Mon. Jul 26th, 2021

The online disinformation campaign now known as #Pizzagate, which extremists blasted into mainstream visibility on such sites as Twitter and Reddit, targeted Alefantis with a storm of harassment and lies, falsely suggesting that liberal elites abused children in the basement of his pizza restaurant. The #Pizzagate fable ultimately inspired a man to drive across state lines from North Carolina to Washington, D.C., to “save” fictitious victims. He fired a gun inside Comet Ping Pong in December 2016, when the restaurant was full of families eating lunch. Trolls continue to target Alefantis and his staff with harassment even now, as the event approaches its fifth anniversary.

The Comet Ping Pong restaurant in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post via Getty Images).

Researchers of the far right still talk about #Pizzagate, but for different reasons: #Pizzagate influenced the politically charged disinformation campaigns that followed it in significant, often underreported ways. #Pizzagate helped birth the sprawling, pro-Trump conspiracy #QAnon, which in turn led to a number of violent crimes. #Pizzagate represents a watershed moment for Trump-era extremists, and its popularity united such figures as the actress Rosanne Barr with open neo-Nazis and, potentially, the Russian government. It can be viewed as a forerunner to the so-called Big Lie, wherein millions of Americans falsely came to believe that former President Trump won reelection in 2020 but liberal elites colluded to change the outcome.

Hatewatch published a detailed analysis of Twitter’s enabling of the far right on July 7. The analysis frequently references #Pizzagate due to the degree to which once-obscure extremists who pushed those lies went on to achieve fame on the website without ever facing consequences for their actions. Hard-right disinformation peddlers such as Jack Posobiec, Mike Cernovich and Cassandra Fairbanks, who hyped #Pizzagate on Twitter, also later used the site to push lies about the 2020 election in the runup to the violent insurrection attempt on the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6. Twitter has enabled these figures for years and even recommended to readers Posobiec’s misleading content about the trial of Derek Chauvin, despite the sensitivity around the trial and his connections to the white supremacist movement.

Hatewatch reached out to Alefantis to hear his perspective about these matters and to obtain a better understanding of what it’s like to find yourself at the center of a maelstrom of hate based upon wholesale lies. Although Comet Ping Pong remains a staple of Washington, D.C., dining, the harassment has taken a toll. Alefantis discusses personal and professional hardship resulting from the hate enabled by social media sites, as well as helplessness in trying to stop it. The interview, which Hatewatch conducted in February by phone, has been edited and condensed for clarity.

James Alefantis

Comet Ping Pong owner James Alefantis makes a brief statement outside his restaurant in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 6, 2016. The business reopened after Edgar Maddison Welch, from North Carolina, discharged his assault rifle at the popular Chevy Chase restaurant. Welch claimed he was there to investigate a fake news story on the internet about a child sex ring. (Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Hatewatch: When did you first become aware of the connection between what was happening on Twitter and what became Pizzagate?

Alefantis: First of all, I don’t speak on this subject very often. I decided early on to try to do everything correctly. And, also, [I decided] that my participation was not about becoming a voice to fix fake news or to clarify what it means or to take on these social media companies. I decided that my most important role is just to get the truth out there, basically. I think when we look back at this time, it’s important that when I give my part of this story, it’s important that it’s just accurate and told through legitimate sources, like your outlet. I haven’t been an advocate for taking down social media accounts. I haven’t made it my mission to try to explain to people what dangerous fake news is and how it needs to be changed.

So, [as Pizzagate trended], my [lawyers] told me “Oh, those social media companies, there’s nothing you can do.” And frankly my first reaction was like, okay, what is going on? These pictures are mine. They need to be taken down. Like, these are pictures of my godchildren being used [by the far right], on the internet. [Portraying] these children as being kidnapped and abused. They’re using their actual images. So, if you think about the future of a child, you know, that child is going to spend its entire life being victimized by these images that were my fault, basically, for posting them online. My first reaction was, like, let’s take these images down. People have learned [that Twitter] is not going to do anything. The message “There’s nothing you can do [about Twitter]” has been fully integrated into the American brain.

Hatewatch: Yeah.

Alefantis: To answer your question, the first time I heard about Pizzagate, it was in 2016. November. In the weeks leading up to the election. I got a call from [the reporter] Will Sommer, who was at the time at the Washington City Paper.

