WASHINGTON — John Podesta has given it a lot of thought and believes the best way to deal with the trolls is to ignore them. His wife, Mary, however, takes a different approach. When angry people call their home in the middle of the night, she has a conversation with them.
“She sits on the phone and talks to them, which is disconcerting actually to most of the people who are calling just to leave a nasty message on your voicemail,” Podesta says. “When somebody actually engages them and says, ‘Why are you doing this?’ they fold pretty quickly. But she has more patience for that than I do.”
Podesta is easily forgiven for having little time for his tormentors. Since 2016, he has been the victim of a deranged and viral conspiracy theory known as Pizzagate. The theory — which has its roots in the emails stolen from his personal account by Russian hackers and dumped online by WikiLeaks — claimed that Podesta was a pedophile and that he, Hillary Clinton and a Washington, D.C., restaurateur named James Alefantis ran a child sex-trafficking ring from the basement of Alefantis’ pizzeria, Comet Ping Pong.
On its face, Pizzagate was insane, with zero basis in reality. Yet in the frenzied days after Donald Trump’s election, it caught fire on social media platforms including Twitter, YouTube, Reddit and 4Chan, metastasizing into a story so twisted and bizarre that it radicalized online trolls and traumatized others who, through no fault of their own, had gotten sucked into the conspiracy.
Two years ago this month, Pizzagate reached its grim apex when a 28-year-old man stormed into Comet Ping Pong with a revolver and an AR-15 on a mission to save the “children.” Edgar Maddison Welch had binge-watched YouTube videos about Pizzagate and tried to recruit friends for his rescue mission. “Raiding a pedo ring, possibly sacraficing [sic] the lives of a few for the lives of many,” he texted one friend a few days before he got in his Prius and drove from his home in North Carolina to Washington. Customers and employees fled the restaurant as Welch fired several rounds into a locked closet full of computer gear, searching for the infamous child sex dungeon in Comet’s basement, which he never found — not least because the pizzeria doesn’t even have a basement. No one was hurt, and Welch surrendered to the police, hands on his head, in broad daylight in the street outside of Comet. He was later sentenced to four years in federal prison.
Even after the arrest, Pizzagate lived on. The day after Welch stalked into Comet, Michael Flynn, Jr., the son of Trump’s first national security adviser, tweeted: “Until #Pizzagate proven to be false, it’ll remain a story.” An Economist/YouGov poll in late December 2016 found that 46 percent of Trump voters and 17 percent of Clinton voters thought Pizzagate was real. A few months later, a small rally of Pizzagate believers took place outside the White House. Protesters have stood outside Comet carrying blown-up photos of Alefantis’ god-daughter taken from his social media accounts. Strangers online have threatened to torture, rape and kill him.
“I’ve been through a lot of Washington shit in my life,” Alefantis tells Rolling Stone. He grew up in D.C., and dated David Brock, the notorious conservative journalist turned Clinton loyalist, for 10 years. “This is not my first time at the rodeo,” he says. “I had never seen this volume of specific, directed attacks.”
In the two years since the shooting, our understanding of online conspiracy theories has grown, of how they take root and the people who believe and spread those theories. But what about the victims? What is it like to be on the receiving end? How do you fight back against a plainly false allegation that changes your life?
For four decades John Podesta has worked at the highest levels of American politics: campaign chairman for Hillary Clinton’s historic 2016 presidential run, chief of staff to President Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, counselor to President Obama and adviser to senators and congressmen. But nothing could prepare him for Pizzagate.
Speaking about the conspiracy theory and its impact on his life for the first time, Podesta tells Rolling Stone that he learned about it the old-fashioned way: from the news. As Clinton campaign chair, he had spent the final month of the 2016 race locked in hand-to-hand combat with reporters about the contents of his personal emails, which WikiLeaks was releasing in periodic batches to damage Clinton’s chances. He didn’t have time to reflect on the hack, let alone notice the conspiracy theories bubbling up about him on websites like Reddit and 4Chan.
