Anatomy of a Fake News Scandal
This story was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund and Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Additional reporting: Aaron Sankin, Laura Starecheski, Michael Corey, Jaime Longoria and Jasper Craven.
The revelations overcame Edgar Maddison Welch like a hallucinatory fever. On December 1st, 2016, the father of two from Salisbury, North Carolina, a man whose pastimes included playing Pictionary with his family, tried to persuade two friends to join a rescue mission. Alex Jones, the Info-Wars host, was reporting that Hillary Clinton was sexually abusing children in satanic rituals a few hundred miles north, in the basement of a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant. Welch told his friends the “raid” on a “pedo ring” might require them to “sacrifice the lives of a few for the lives of many.” A friend texted, “Sounds like we r freeing some oppressed pizza from the hands of an evil pizza joint.” Welch was undeterred. Three days later, armed with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, a .38 handgun and a folding knife, he strolled into the restaurant and headed toward the back, where children were playing ping-pong. As waitstaff went table to table, whispering to customers to get out, Welch maneuvered into the restaurant’s kitchen. He shot open a lock and found cooking supplies. He whipped open another door and found an employee bringing in fresh pizza dough. Welch did not find any captive children – Comet Ping Pong does not even have a basement – but he did prove, if there were any lingering doubts after the election, that fake news has real consequences.
Welch’s arrest was the culmination of an election cycle dominated by fake news – and by attacks on the legitimate press. Several media outlets quickly traced the contours of what became known as Pizzagate: The claim that Hillary Clinton was a pedophile started in a Facebook post, spread to Twitter and then went viral with the help of far-right platforms like Breitbart and Info-Wars. But it was unclear whether Pizzagate was mass hysteria or the work of politicos with real resources and agendas. It took the better part of a year (and two teams of researchers) to sift through the digital trail. We found ordinary people, online activists, bots, foreign agents and domestic political operatives. Many of them were associates of the Trump campaign. Others had ties with Russia. Working together – though often unwittingly – they flourished in a new “post-truth” information ecosystem, a space where false claims are defended as absolute facts. What’s different about Pizzagate, says Samuel Woolley, a leading expert in computational propaganda, is it was “retweeted and picked up by some of the most powerful faces of American politics.”
The original Pizzagate Facebook post appeared on the evening of October 29th, 2016, a day after then-FBI Director James Comey announced that the bureau would be reopening its investigation into Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server while secretary of state. Data from the server had been found on electronics belonging to former Rep. Anthony Weiner (the husband of Clinton’s close aide Huma Abedin), who had been caught texting lewd messages to a 15-year-old. On Facebook, a user named Carmen Katz wrote, “My NYPD source said its much more vile and serious than classified material on Weiner’s device. The email DETAIL the trips made by Weiner, Bill and Hillary on their pedophile billionaire friend’s plane, the Lolita Express. Yup, Hillary has a well documented predilection for underage girls. . . . We’re talking an international child enslavement and sex ring.”
Katz’s Facebook profile listed her residence as Joplin, Missouri. With a link to a story headlined “Breaking: Hillary Clinton strategy memo leaked: ‘Steal yard signs,’ ” Katz posted, “You know how we handle yard sign theft or tampering in South Missouri? With a 3 prong garden hoe buried in the middle of the back.” We found no record of anyone with the name Carmen Katz in the entire state. But searching through her online activity, we noticed another clue: Every time she posted petitions on Change.org, such as “Put Donald Trump’s Face on Mount Rushmore,” the last signer was invariably Cynthia Campbell of Joplin. Campbell used the same profile picture as “Carmen Katz” on Facebook – that is, the same snapshot of the same cat.
For more than 20 years, a 60-year-old attorney named Cynthia Campbell has practiced law out of her bungalow-style home in Joplin. In April, I began trying to contact her, asking if she was behind the initial Pizzagate post. Within days, the Carmen Katz Facebook account disappeared. I went to Campbell’s house to try in person. A large NRA sticker adorned the screen door; on the porch was feline statuary and gardening equipment, including a three-pronged hoe. She didn’t answer but later texted and called me. Campbell said yes, she set up the Facebook account, but it was hacked two or three years ago. She never explicitly denied posting the comment that started Pizzagate. Instead, she told me to disregard the NRA sticker – she just “supports hunting.” She also claimed to be a rare Democrat in southwest Missouri. “You don’t say much,” she said. “You don’t stick signs out.”
