The revelations overcame Edgar Maddison Welch like a hallucinatory fever. On December 1st, 2016, the father of two from Salisbury, North Carolina, a man whose pastimes included playing Pictionary with his family, tried to persuade two friends to join a rescue mission. Alex Jones, the Info-Wars host, was reporting that Hillary Clinton was sexually abusing children in satanic rituals a few hundred miles north, in the basement of a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant. Welch told his friends the “raid” on a “pedo ring” might require them to “sacrifice the lives of a few for the lives of many.” A friend texted, “Sounds like we r freeing some oppressed pizza from the hands of an evil pizza joint.” Welch was undeterred. Three days later, armed with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, a .38 handgun and a folding knife, he strolled into the restaurant and headed toward the back, where children were playing ping-pong. As waitstaff went table to table, whispering to customers to get out, Welch maneuvered into the restaurant’s kitchen. He shot open a lock and found cooking supplies. He whipped open another door and found an employee bringing in fresh pizza dough. Welch did not find any captive children – Comet Ping Pong does not even have a basement – but he did prove, if there were any lingering doubts after the election, that fake news has real consequences.
Welch’s arrest was the culmination of an election cycle dominated by fake news – and by attacks on the legitimate press. Several media outlets quickly traced the contours of what became known as Pizzagate: The claim that Hillary Clintonwas a pedophile started in a Facebook post, spread to Twitter and then went viral with the help of far-right platforms like Breitbart and Info-Wars. But it was unclear whether Pizzagate was mass hysteria or the work of politicos with real resources and agendas. It took the better part of a year (and two teams of researchers) to sift through the digital trail. We found ordinary people, online activists, bots, foreign agents and domestic political operatives. Many of them were associates of the Trump campaign. Others had ties with Russia. Working together – though often unwittingly – they flourished in a new “post-truth” information ecosystem, a space where false claims are defended as absolute facts. What’s different about Pizzagate, says Samuel Woolley, a leading expert in computational propaganda, is it was “retweeted and picked up by some of the most powerful faces of American politics.”