Billionaire tech entrepreneur Elon Musk has been criticised online for seemingly attempting to revive the widely debunked conspiracy theory known as “Pizzagate” online.
The self-described “free-speech absolutist” has recently shared posts on his social media platform X, which questioned aspects of the bizarre online theory, which resulted in a shooting at a Washington DC restaurant in 2016 and is seen as a precursor of the QAnon conspiracy.
Here’s what you need to know about Pizzagate:
What was Pizzagate?
Pizzagate was a conspiracy theory that claimed that high profile Democrats, including former presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, were running a child sex trafficking ring.
The claims stated that Ms Clinton and her campaign manager John Podesta were running the criminal operation out of the basement of the Washington DC pizza joint Comet Ping Pong.
The theory was spread widely on 4chan, Reddit, Twitter (now known as X) and other platforms in the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election.
How did it start?
The conspiracy theory began after hacked emails from Mr Podesta were released by WikiLeaks. The correspondence mentioned James Alefantis, the owner of Comet Ping Pong and a notable Democratic donor.
The emails mentioned the possibility of a fundraiser for the Clinton campaign, organised by Mr Alefantis.
What were the claims?
Members of the anonymous message board 4Chan, an internet message board known for fostering extreme beliefs, subsequently targeted Mr Alefantis’ social media, citing photos of children and basement construction on the restaurant as evidence of wrongdoing.
It was also claimed that some words in emails sent by Mr Alefantis, such as “pizza” and “cheese”, were code words for criminal activity. Some linked “cheese pizza” to the initials “c.p” which is reportedly used on dark web forums to denote “child pornography”.
Other foodstuffs, including “hotdog” and “pasta” were also allegedly used as nefarious codewords to refer to minors.
The restaurant’s signage was linked to satanic symbols, prompting speculation over satanic rituals and cannibalism at the restaurant.
What were the consequences?
The claims continued to spread online, later migrating to more mainstream sites such as Facebook and spreading as far as the UK and Saudi Arabia.
Mr Alefantis and members of staff at Comet Ping Pong received hundreds of death threats online, with threats also made to burn the pizzeria down.
At one point protesters also gathered outside the restaurant interrogating Mr Alefantis and accusing him of being involved in the supposed crimes.
It also ultimately resulted in a non-fatal shooting at the restaurant.
On 4 December 2016, 29-year-old Edgar Welch, of North Carolina, armed with an AR-15 assault rifle and two other weapons, entered the pizzeria, which was filled with employees, customers and children.
Welch encountered a locked room and attempted to force open the door, first using a butter knife and then discharging his assault rifle multiple times into the door.
Occupants fled the building, and no one was harmed during the incident. Welsh eventually left his firearms inside the restaurant and was arrested.
He later told police he had come to investigate claims that the pizzeria was harbouring child sex slaves in its basement, despite the fact that Comet Ping Pong does not have a basement.
Welch pleaded guilty to a federal charge of interstate transportation of a firearm and ammunition, and a District of Columbia charge of assault with a dangerous weapon in 2017.
He was sentenced to four years in prison and was released in 2021.
According to a New York Times article which sought to debunk the main Pizzagate theories, the shooting “did not put the theory to rest” and the mainstream media was later blamed by conspirators for covering up the alleged crime ring.
Links to QAnon
Pizzagate later became a pillar of the now-infamous far-right QAnon conspiracy theory, a sprawling web of unfounded theories that have attracted thousands of followers.
QAnon centres around a mysterious figure, known only as “Q”, who posts cryptic messages on internet forums that followers believe to describe an upcoming purge of the “deep state”, which is supposedly to be led by former president Donald Trump and his allies.
The theory claims this purge will lead to day of reckoning for various prominent people such as the Clintons, Oprah Winfrey, the late Jeffrey Epstein, and countless other elite and mostly left-wing figures.