Social-media accounts are routinely- hacked, but the next morning, when Campbell texted me 21 times, she sounded every bit like the user behind the original Carmen Katz post. “Stalking and harassing innocent people who have done nothing to you is wrong, evil and illegal,” she wrote. “You should be helping people get their lives and health back going through such nightmares, not piling on, harassing them, making them feel unsafe and preyed upon.” She threatened to report me to both the ACLU and Best Buy’s Geek Squad.
“[P]eople like you don’t give a shit that you destroy innocent humans’ lives,” she said. “Go back to your soul-sucking job. . . . You are fake news!”
It strains the imagination to think how Campbell – a cat lady in Missouri – had pieced together not only the story that Clinton was a sex-trafficking pedophile, but its details: NYPD officials, Weiner’s laptop, Jeffrey Epstein’s private jet. According to Clint Watts, a cyber and homeland-security expert at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Katz fits neatly into a well-worn blueprint for disinformation campaigns. For a story to gain traction, propagandists plant false information on anonymous chat boards, hoping real people will pick it up and add a “human touch” to acts of digital manipulation. “If you want to sow a conspiracy, you seed it someplace – 4chan or Reddit is a perfect vehicle,” he says, and wait for someone like Katz to take the bait. “Someone or some group,” Watts says, “possibly took this unwitting woman and made her the source that they need.”
On a pair of anonymous message boards, we found several possible seeds of Pizzagate. On July 2nd, 2016, someone calling himself FBIAnon, who claimed to be a “high-level analyst and strategist” for the bureau, hosted an Ask Me Anything forum on 4chan. He claimed to be leaking government secrets – á la Edward Snowden – out of a love for country, but it wasn’t always clear which country he meant. At various times, he wrote, “Russia is more a paragon of freedom and nationalism than any other country” and “We are the aggressors against Russia.” FBIAnon’s secrets were about the Department of Justice’s inquiry into the Clinton Foundation, which federal prosecutors never formalized. “Dig deep,” he wrote. “Bill and Hillary love foreign donors so much. They get paid in children as well as money.”
“Does Hillary have sex with kidnapped girls?” a 4channer asked.
“Yes,” FBIAnon answered.
Another possible germ of Pizzagate appeared online about 10 hours before Katz posted her story on Facebook. TheeRANT describes itself as a message board for “New York City cops speaking their minds.” Virtually everyone on the site uses an identity-masking screen name. Favorite topics include police body cameras (bad) and George Soros (worse). On October 29th, 2016, someone calling himself “Fatoldman” posted that he had a “hot rumor” about the FBI investigation.
“[T]he feds were forced to reopen the hillary email case [because] apparently the NYPD sex crimes unit was involved in the weiner case,” Fatoldman wrote. “On his laptop they saw emails. [T]hey notified the FBI. Feds were afraid that NYPD would go public so they had to reopen or be accused of a coverup.”
Someone posted the news to a law enforcement Facebook group. From there, a user called Eagle Wings (@NIVIsa4031) posted it to Twitter. Eagle Wings’ profile picture shows a smiling middle-aged woman above the description “USAF Vet believes Freedom Soars.” Among her more influential followers are former deputy assistant to President Trump Sebastian Gorka and former national security adviser Gen. Michael Flynn, who actually shared a separate Eagle- Wings tweet last year. Eagle Wings’ enthusiastic following likely has something to do with membership in “Trumps WarRoom,” a private group of online activists who share and amplify political messages. Participants told Politico’s Shawn Musgrave that hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of pro-Trump rooms coalesced during the campaign. “The members aren’t stereotypical trolls,” Musgrave tells me. “Most are baby boomers.” A lot are women from the Midwest.
