s a bunch of crazies out there. Everyone is hyped up about the election, so it will go away,” Alefantis told AFP. “But instead it went the other direction.”
Weaponized’ social media
After Donald Trump’s shock victory, things got even worse.
“It was a combination of people telling us that they were going to come and do something or that we’ve been found out and that we should show where the tunnels are,” Alefantis told AFP.
To all appearances, there is nothing untoward about Comet. Friendly and stylish, the restaurant is divided into several areas, including one with ping-pong and Fussball tables, and stages for alternative rock performances in the evening.