Searching for evidence of illegality or anything sinister in Podesta’s hacked emails, wannabe online sleuths decided that mentions of “pizza” were code for child pornography. An anonymous 4chan user posted a list of other supposed code words to search for in Podesta’s emails — “pasta” meant little boy, “ice cream” meant male prostitute, “sauce” meant orgy. Soon, the hashtag #Pizzagate appeared and spread like wildfire on social media.
Podesta claims he wasn’t overly concerned about his emails getting released: their contents, he now says, were “relatively much ado about nothing.” It wasn’t until after the election that he realized those emails had become fuel for a horrific conspiracy theory. In his career, he says he had never been on the receiving end of something like Pizzagate. “It’s painful and crazy,” he says. “I’m pretty grizzled. One big difference is you’ve got somebody sitting in the Oval Office stoking the conspiracy. That’s pretty different than what I’ve experienced in my years in politics.”
Podesta was only one strain of the conspiracy. Another thread formed around Alefantis and Comet Ping Pong. It appears to have begun with a 2008 email included in the WikiLeaks dump in which Alefantis asked Podesta if he would give a speech at an Obama fundraiser at Comet. From there, the trolls began mining every detail they could find about Alefantis and Comet, quickly concocting a parallel theory that said Alefantis, Podesta and Clinton ran a child sex-trafficking ring. Self-styled investigators claimed that symbols on Comet’s iconic sign (which had previously been used by a D.C. liquor store that had since closed) were linked to satanic rituals. They said a photo of an empty walk-in refrigerator was evidence of a secret kill room.
One day in November 2016, roughly a month before Welch’s attack, one of Alefantis’ young employees told him that a wild theory called Pizzagate was blowing up on Reddit. “What’s Reddit?” he asked.
Alefantis is a self-taught chef who never graduated from college and a self-made restaurateur well-known around Washington. (GQ named him one of D.C.’s 50 most powerful people in 2012.) He opened Comet more than a decade ago to be “a place of play and interaction,” as he puts it, where families could eat pizza and play ping pong and engage in real, substantive conversations with one another.
Alefantis told his staff that this Pizzagate thing would blow over after the election. Then Trump won, and the threats got worse. Violent messages poured into Comet’s Instagram and Facebook accounts, some of which Alefantis shared with Rolling Stone:
I will kill you personally
I truly hope someone blows your brains all over comet pizza
Are you scared yet? You should be motherfucker because were [sic] coming for you
You need to be raped killed and tortured like you do to children u sick fuck .. ur days of freedom are numbers u evil douche
The home addresses and phone numbers of Alefantis and his employees were published online. Comet would receive 150 menacing calls in a single day, Alefantis says, so he unplugged the phone. People reviewed Comet on Yelp and said there were chopped-up baby parts in their food.
As the threats became more violent, Alefantis repeatedly contacted the D.C. police and the FBI. He estimates he called the bureau three or four times and described a situation that, he admits, sounded insane. The FBI largely told him to call the police. “They were essentially like, ‘If you get a specific threat, let us know. Thank you, goodbye.'” When he asked what qualified as a specific threat, the FBI said, “A date and time when they’re going to come.” He says the local police visited Comet on multiple occasions but there was zero specific action taken by the police or the FBI as the threats escalated in the weeks after the election. (The FBI did not respond to a request for comment.)
At the same time the Pizzagaters barraged Comet, they attacked Alefantis personally. Strangers filmed his house and questioned his neighbors, he says. Any person or organization connected to him also got sucked in. A non-profit art gallery whose board he chaired received angry calls. Any trace of Alefantis’ life found in public records or social media — an old home address, an event he had attended — was used against him.
He came to see Pizzagate as a real-life video game played by the theory’s true believers. “These are people at home who want to investigate, and basically anything that’s available online is fair game to them,” Alefantis says. Sometimes, when he responded to the people making the threats, they would veer off into unexpected territory. “Some of those messages to me were, ‘How much do you pay your employees? Do you have health care?'” When he told them he did in fact offer health care, some responded, “Will you hire me?”