But Eagle Wings is not a typical political enthusiast, says Woolley, who directs research at the Institute for the Future’s Digital Intelligence Lab. She tweets too often (more than 50,000 times since November 2015) to too many followers (120,000 as of November 2017). “Without a shadow of a doubt,” he says, “Eagle Wings is a highly automated account [and] part of a bot network” – a centrally controlled group of social-media accounts. To explain how they work, Ben Nimmo, a fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, uses a shepherding analogy. “A message that someone or some organization wants to ‘trend’ is typically sent out by ‘shepherd’ accounts,” he says, which often have large followings and are controlled by humans. The shepherds’ messages are amplified by ‘sheepdog’ accounts, which are also run by humans but can be default-set “to boost the signal and harass critics.” At times, the shepherds personally steer conversations, but they also deploy automation, using a kind of Twitter cruise control to retweet particular keywords and hashtags. Together, Nimmo says, the shepherds and sheepdogs guide a herd of bots, which “mindlessly repost content in the digital equivalent of sheep rushing in the same direction and bleating loudly.”
Whether Katz repeated something a herd of bots was bleating, or repackaged tidbits found on other parts of the Internet, her Facebook post was the “human touch” that helped the fake news story go viral. The “tell,” says Watts, was what happened next. Most of us post into Internet oblivion. But about 12 hours after Katz shared her story, a Twitter user named @DavidGoldbergNY tweeted a screenshot of her post, twice – adding, “I have been hearing the same thing from my NYPD buddies too. Next couple days will be -interesting!”
On Twitter, @DavidGoldbergNY described himself as a “Jew, Lawyer & New Yorker.” The account went live around the time of the Republican National Convention, in July 2016, posting divisive tweets like “Attacking the 1 percent is attacking 43 percent of the Jewish community.” The account’s profile picture – a man with a nose Photoshopped to look very large and hooked – has been used online for more than a decade. Based on the limited threads that have been archived, Woolley says, @DavidGoldbergNY appears to have been, like Eagle Wings, “highly automated” and part of “an organized effort” – possibly a bot network – to spread disinformation. One of @DavidGoldbergNY’s tweets about the Katz Facebook post was retweeted 6,369 times.
What’s nearly impossible to tell is who ran @DavidGoldbergNY. The handle is not among the 2,752 Twitter accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency, a disinformation shop run by the Kremlin, which the House Intelligence Committee released in November. And Twitter has yet to make public the handles of an additional 36,746 bot accounts its attorney Sean Edgett told Congress have “characteristics we used to associate an account with Russia.” In any case, Russia is not the only one playing this game. “We’ve also had sources tell us that using bot networks has become a common practice among U.S. political campaigns,” says Woolley, a practice that is difficult to trace. “They do it with subcontractors,” he explains. “And the Federal Election Commission doesn’t require reporting for subcontractors.” One thing that does stand out, he adds, is “the more sophisticated bot nets, the ones that are successful at spreading stories, are built by people with a lot of resources. In our experience, across multiple different countries, the people that have deep pockets are the powerful political actors.”
According to a sample of tweets with Pizzagate or related hashtags provided by Filippo Menczer, a professor of informatics at Indiana University, Pizzagate was shared roughly 1.4 million times by more than a quarter of a million accounts in its first five weeks of life – from @DavidGoldbergNY’s tweet to the day Welch showed up at Comet Ping Pong. The vast majority of tweeters in our sample, just 10 percent of all possible hits, posted about the story only a few times. But more than 3,000 accounts in our set tweeted about Pizzagate five times or more. Among these were dozens of users who tweet so frequently – up to 900 times a day – that experts believe they were likely highly automated. Even more striking: 22 percent of the tweets in our sample were later deleted by the user. This could be a sign, Woolley says, of “someone sweeping away everything so that we can’t follow the trail.”
Next, we decided to cross-reference the most frequent Pizzagate tweeters with a list of 139 handles associated with Trump campaign staffers, advisers and surrogates. We also ran our entire sample against the list of accounts linked to Russia’s Internet Research Agency. We found that at least 14 Russia-linked accounts had tweeted about Pizzagate, including @Pamela_Moore13, whose avatar is, aptly, an anonymous figure wrapped in an American flag; that account has been retweeted by such prominent Trump supporters as Donald Trump Jr., Ann Coulter and Roger Stone, the political operative who recommended Paul Manafort as Trump’s campaign manager. (Special Counsel Robert Mueller recently indicted Manafort for money laundering as part of his investigation into possible collusion with Russian efforts to influence the presidential race.) “Well! Well! Well!” “Pamela Moore” tweeted on November 19th, 2016, above the fake news headline “FBI: Rumors About Clinton Pedophile Ring Are True.”
