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Sunday, Edgar M. Welch brought a rifle into a Washington, D.C., restaurant and fired it once inside, according to police. Welch drove to Comet Ping Pong from his home in Salisbury, N.C., inspired by a conspiracy theory known as “Pizzagate,” which holds that the neighborhood pizza joint and ping pong emporium is the epicenter of a child sex trafficking ring with connections to John Podesta, chairman of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, and to Clinton herself.

Fortunately, no one was hurt in the shooting, and police apprehended Welch without incident. But for James Alefantis, owner of Comet Ping Pong, it was the culmination of weeks of harassment and probing into his personal life by those who believe in Pizzagate. “What happened today demonstrates that promoting false and reckless conspiracy theories comes with consequences,” he said in a statement published 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.”

Right off the bat, we should note in the strongest possible terms that the Pizzagate theory has no basis in fact: Comet Ping Pong is not a den of pedophilia. And it’s not just mainstream, liberal-leaning outlets like the New York Times that are defending the pizzeria’s honor—even a proud paranoiac like Alex Jones isn’t buying it. Yesterday, America’s conspiracist king published a video titled “Pizza Gate Is a Diversion From the Greater Crimes in Podesta Wikileaks.”

If you come across an article alleging that Podesta and Clinton are conducting satanic sex rituals on young boys while dining on anchovy slices in the basement of Comet Ping Pong, don’t take it seriously. But if you’d like to understand the web of innuendo and fabrication that’s entangled whomever shared that article in your news feed—and perhaps even attempt to disabuse your Facebook friend of their strange ideas—read on.

Pizzagate began gaining traction last month, around the time of the presidential election, when misguided vigilant citizens on 4chan and Reddit discovered that Alefantis appeared several times in the cache of hacked emails belonging to Podesta that were published by Wikileaks. All of the emails to Alefantis were related to a fundraising dinner for the Clinton campaign, which is not surprising. He is something of a celebrity chef in D.C., and the only actual fact on which the Pizzagaters have based their theory is his adjacency to Democratic power brokers. He is a casual acquaintance of Podesta’s brother Tony, according to the New York Times, and he was once in a romantic relationship with the prominent Clinton ally David Brock. That said, Alefantis is very far from the candidate’s inner circle, and has never even met Clinton herself, he told the Times.

Reddit has since deactivated a board devoted to Pizzagate theorizing, and the Reddit post that seems to have first popularized the Pizzagate idea, on /r/The_Donald, has been removed. (“We don’t want witchhunts on our site,” reads the message you receive when you try to access /r/Pizzagate.) Reddit’s belated clampdown was not enough to deter the peddlers of conspiracy theories and fake news that got in on the action, however, generating headlines like “Pizzagate: Podesta pedo perps and Clinton’s international child sex trafficking ring exposed” (Sott.net), and “Pizza Gate- Clintons run a child sex trafficking ring” (Steemit.com).

Low-level political boosters like Alefantis are a dime a dozen in D.C., on both sides of the party divide. How did a passing connection to the Podesta brothers turn him into a deviant mastermind, presiding over grease-stained child sex parties for the Democratic elite? The evidence, as laid out by Pizzagate believers, is startlingly thin. “There’s a good chance that you’re not familiar with this, because you’re probably not a pedophile,” the narrator of a popular YouTube Pizzagate video intones. “But ‘pizza’ is actually a term used by pedophiles, to describe pedophilia, or child porn.”

If you take this ridiculous assertion to be true, Podesta’s inbox is suddenly brimming with discussion of pedophilia: an invitation to a pizza lunch and discussion of the upcoming Supreme Court session at Georgetown University (Predators in the halls of academia!), an advertisement for “everyday low prices in the frozen pizza aisle” at the supermarket chain Safeway (I don’t know how this “frozen pizza” works, but it sounds disgusting and painful for everyone involved!). A lost handkerchief emblazoned with a pizza design mentioned in one Podesta email clearly signifies a preference for underage sex, according to the narrator of the same YouTube video.

If all of this seems like a wild leap of imagination to you, well, that’s just the territory we’re in. Anti-Clinton conspiracies have populated the fringe right-wing media since Hillary’s husband was in office. The Pizzagaters are also deeply invested in the idea that John and Tony Podesta participate in occult sex rituals—based on an email from Marina Abramovic, a world-famous performance artist who sometimes uses violent and sexual imagery in her work. Once you earnestly believe that your political enemies are capable of murdering their own staffers, as one particularly tenacious theory accuses the Clintons of doing, or that they spend their Saturdays beheading small animals and bathing in the blood, an elaborate system of culinary codewords for child rape might not feel so far off.

Alerted to the abuses that were supposedly being carried out by the Clintons and their allies at Comet Ping Pong, self-appointed investigators began scouring the social media accounts of Alefantis and his employees, generating even more “evidence” against them. A photo of what looks like Comet’s walk-in refrigerator quickly was taken to be some sort of sex dungeon. The crossed ping-pong paddles pictured on the restaurant’s menu refer not to the actual ping-pong tables inside the restaurant, the Pizzagaters claimed, but an arcane symbol supposedly used by pedophiles to safely self-identify to each other. Believers began leaving threatening comments on social media and obscenity-laced messages on Comet’s phone line. “From this insane, fabricated conspiracy theory, we’ve come under constant assault,” Alefantis told the Times last month, weeks before the shooting.

Another photo, pulled from Alefantis’s Instagram account, shows a man holding a toddler. According to the annotations supplied by a Pizzagate believer on Twitter, the yellow beads the man is wearing around his neck are not an ordinary necklace, but a “sex bracelet,” signifying his passion for analingus, presumably with the child he is holding. The photo is also branded with the word HOMOSEXUAL, in big block letters, and many other pieces of supposed evidence against Alefantis and Comet are also characterized by latent or outright homophobia. Another YouTube video notes an Instagram photo of apparently lesbian graffiti in the Comet bathroom as potential support for the idea that young girls are abused there.

Eventually, supporters began “investigating” businesses on the same block as Comet, including an NGO focused on helping Haitian orphans, Snopes points out. One of the more fanciful theories holds that there are underground tunnels connecting the buildings, forming a vast subterranean sex chamber.

All in all, Pizzagate seems like a perfect confluence of several related factors. Long-running paranoia about the Clintons, enabled by Donald Trump’s assertions during the presidential campaign that Hillary should be sent to prison, sets them up as the sorts of evildoers who might partake in pedophilia. The amateur sleuths that run rampant on Reddit and forums like it, responsible for everything from Westworld fan theories to the false accusation of an innocent man after the Boston marathon bombing, dig for clues to support the wild claims. The fake news industry, with access to an audience of millions via Facebook, give these claims the veneer of objective reporting and fact. The post-Gamergate right-wing culture warriors wage coordinated harassment campaigns against their targets, determined to enact justice themselves if the PC liberal media won’t do it. Second-amendment fanaticism suggests armed resistance as a reasonable course of action when your government acts in ways you don’t agree with.

Edgar Welch may be the first gunman to take the warnings of the right-wing conspiracy theory complex as literal calls to arms. He almost certainly will not be the last.

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