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As it spreads online and off, Pizzagate gets weirder and more dangerous

This past Sunday, a man fired a rifle into Comet Ping Pong, the Washington, DC pizza place at the center of an internet conspiracy theory dubbed Pizzagate that claims, in part, that the restaurant is a haven for a child abuse ring. The gunman surrendered to police after he realized there were no children being illegally harbored in the restaurant. What should have been an end to one of the internet’s strangest conspiracy theories appears to be just another moment in its convoluted timeline.

This week, conspiracy theorists have named other pizza parlors as willing participants in the cover-up. DNA Info reports that New York pizzeria Roberta’s in Brooklyn received a threatening phone call last week after the restaurant was linked to Pizzagate.

As Pizzagate moves around online and offline, the theory becomes stranger and increasingly dangerous to public safety. As BuzzFeed points out, much of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory can be traced back to a single white supremacy Twitter account sourcing unnamed NYPD officials. But, as with most conspiracy theories, has mutated and traveled far from its source.

The main pillar of the Pizzagate theory is that high-level politicians like Bill and Hillary Clinton, as well as Clinton’s campaign chair John Podesta are involved in a secretive child abuse and trafficking ring. After Podesta mentioned Comet Ping Pong is his emails released by WikiLeaks, theorists decided the restaurant was being used as a front for the trafficking operation. Some of the purported “evidence” of the conspiracy includes a mural on the wall of Comet Ping Pong and the idea that words like “cheese” and “sauce” used in Podesta’s emails are code words for politicians trying to conceal abuse.

Reddit, an early home for Pizzagate theorists, has since attempted to stymie discussion of the theory on its platform. Two weeks ago, the service closed the subreddit r/pizzagate for violating site rules. But Pizzagate theorists quickly found a new spot for their hive mind in the r/The_Donald and r/conspiracy subreddits. Sometimes, r/The_Donald subscribers, upset at the non-Donald Trump conversations, will send Pizzagaters to Voat, a haven for communities banned from Reddit, where v/pizzagate is continuing to evolve the theory in realtime. One of the current working theories there is that the Comet Ping Pong gunman, Edgar Maddison Welch, is a paid actor.

While Sunday’s shooting shows some members of the Pizzagate community are convinced of the theory’s validity, other participants appear to be trolls mocking believers, stoking their anger, and complicating the theory itself. For example, a pro-Pizzagate YouTube video published the same day Roberta’s workers began receiving threats claims the restaurant’s Instagram account provides clues into the pizzeria’s interests in the Satanic and occult. The video points to specific Instagram uploads, including an image of Halloween decorations and an illustration of a goblin eating pizza. The same YouTube account linked another DC pizza place, Besta Pizza, to the trafficking ring. Other videos uploaded to the account include a live recording of a band from Denmark and an illustration of a snail set to ambient music.

On Twitter, the line between genuine conspiracy theory and trollish gag is just as vague. Take this pair of tweets about Roberta’s and Pizzagate, which can be taken as serious conspiracy theory evidence or a parody of the exact same thing.

A recent report in The Washington Post claims a “disproportionate” amount of tweets about Pizzagate come from places like the Czech Republic and Vietnam, and many of the accounts spreading these theories are bots. Which is to say some hardcore slingers of Pizzagate flotsam aren’t even real people, just Twitter bots designed to get the theory trending. A quick scroll through Twitter might give the impression that more Pizzagaters exist than actually do.

But as the Pizzagate shooting shows, while not every voice participating in Pizzagate believes the conspiracy theory, some do. An unsourced tweet was enough to get this theory started, but the combination of bots and trolls will have kept it moving. As it moves around, it picks up weird little pieces of conspiracy dust — like Satanism, the occult, paid actors so desperate for a gig they’d pretend to shoot up a restaurant —that make the whole thing even more appealing to those who already believe it, and more humorous to those who take it for a joke. So, when the theory led a man to fire a weapon at Comet Ping Pong, the theory didn’t die. It adapted.