The campaign’s engagement went far deeper. We found at least 66 Trump campaign figures who followed one or more of the most prolific Pizzagate tweeters. Michael Caputo, a Trump adviser who tweeted frequently about Clinton’s e-mails, followed 146 of these accounts; Corey Stewart, Trump’s campaign chair in Virginia, who lost a tight primary race for governor in June, followed 115; Paula White-Cain, Trump’s spiritual adviser, followed 71; Pastor Darrell Scott, a prominent member of Trump’s National Diversity Coalition, followed 33. Flynn’s son, Michael Flynn Jr., who followed 58 of these accounts, famously took the bait and was ousted from the Trump transition team in early December after tweeting, “Until #Pizzagate proven to be false, it’ll remain a story.”
Many of the Pizzagate tweeters had the characteristics of political bots – Twitter handles made up of random or semi-random letters and numbers and twin passions for conservative politics and pets (puppies and kitties win audience, Watts says). Others were all too human. Crystal Kemp, a 50-year-old grandmother who lives in Confluence, Pennsylvania, tweeted about the story more than 4,000 times in five weeks. I reached out to her via Facebook to ask why. “Didn’t want Hillary to win at any cost,” Kemp tells me, “but liked Trump from day one. I don’t really know that much about the Pizzagate thing. Everything I tweeted or retweeted was stuff that I found through my own research or from another follower.”
Kemp tweeted links to articles from well-known right-wing sites like Fox News and Breitbart. But she also shared stories from obscure outlets like ConservativeDailyPost.com, which appears to be among the fake-news sites that operated from Macedonia during the election. Buzzfeed had found that teenagers in the deindustrialized town of Veles published pro-Trump stories because they were profitable as click-bait. When I traveled to Macedonia last summer, Borce Pejcev, a computer programmer who has set up dozens of fake-news sites – for around 100 euros each – said it wasn’t quite that simple. Macedonians don’t invent fake news stories, he told me. “No one here knows anything about American politics. They copy and paste from American sites, maybe try to come up with more dramatic headline.” Fox News, TruePundit.com, DailyCaller.com, InfoWars and Breitbart, he said, were among the Macedonians’ most common source material (“Breit-bart was best”). Macedonians would’ve happily copied anti-Trump fake news too, he said. “Unfortunately, there weren’t any good U.S. pro-Clinton fake-news sites to copy and paste.”
That was exactly how the right-wing-media ecosystem worked during the 2016 campaign, explains Yochai Benkler, who directs the Berkman-Klein Center for the Internet and Society at Harvard. After the election, he and his colleagues mapped about 2 million campaign-news stories. He found that far-right-media outlets were organized extremely tightly around Breitbart and, to a lesser degree, FoxNews.com. “The right paid attention to right-wing sites, and the more right-wing they were, the more attention they got,” Benkler says. More extreme sites would distort and exaggerate the claims, but they would use a “relatively- credible source” such as Breitbart as a validator. “Because they were repeated not only on the very far-fringe sites but also by sites that are at the center of this cluster, the right-wing disinformation circulated and amplified very quickly.”
Douglas Hagmann is a self-employed private investigator and host of HagmannReport.com, a webcast that exposes the “New World Order agenda.” It was Hagmann who – four days after Carmen Katz first posted the story and six days before Election Day – brought Pizzagate from social media to fake news’ largest stage. On the November 2nd broadcast of InfoWars, arguably the most influential conspiracy-theory outlet in the country, with 7.7 million unique visitors to its website a month, Alex Jones asked Hagmann to tell his audience what sources had revealed about the e-mails recovered on Weiner’s computer. “[T]he most disgusting aspect of this is the sexual angle,” Hagmann said. “I don’t want to be graphic or gross here. . . . Based on my source, Hillary did in fact participate on some of the junkets on the Lolita Express.”
The story took off. Google Trends measures interest in topics among the 1.17 billion users of its search engine on a 0-100 scale. On October 29th, the day Katz posted the story on Facebook, searches for “Hillary” and “pedophile” ranked zero. Ninety-six hours later, when Hagmann “broke” the story on InfoWars, they scored 100.
