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Fake News Surge Pins D.C. Pizzeria As Home To Child-Trafficking


Just a few days before the election, a popular Washington, D.C. pizza joint became the victim of a political fake news attack. The restaurant received death threats and accusations. Before long, there were hundreds of those threats and frightening messages on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter directed not only to the restaurant and its owner, but also to the wait staff and other workers at the restaurant. James Alefantis is the owner of Comet Ping Pong. And we very much appreciate you coming in to talk to us. I know that you've had a couple of bad weeks here.

JAMES ALEFANTIS: It's been a hard 14 days or so.

WERTHEIMER: You did some reporting on what was going on, right? You investigated. You went on the web yourself to see if you could find out why this was happening. Tell us what you found.

ALEFANTIS: Well, it started when I was receiving many direct messages on Instagram and comments on my Instagram page. And I realized that something had come up. It turned out that there was a worldwide conspiracy theory in - based inside of Reddit and was being sent out through YouTube and Facebook and other places and that's sort of an insanely complicated, made-up, fictional lie-based story. This was a coordinated political attack.

WERTHEIMER: The story was that Hillary Clinton and her campaign manager, John Podesta, were running a child molestation ring out of the back of your restaurant. Is that correct, more or less?

ALEFANTIS: Essentially, yes. There was - it was sort of based in a couple of things. Satanic rituals and human trafficking led by Hillary Clinton and John Podesta was the sort of basis of this insane story.

WERTHEIMER: It seems remarkable to me that anybody took that seriously at all. They look and sound completely and not very skillfully made-up.

ALEFANTIS: Basically, the sort of reality-based community thought this was this insane sort of joke or a made-up fiction. But within many of these conspiratorial online communities, they were at least taking this seriously. What's wild additionally is that it seems as if it's almost like a game to them, like a video game. And the players are actually real, and the tools that are used are based in social media.

So essentially, they would go into our social media accounts and they would take photographs that were on my Instagram of my friends' children or of my associates' children and post them around thousands and thousands of fake news sites and on Reddit and on YouTube and use these images of happily playing, innocent children as proof of some kind of human trafficking scheme led by the Clintons.

WERTHEIMER: Well, is there anything you can do? I mean, have you had any sort of satisfaction from talking to the milliones de (ph) Washington lawyers who must be among your customers?

ALEFANTIS: We have talked to a few lawyers. It seems that there are not many outlets for people who have suffered this kind of attack and abuse. You're allowed to sue for defamation, but that suit takes many years and is very grueling. Additionally, these chat rooms where these people are based are protected by a law that claims that they're hosting sites, and therefore people can hide behind a screen name. So it's very difficult to identify who the bully or - and harasser is.

In the case of Comet Ping Pong, we're a beloved neighborhood institution. And so we're very strong in a way. We have great community support. If this kind of attack were leveled at an individual or a less strong small business, it would be - I think could be potentially devastating to some of these people.

WERTHEIMER: James Alefantis. He runs a restaurant here in Washington. Thank you very much for telling us your story. I hope things get better for you.

ALEFANTIS: Thank you. I hope so, too. Thank you for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.