But the onslaught proved too much for him to handle on his own. Through a friend, he got in touch with Mike Gottlieb, a partner at the firm Boies Schiller Flexner. (David Boies, one of the firm’s founders, is the renowned litigator who has faced criticism for his work on behalf of Harvey Weinstein and the fraudulent blood-testing company Theranos.) Alefantis and Gottlieb met on a Friday in early December 2016, and Gottlieb agreed to take on Alefantis as a client. That Sunday, Welch walked into the restaurant, guns in tow. (Welch did not respond to Rolling Stone’s request for comment.)
Alefantis wasn’t at Comet but rushed over when he heard about the gunman. The neighborhood was a crime scene: there were SWAT officers and yellow tape everywhere, and police had evacuated Comet’s employees to a fire station down the street. The workers at Buck’s Fishing and Camping, another restaurant Alefantis owned on the same block as Comet, were locked inside for their safety, as were the other people who worked at nearby businesses. “I really hope that all these people fanning the flames of this conspiracy theory would take a moment to contemplate what has gone on today and maybe to stop,” Alefantis, still in shock, told reporters later that day.
At the urging of his new legal and P.R. team, Alefantis reopened Comet on Dec. 6th, two days after the attack. A long line of customers waited to get in, and he stood at the front door to personally welcome them. He recalls seeing one of his best friends from high school in line with her young kids. Months later, Alefantis and the friend talked about that day. “She said, ‘The look on your face was Don’t come here,'” he recalls. “I asked her, ‘How did you feel?’ She was like, ‘I did not want to go there. It was so terrifying for me.'” But her kids wanted to go and so she took them. “That trauma exists,” he says, “not just for me, but for a whole community of people.”
After Comet was back up and running, Alefantis and his lawyers set out to stop the spread of Pizzagate. “For me, at some point, I was like: My name is totally destroyed,” Alefantis says. “I just didn’t want anyone to come shoot us up again.”
The response from the social media companies ranged from helpful to utterly dismissive, Alefantis recalls. Even before he’d hired lawyers, Alefantis had gotten Yelp to suspend Comet’s page after his staff had reported the abusive reviews. Facebook was responsive to Comet’s complaints. YouTube, however, refused to so much as acknowledge its role in amplifying Pizzagate, saying they were just a platform, that they weren’t an arbiter of truth and falsity and told Alefantis to get back in touch if and when he could get a court order finding the videos that promoted Pizzagate to be defamatory.
“YouTube is a platform committed to allowing a wide range of free expression, but it is not and never has been anything goes,” a YouTube spokesperson tells Rolling Stone, adding that in the first half of 2018 the company removed more than 17 million individual videos that violated its policies.
The traditional crisis communications playbook proved useless. Media interviews and op-eds did nothing to quiet the conspiracists and, if anything, emboldened them. Alefantis’ lawyers and P.R. team booked him onto then-Fox News host Megyn Kelly’s show a few weeks after the attack. It didn’t help: Alefantis answered all of Kelly’s questions, but the interview just became more fodder. “We thought it was possible to show and tell the facts — to make sure that people could see with their own eyes that the crazy conspiracies were just false,” says Molly Levinson, a communications strategist who advised Alefantis. “But we quickly learned that in these kinds of situations any attention is bad attention, any public conversation becomes twisted and contorted and most likely has more of a negative than positive effect.”
The only real strategy, Alefantis realized, was a legal strategy. He would have to get aggressive with the loudest proponents of Pizzagate, people like Alex Jones, host of InfoWars, who had run multiple broadcasts with titles like “Pizzagate Is Real” and “Pizzagate: The Bigger Picture.”
Gradually, in the months after the gunman showed up, Jones and others seemed to bow to legal pressure and backed away from Pizzagate. On March 24th, 2017, Jones published online and read on-air a lengthy statement in which he apologized to Alefantis, announced that he had removed past broadcasts about Pizzagate and admitted that those stories were based on “an incorrect narrative.” Neither Alefantis nor his lawyers would further comment on any interactions with Jones or on any possible settlement.