In April, Hagmann agreed to meet with me for a look at his “courtroom-ready” documents on Pizzagate. His split-level home in Erie, Pennsylvania, is on a quiet leafy street. In the front yard, there’s a small waterfall, a rock garden and a large sign warning that the place is under surveillance. He greeted me in the foyer wearing a suit and tie, his hair slicked back with Brylcreem, and led the way downstairs to his basement broadcast center.
In October 2016, Hagmann claimed, he “communicated” with a friend who knows someone affiliated with the NYPD. The friend of the friend had been on the “task force” that secured Weiner’s computer and had copied documents onto a thumb drive “proving” Clinton and her associates were involved in pedophilia. “Now, I can’t get him to give me the thumb drive,” he said. “Or even admit to the fact that he had it.” When I asked how he knew the files existed, he said, “I trust my source.”
Hagmann then launched into a synopsis of three decades of rumors that Clinton and her associates are lesbians and perverts. He started with the claims of Cathy O’Brien, a conspiracy theorist from Muskegon, Michigan, who alleged that while held as a CIA sex slave, she was forced to service Hillary Clinton. Hagmann moved on to Clinton’s “close” relationship with Weiner’s estranged wife, and the allegation that her campaign manager, John Podesta, and his brother Tony resemble sketches of the suspects in the 2007 disappearance of four-year-old Madeleine McCann in Portugal. “Sorry,” Hagmann stopped himself. “I know this case is difficult. Circumstantial.”
When I asked if he had verified anything, Hagmann shuffled some papers, lifting one sheet by a corner, like a poker player. With apparent reluctance, he turned over a color copy of an image showing a clean, uninjured boy wearing a green T-shirt in a dog cage. The child could have been playing or held hostage. “That might be a disturbing image,” I said. “But I don’t see what it has to do with Hillary Clinton.” He shrugged. “You could say I have dog crap for answers and dog crap for sources,” he said, adding later, “I hope you don’t think this was a waste.”
The following month, at Awaken to the Shakin’, a Bible conference in Gurnee, Illinois, Hagmann presented his evidence to an audience of about 40 middle-aged churchgoers. His courtroom-ready exhibits included the Wikipedia entry for “fake news,” the New Oxford Dictionary definition of “post-truth,” a quote by John Wayne, a photo of people sitting on a couch wearing horse masks, a photo of scars on the fingers of John Podesta. And the kicker – a photo of a decapitated body that Hagmann said was a victim of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and another of a sculpture by Louise Bourgeois in Tony Podesta’s home, ironically titled “The Arch of Hysteria.” The two images, he said, are shockingly similar.
All the same, two days after Hagmann’s appearance on InfoWars, Erik Prince, the brother of Trump’s secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, “confirmed” that the terrible rumor was true in an interview on Breitbart. Prince is best known as the founder of the private military company Blackwater USA, whose mercenaries shot and killed 17 unarmed Iraqi civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square in 2007. He donated $250,000 to the Trump campaign and became an informal adviser on intelligence and security issues, traveling to the Seychelles during the transition to meet with a Kremlin associate in an attempt to create back-channel communications between Moscow and the president-elect. On Breitbart radio, Prince painted a picture sure to stir the far right. “Because of Weinergate and the sexting scandal, the NYPD started investigating,” he said. “They found a lot of other really damning criminal information, including money-laundering, including the fact that Hillary went to this sex island with convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein. Bill Clinton went there more than 20 times. Hillary Clinton went there at least six times.”
The right-wing-media system went into overdrive. Prince’s story was picked up and embellished by other right-wing outlets, and made its way back to InfoWars that afternoon. Citing Prince’s interview, Jones fumed, “When I think about all the children Hillary Clinton has personally murdered and chopped up and raped . . . yeah, you heard me right. Hillary Clinton has personally murdered children.” Jones’ video was viewed on YouTube more than 427,000 times. Prince’s interview was shared another 81,000 times. On Twitter, the numbers were increasing exponentially- – 300 percent in just six days.
