The Insidious Spread of ‘Pizzagate’

Even among other antisemitic conspiracy theories, the rhetoric of “Pizzagate” stands out for the level of influence and resilient insidiousness it has propagated.

The conspiracy theory, in this case, targeted 2016 Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, attempting to paint her and other Democratic politicians and staff members as being involved in a worldwide child-trafficking ring. When Clinton’s use of a personal email server was put under review by FBI Director James Comey that October, posts promising inside “rumors” that Clinton faced child-trafficking investigations began to swirl:

But the unconsented release of emails from Clinton’s campaign director John Podesta a month later further galvanized conspiracists, who became obsessed with the word “pizza” and a Washington, D.C. restaurant, Comet Ping Pong, as what they believed to be coded language.

As the Guardian reported in December 2016, the right-wing obsession over the pizza restaurant spread to nearby businesses:

“Sometimes they would call 10-15 times an hour saying: ‘We are going to kill you!'” said Bradley Graham, the co-owner of Politics and Prose, a popular bookstore near Comet Ping Pong, the restaurant at the center of the fake news stories that alleged a child sex ring involving the Hillary Clinton campaign.

“They were disgusting, grotesque and violent death threats,” added his co-owner, Lissa Muscatine, who also received personal threats on her Twitter account.

The online smears escalated further, apparently causing a 28-year-old North Carolina man to drive to the restaurant to “investigate” the false rumors of children being held at Comet Ping Pong while carrying two firearms.

“He wanted to see for himself if they were there,” court documents stated.

In truth, “Pizzagate” and the conspiracy theories it would spawn hinge on ancient antisemitic tropes. As journalist Nina Burleigh explained in Newsweek in December 2016, the idea that a cabal of “elite” operatives are harvesting children for nefarious purposes has permeated history:

“The ‘blood libel’ refers to a centuries-old false allegation that Jews murder Christians—especially Christian children—to use their blood for ritual purposes, such as an ingredient in the baking of Passover matzah (unleavened bread),” according to the Anti-Defamation League. “It is also sometimes called the ‘ritual murder charge.’ The blood libel dates back to the Middle Ages and has persisted despite Jewish denials and official repudiations by the Catholic Church and many secular authorities. Blood libels have frequently led to mob violence and pogroms, and have occasionally led to the decimation of entire Jewish communities.”

As with the majority of right-wing tropes, “Pizzagate” has continued to be recycled into newer conspiracy theories. Its subsequent iteration, “QAnon,” has taken even more of a hold on right-wing political rhetoric in the United States and extended into other countries like Canada and Brazil.

Update 7/21/2023, 4:18 p.m. PST: This article has been revamped and updated. You can review the original here. — ag