Hatewatch: Yeah, I know Will.

Alefantis: It’s D.C. It’s a small community here and I know everyone. Somehow, Will got my cellphone, or maybe he called the restaurant, and I said it was okay for him to call me. I was at home. He was like, “Do you know there’s this whole thing about Comet on Reddit and this thing is trending [on social media] and do you know about it?” And my comment was like, “What’s Reddit?” Number one. And then this is my official comment, which he published. It’s internet and everyone is hyped up on this election and don’t worry, very soon it will all be over. Me, thinking, Hillary will win, and people will just move on with their lives and blah, blah, blah. And then from there I called my young general manager at Comet and I was like, “Hey, have you heard about this?” And he was like, “No,” but then he goes on Reddit and was like, “Wow, there’s a million things about Comet being this place of child trafficking.” I was like, “That’s so crazy.” But I’m from D.C. I’ve been through things before. I’m a media-aware person. I was like, “Eh, this is just going to go away.”

Hatewatch: And it didn’t.

Alefantis: And it didn’t. Instead, it just kept going. I sort of just rode it out through the election. And then the election happened, and it was like, “Wow. Okay, Trump won.” And I remember saying to people, like, “Well, the only good thing that will come of this is that [Pizzagate] will go away.” Actually, what happened instead is that the volume got turned way up. And suddenly within those first few weeks [after the 2016 election] it became this huge thing on the internet.

Hatewatch: Some of the people who promoted it are people who were what you might call far-right e-celebs, or social media influencers on the far right –

Alefantis: Yeah, we invented Jack Posobiec. Do you know what I mean? He was a literal no one and now he’s somebody. He was a no one then. Like, he came to the restaurant. And did a livestream –

Hatewatch: Do you remember that?

Alefantis: Yes, I remember the whole thing. We threw him out. He got kicked out. But he was also just like a loser with a livestream that anyone could have. But the incident heroized him or something. So, that pissed me off, basically. Why is this guy getting money and fame off of my debacle?

Hatewatch: And then, just a question about that particular incident. Were you surprised that Twitter allowed Posobiec to gain celebrity after that? Because he had no discernible credentials as a media personality before Pizzagate.

Alefantis: I remember it took a little while for Posobiec to gain traction. And this was one of his first things that got him attention, the Comet video. I remember I was surprised that he was gaining celebrity off of it. I personally kind of looked back and was like, “That’s the guy?” Do you know what I mean? Really? The guy who made that video? That guy was nobody and that is that person now? Oh, gosh. That’s completely … like, wild, basically. Crazy. Absurd.

Hatewatch: So, what do you recommend to people who are at the source of a maelstrom online like you were?

Alefantis: Yeah, it is difficult. It’s a good question. When this started happening to us, or me, you know, there was really no precedent for it, exactly. Right? There was no guidebook. We struggled to figure out what to do. People were calling us all the time saying things like, “James, this is crazy, my Instagram is now being attacked. My Twitter … I put a picture of my kid at Comet up and now it has a thousand comments on it, calling me a pedophile. This is crazy.” I’m like, “I’m sorry.” I’m thinking, I’m a restaurateur, what am I supposed to do? So, what I did, was I basically had my assistant help me come up with a guide. Being like, “This is how you do a [DMCA takedown] request.” That’s when you own a copyrighted image, you can go onto the social media site, and report that you own it. And they’re required to take it down. But then you have to do it everywhere it appears. And you have to fill out all these forms and blah, blah, blah, blah. We also hired [a lawyer] from Berkeley who started with cases involving revenge porn. Because there was no precedent, there was no way to figure out what to do. So, we were on the fly figuring out how to deal with these social media companies. Eventually, I got connected to a group of lawyers who said there’s nothing you can do about [the social media companies] but we can help you in other ways.

There really is basically nothing you can do. You are going against so many people and bots. I talked to my friend at MIT at the time. And was like I was just researched this, and he was like, “Did you know that #Pizzagate is the #2 most trending thing on the internet for the last week?” This was around November, December 2016. It really felt super violent, and really invasive, and really visceral. Nothing like that had happened before. Well … there was Gamergate [in 2014].

Hatewatch: Gamergate seemed to be about targeted harassment [of women]. But Pizzagate was about targeted harassment based upon an entirely fictional narrative the far right created. It struck me as being a sort of a … a new mutation.

