A man was arrested Sunday afternoon after walking into a pizzeria in Northwest Washington, D.C., with an assault rifle and discharging his weapon, citing a desire to self-investigate a false online conspiracy theory linking the pizzeria to a child sex trafficking ring, according to the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department.
Edgar Welch, 28, from North Carolina told police he had driven from North Carolina to the D.C. restaurant, Comet Ping Pong, because of “Pizzagate,” a theory falsely accusing the restaurant and its owners of housing a child sex trafficking ring led by former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and her campaign chief, John Podesta.
Welch entered the building about 3 p.m., pointed a weapon at an employee of the restaurant, who fled and notified the police, then discharged his weapon inside the building, according to a statement released by MPD on Monday. After about 45 minutes of searching the building, Welch surrendered peacefully to the MPD.
“Two firearms were recovered inside the location. An additional weapon was recovered from the suspect’s vehicle,” the statement reads. “There were no reported injuries.”
After a Monday court hearing, Welch is being held in jail and has been charged with assault with a dangerous weapon, along with three other weapons charges. Welch carried an AR-15 assault-style weapon as well as a rifle and a folding knife while conducting his search of the restaurant.
Patrons inside Comet Ping Pong fled the restaurant as other businesses nearby went on lockdown at the recommendation of District police.
Comet Ping Pong owner James Alefantis and his employees have received menacing messages and death threats online since days before the Nov. 8 presidential election. Users on the online message board 4chan found communication between Alefantis and Podesta discussing a fundraising event for Clinton in the latter’s emails, which were leaked by anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks.
The theory gave rise to fake news articles appearing on Facebook and websites such as The New Nationalist and The Vigilant Citizen.
Alefantis denounced the allegations of a child sex trafficking ring being run out of his restaurant, emphasizing that the conspiracy theories were not without consequences in a statement on Facebook on Sunday night.
“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 statement reads.
Georgetown journalism program director Barbara Feinman Todd condemned the rise in fake news stories while highlighting the dangers these stories pose.
“Fake news is suddenly become this huge thing. I don’t know if it crept up on us or what, but it suddenly has really serious consequences that we have seen played out at Comet Ping Pong,” Feinman Todd said. “As of what happened on Sunday, it’s become life-threatening.”
In his Monday press briefing, White House Press Secretary Joshua Earnest also addressed the role fake news played in motivating Welch, saying he was troubled by the prospect of violence erupting due to false information.
“There’s no denying the corrosive effect that some of these false reports have had on our political debate. And that’s concerning in a political context. It’s deeply troubling that some of those false reports could lead to violence,” Earnest said. “How people understand what’s happening in the world is important to the functioning of our democracy.”
The propagated false news also reached Michael Flynn Jr., the son of retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who President-elect Donald Trump announced as his pick for his national security adviser Nov. 18.
Michael Flynn Jr., who has served as his father’s chief of staff and top aide, tweeted about the incident Sunday night.
“Until #Pizzagate proven to be false, it’ll remain a story. The left seems to forget #PodestaEmails and the many ‘coincidences’ tied to it,” Michael Flynn Jr. wrote.
Earnest addressed Michael Flynn Jr.’s reaction to the incident, emphasizing the value of the truth for those in government and their families.
“I’m not here to issue any specific challenges to the incoming administration on any topic,” Earnest said. “I think we all hold a responsibility, regardless of whether or not we are planning to serve in a government position or if one of our family members is planning to serve in a government position, that we shouldn’t be propagating false things that could inspire violence.”
Feinman Todd highlighted the importance of investigating the sources by which people receive their news, especially given the heightened visibility of fake reports. She suggested students consider the sources, media outlets and facts of each article they read.
“It’s extremely upsetting and as a journalism professor, I feel that it makes my job that much more critical,” Feinman Todd said. “There are plenty of fabulous reporters out there and they’re doing great work. The scary thing is that it doesn’t seem to matter that much. Facts just don’t seem to matter. And this whole Comet Ping Pong story is a very clear and scary illustration of that.”
Georgetown University Police Department Chief Jay Gruber warned against fake news as a potentially dangerous concept and predicted that the trend would not likely disappear.
“False news can be very dangerous. News items should be confirmed and reconfirmed if not from a mainstream media source,” Gruber wrote in an email to The Hoya. “Fake news problems will likely persist.”
Feinman Todd added that another way to fight back against the false news that gave way to the incident at Comet Ping Pong is to support the businesses threatened or endangered by such reports.
“I just ate there about a month ago with another professor and another friend. They have great pizza. Everyone should go. Everybody is talking about how can we support the truth — well, I think we need to support Comet Ping Pong for one thing. I think that’s a lot more effective than just clicking ‘like’ on Facebook,” Feinman Todd said. “I think we all need to eat some pizza, which is how this all started.”
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