Long before October 28th, 2016, when Comey wrote to Congress that the FBI would be reexamining Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server, her campaign knew they had a huge e-mail problem. In focus groups, voters conflated the case with the e-mails Russian operatives had hacked from the Democratic National Committee and Podesta, her campaign manager. Though U.S. intelligence agencies now agree that a Kremlin–associated group, Fancy Bear, hacked the e-mails – which WikiLeaks began posting less than an hour after The Washington Post published Trump’s “grab them by the pussy” video – a senior Clinton campaign staffer tells me, “There was just more voyeuristic interest in the content of the e-mails than in how they were obtained.”
The confusion was encouraged online by the likes of @DavidGoldbergNY. The e-mails on Weiner’s laptop had nothing to do with Podesta’s Gmail account, but one of his tweets of the Katz post included #podestaemails23. “That hashtag is a flag,” Woolley says. “It suggests that @DavidGoldbergNY is attempting to get people to look at something.” On message boards, amateur sleuths searched for encoded evidence in the Podesta e-mails. A particular source of fascination was an invitation from the performance artist Marina Abramovic for Podesta to attend a “Spirit Cooking dinner.” Allegations started circulating that Clinton consumed semen, breast milk and menstrual blood.
The story still hadn’t penetrated Clinton’s campaign headquarters. They’d become inured to the avalanche of fake news – the rumors that she was on her deathbed, funding ISIS, even dissed by the pope. But when a Clinton campaign staffer noticed “Podesta Spirit Cooking Emails Reveal Clinton’s Inner Circle as Sex Cult with Connections to Human Trafficking” on DangerandPlay.com become “Podesta Practices Occult Magic” on the Drudge Report, and then saw Alex Jones shouting that Clinton “is an abject, psychopathic demon from hell,” who “smell[s] like sulfur,” he went straight into Podesta’s office at the campaign’s Brooklyn headquarters. “You’re not going to believe it,” the aide told him. “Now you’re a fucking witch.”
It got even weirder after users on 8chan read a Podesta e-mail that revealed that Democratic activist David Brock had dated the owner of Comet Ping Pong pizzeria, James Alefantis. The citizen investigators considered Brock their archenemy – he’d founded Correct the Record, a Super PAC that defended Clinton against defamation by online trolls. Suddenly, they saw sinister meaning in any mention of pizza; for instance, the first letters in the words “cheese pizza” are the same as in “child porn.”
Until November 2016, the Pizzagate hashtag had mostly referred to Trump’s use of a fork and knife to eat pizza. But on November 4th, two days after Hagmann’s appearance on InfoWars, Cassandra Fairbanks, then a reporter for Sputnik News (which U.S. intelligence says spreads Kremlin-directed- disinformation), tweeted, “I’ve literally spent the last hour wondering if podesta ingested sperm mixed with breast milk with his brother.” In response, another user, @GodlessNZ, appears to have launched the hashtag: “Tweets assembling under #JohnMolesta and maybe #PizzaGate.”
That day, Alefantis got a phone call from a reporter at The Washington City Paper seeking a comment about a rumor going viral on Reddit. “What’s Reddit?” Alefantis asked.
It was just beginning. Even as the election came and went, several Twitter accounts tweeted exclusively about Pizzagate to a number of alt-right “influencers” – among them InfoWars and Brittany Pettibone, one of a handful of alt-right “girls” who regularly appear at the movement’s events. At least one single-minded account, @Pizza_Gate, likely caught the attention of Mehmet Ali Önel, a Turkish TV anchor. The network Önel works for is linked to the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoan, which was facing international condemnation (including from the Obama State Department) for proposing a law that would risk decriminalizing pedophilia for offenders who married their victims. Önel, who has 196,000 Twitter followers, was one of dozens of Turkish commentators who claimed Americans had no right calling out Turkey for sex crimes with Pizzagate erupting in their own capital. One of the most shared Pizzagate tweets was posted by the anchor on November 16th. Roughly translated, it reads, “USA #PizzaGate shaken by the pedophilia scandals.”