Podesta says he considered litigation as well. But suing the Pizzagaters would be extremely difficult given that he was a major public figure. He pushed back against the trolls on Twitter, but that didn’t make much difference, either. He found that the best course of action was doing nothing. “If I really spent my life trying to figure out what those people were saying, it would drive me nuts,” he says. “The only rational reaction to that is to deal with it when there’s something serious and right in front of you, but for the most part to try to ignore it.”
This past September, Alefantis traveled to New York City to attend a therapy session with his ex-boyfriend. Alefantis and his ex had broken up as Pizzagate was raging, but they had decided to see a therapist together. During their session, Alefantis assured his ex that, almost two years later, the nightmare had passed. “Things have moved on,” he recalls saying. “You’re safe. Everyone’s fine. It’s all over.”
After their session, they headed for the subway. A stranger approached Alefantis on the street and began taking pictures in his face and screaming at him.
“I’m going to my kid’s school right now!” the stranger said, apparently fearing for his child’s safety.
“Don’t engage, James,” his ex told him.
“Go call the police,” Alefantis said to the man, “and get the fuck away from me.”
Alefantis walked his ex to the subway station. The stranger followed Alefantis on foot before eventually leaving. “The guy’s basically chasing after me through the streets of New York,” he recalls. “He’s a Pizzagater. He recognized me. It still happens.”
Today, Alefantis says business at Comet is back to pre-Pizzagate levels. The angry phone calls and violent online threats have mostly subsided. You can still find plenty of disturbing tweets if you search for #Pizzagate or #CometPingPong on social media. But the worst of it appears to be over. Alefantis says he thinks the trolls just moved on to other things.
A restaurant in a smaller city, owned by someone with fewer connections, would’ve closed, he says. But the community of customers Alefantis had built up over the years rallied around him. Three brief phone calls and he had a meeting with one of the best attorneys in the country. “If this had been someone else or someone else’s restaurant, without 10 years of hard work and support behind us, without my understanding of how absurd the world can be and how difficult these things are, other people would have been taken down,” he says.
But the trauma remains. He’s been called the most despicable thing you can say to someone. Even in liberal circles, people jokingly refer to him as the Pizzagate guy. He’s figuring out what the ordeal means for his future. “Previous to this, I was out in the world and I had nothing but glowing Google hits and my restaurants were easily reviewed,” he says. “Now, it’s nothing but filth, basically. When I go into a business meeting or do a new venture or go into a new relationship with someone serious, there are major issues. It’s destroyed my name.”
Podesta, for his part, says Pizzagate seems to be largely over for him, to the extent online conspiracy theories ever really go away. He says his neighbors have chased away people walking up and down his block and acting suspiciously. After a Trump supporter sent pipe bombs to a number of prominent Democrats in October, Podesta resorted to poking and prodding his mail with a pen before opening it. President Trump still tweets about him, his messages amplified by an army of trolls at the ready. And the same backlash happens any time Podesta himself tweets about Trump, a move his staff has come to dread but something he won’t give up.
Pizzagate has left him with some pretty big scars, Podesta says, but he worries more about the victims of viral conspiracy theories who don’t have his thick skin. “As a person who’s pretty hardened by a lifetime in politics, I sometimes think, ‘Well, how would a normal person even begin to live with this?'”
Still, Podesta admits that the events of the past two years have left him less inclined to speak out. “You’re conscious about the notion that you are going to trigger a crazy response,” he says. “Sometimes you feel compelled to do it anyway. And I don’t do it for fun. I do it when I think something’s serious enough that I need to say something. And now I’m just a little bit more guarded it, and guarded about what appearances I accept.”
He catches himself from sounding too woe-is-me. “I’ve had the honor of working for a president,” he says. “I can’t bitch too much about my life. It’s been pretty good.”
“The pizza’s still good at Comet, too.”