A gunman who fired one or more shots inside a Washington pizzeria has said that he was "self-investigating" a debunked conspiracy theory tying Hillary Clinton to the restaurant.
Edgar Maddison Welch, a 28-year-old man from North Carolina, was arrested Sunday after he reportedly brought an assault rifle into Comet Ping Pong pizzeria and pointed it at an employee. He fired at least one shot, although no one was injured.
Mr. Welch told police that he had come to "self-investigate" Comet Ping Pong, which became the target of widespread social media abuse and online harassment in the days before the election when fake news stories circulated claiming that the popular restaurant was the home base of a child sex abuse ring led by Mrs. Clinton and her campaign chief, John Podesta.
The false rumor first surfaced on the online message board 4Chan and quickly spread to Twitter and Reddit, where a discussion thread titled #PizzaGate attracted 20,000 subscribers. In the weeks since, Comet Ping Pong's owner, employees, and others affiliated with the restaurant have been on the receiving end of endless social media harassment and hundreds of death threats.
"What happened today demonstrates that promoting false and reckless conspiracy theories comes with consequences," said James Alefantis, the owner of Comet Ping Pong, in a statement on Sunday. "I hope that those involved in fanning these flames will take a moment to contemplate what happened here today, and stop promoting these falsehoods right away."
The "pizzagate" situation comes as the country grapples with how to address the proliferation of fake news on the internet and social media and its dangerous effects. Last month, Oxford Dictionaries named "post-truth" – defined as "relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief" – as its Word of the Year, as Weston Williams reported for The Christian Science Monitor:
In the United States, President-elect Donald Trump's upset victory was driven by emotional appeals, even as critics of the candidate pointed to various objective inconsistencies, factual errors, and outright falsehoods made by Mr. Trump as a way to disqualify him from the presidency.
But the term "post-truth" may ultimately point to a fundamental shift in how objective truth is interpreted in the 21st century. With the collective knowledge of human civilization at our fingertips through the internet, information is no longer the purview of an intellectual elite, as it has been throughout most of history. With this democratization of information, however, comes the problem of an oversaturation of information by anyone with an opinion on the facts to the point where it becomes harder to determine what is true and what is merely the product of someone's political agenda.
"We are at a dangerous place in American culture where a good percentage of people aren’t distinguishing what is a real news source based on real reporting and fact-checking and only reinforcing pre-existing ideas they have," Amanda Kleinman, a musician whose band, Heavy Breathing, has performed at Comet Ping Pong, told The New York Times. Ms. Kleinman said she deleted her Twitter account after being flooded with abusive comments due to her affiliation with the restaurant.
Conspiracy theories about child abuse among leaders of the Democratic Party have been supported by such high-ranking figures as Gen. Michael Flynn, President-elect Trump's pick for national security adviser, who has shared stories about another anti-Clinton pedophilia conspiracy theory.
Comet Ping Pong is not the only establishment to have been targeted for alleged ties to Democrat-involved child abuse. Nearby businesses, including the Little Red Fox market and coffee shop and the Politics and Prose bookstore, have also received threats in recent weeks.
"Political figures have the means to deal with conspiratorial allegations and threats, but your neighborhood mom and pop shop does not," Matt Carr, the owner of the Little Red Fox, told the Washington Post. "I make coffee and breakfast burritos for a living. This is out of our league."
This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.