Among the users who picked up the thread was Jack Posobiec, a well-known alt-right troll whom Trump himself has retweeted. During the campaign, Posobiec was special-projects director for Citizens for Trump, a never-officially-organized voter-fraud prevention group. Several hours after Önel sent his November 16th tweet, Posobiec went to investigate Comet Ping Pong and another nearby pizzeria. Live-streaming the visit on Periscope, he described evidence of “what’s really going on” – a double pane of glass near an oven, security cameras, a texting cashier. Posobiec paused, worrying his viewers might not understand the situation. “It’s like in the movie Jurassic Park,” he said. “Nedry had the shaving cream bottle. And you could press the top and a little bit of shaving cream came out. . . . The bottom part is where they had the dinosaur embryos.”
The Twittersphere went wild. The previous day, our sample indicates there were roughly 6,000 tweets about Pizzagate. Now, it was closer to 55,000. Alefantis tried and failed to get Facebook and Twitter to remove the posts. (Both companies declined to comment for this story.) When the restaurant started getting death threats, Alefantis called the police, then the FBI, and got nowhere. “It turns out you can say anything about anyone online,” he says. “It’s your First Amendment right to terrorize.”
Alefantis thought he’d finally scored a victory when The New York Times published an article debunking Pizzagate. He learned what the Clinton campaign found out too late. As Harvard’s Benkler puts it, “The right-wing-media ecosystem had become so hyperpartisan, so self-referential and so superinsular it often simply ignored information that’s disconfirming.” Instead, right-wing social media referenced mainstream coverage as a way to “legitimate” their claims. On November 21st, the day the Times published its story, our sample shows Twitter traffic about Pizzagate hit unprecedented levels: some 120,000 tweets.
Trolls on message boards began posting whole “dossiers” of private information about Comet Ping Pong employees and top Democrats, down to the movies that Podesta ordered on Netflix. On November 22nd, when Reddit banned a Pizzagate subreddit for posting obviously stolen private information, a moderator responded, “We have all made life insurance videos. We have all vowed to continue this fight. You have only increased our number. This morning we were numerous, tonight we are legion.” About 145,000 tweets flew that day.
The next day, InfoWars posted a video called “Pizzagate Is Real.” On November 27th, Jones spent a half-hour explaining the story. “Something’s being covered up,” he told his audience. “All I know is, God help us, we’re in the hands of pure evil.” Hours later, he released another video, “Down the #Pizzagate Rabbit Hole.” On December 1st, the show posted “Pizzagate: The Bigger Picture.” In North Carolina, Edgar Maddison Welch was obsessively watching much of this coverage. By the evening of December 4th, he was in solitary confinement in a Washington, D.C., jail.
Nearly a year after the election, in three separate hearings with members of Congress, executives from Twitter, Facebook and Google took turns expressing contrition for hosting Russia’s attempts to manipulate U.S. public opinion. A Facebook vice president said it “pains us as a company” that foreign actors “abused our platform.” Twitter’s general counsel said he too was “troubled” that the power of Twitter was misused.
“There was this concept of ‘Social media is going to save democracy,’ ” Woolley tells me. “Twitter didn’t envision that powerful political actors were going to use social media in attempts to spread propaganda.” Among the many strange aspects of Pizzagate was the fact that the story went viral after the election. All of the Russia-linked tweets we found were sent after November 8th. Bot networks appear to be tweeting out the hashtag to this day. Woolley suggests it could be an attempt to “bolster” Trump’s position, to “win over people’s hearts and minds.” Clinton had lost the presidency, he says, but “she was not done in terms of her ability to be a representative of democratic ideals, or of the ideals that were oppositional to Donald Trump.”
Watts, the cyber-security expert, doesn’t know if Russia and the Trump campaign colluded on Pizzagate, or anything else. But both camps were clearly opportunistic. “You can’t say that there was no indigenous support,” he says. “The Russians don’t create this whole [alt-right] movement. They just harness it.” Of course, so did Trump. But Watts believes the Russians, at least, are playing for much higher stakes than one presidential election. “The goal is to create division between communities,” he says. “It is making you not trust the state. It’s eroding the mandate of elected officials so that they can’t govern properly. It’s making people want to not participate in democracy because they think it’s corrupt. It’s getting you to either believe that it’s all stacked against you or you just opt out altogether because you don’t know what to believe. When you don’t know what to believe, you’ll believe anything.”
To learn more about how #Pizzagate spread, tune in to Reveal, distributed by PRX. Download the episode at revealnews.org/podcast starting Nov. 18.