Alefantis: I think another important idea in there is the actual subject matter of calling someone a pedophile. It’s the worst thing you can call someone, right? If you ignore an accusation of pedophilia, you’re also a bad person. No matter how outrageous the accusation may be in a way. It’s a really good weapon to use, which I think people didn’t quite realize at the time. Until afterwards, in a way. But I think that once it went to pedophilia, the traction kept going. However, this started, whether it started on Twitter and then amplified by a Russian disinformation campaign, or whatever it was, they could tell that it was getting hits. Pedophilia was getting hits and from there [that web traffic] amplified their message. Pizzagate actually had many entry points for people. There are communities of people who believe that Satanists are running the country. And they believe they are sacrificing these children to a Satanist god. Then there’s the “human trafficking” people. Then there’s the “pedophilia” people. Then there’s the “selling the children” people. So many entry points but the key is kids, basically. All of that is impossible to ignore. It must be investigated, was the idea.

Hatewatch: Specific to Twitter. One person who I saw pushed Pizzagate was Cassandra Fairbanks. Fairbanks was on Twitter, not verified, and then her account was verified, and she was treated by Twitter as a person of authority. … Mike Cernovich was also given a similar degree of authority with verification … and Posobiec was later given the same. All three of them pushed Pizzagate. … How do you feel about the degree to which Twitter profited while legitimizing people like this?

Alefantis: At the time, just as an aside, I didn’t really do Twitter much. I was barely in Instagram. I was running a pizza shop, which runs on reality, and people, and pizzas. But basically, what I’ve learned over time and during this is that the “celebritization” of these people, my frustration is with the lying. And it continues on and on. And they say “Oh, we can’t police the internet, we are not able to do that.” Don’t tell me you’re not able to do that. There’s no porn on YouTube. If you can control porn, you can decide to take down the illegally stolen image of my child that’s being [shared] as an example of abuse. Right? It wouldn’t be difficult to remove this image. To tell me that you can’t do that is lying. So, essentially, you’re lying to me, in order to not take action. Action that has resulted in obvious danger and violence to me and my community. So, it’s just wrong.

All those people [you mentioned] I remember them, and I was, like, hating on them [as #Pizzagate was breaking]. There were so many enemies on [Twitter]. Because I kept saying I can’t believe these people. They would go after us hard. There’d be Mike Cernovich, [or others], and they would just, like, rail into us, they would do a video … and then all their followers would send us messages and the messages would be like, “Have you seen this video?” [Their followers] would say to me, “You need to watch this because this is the proof [of #Pizzagate].” Do you really think I need to see the proof? I don’t need to see the proof. That’s so stupid. It’s super illogical and the fact is that if were true, I would know it were true, you wouldn’t need to prove it to me. This is gonna convince me [that Pizzagate is real]?

Hatewatch: Can you give me an idea of some of the things that happened to you and your employees during #Pizzagate? That you feel comfortable talking about.

Alefantis: It’s changed the way I function in my life. First of all, I can’t use social media. But that’s not the end of the world. It’s more like I go to buy a house and they look up my name and people don’t know whether they want to do business with me. Or, people used to reference Comet, it was a famous restaurant for ten years before this ever started. And it was a beloved brand. And people were dying to put it all over, in different malls around the country. And then this goes on. And now when you hear Comet, what’s the first thing you think of? You sort of have to live with that. And it affects your personal life too. Who would want to date or marry this tarnished person? And could you have kids? Could I adopt children? It’s very debilitating in a way.

Hatewatch: Right.

Alefantis: I live in a community of truth-based people, who are super supportive of my work. We also make good pizza. So, that helps. I’m lucky that the people around me understand the difference between what reality is and what it is not. But if I were to leave, to live somewhere else, I would be further destroyed. These weaponized social media attacks … those people [the extremists] move on. But they leave damage, real lasting damage in their wake. Not to mention they brought a gunman into my restaurant, an arsonist, [#Pizzagate] tourists, others. … My employees are traumatized, literally have PTSD, traumatized, waiters in their twenties. I know specific people who are going to therapists, or, you know, afraid to go places because of the actions of these people. So, these are real consequences. As the federal judge said, in the case against the gunman, it’s a miracle no one was killed.