News

Online Mobs Disrupted DC Life in 2016 (and This Year May Be Worse)

Photograph via iStock.

Last Wednesday, Donald Trump was asked about the online espionage that US intelligence agencies say the Russian government conducted to help him win the election. He answered with a bit of technology criticism.

“I think that computers have complicated lives very greatly,” the president-elect told reporters in a rare appearance in front of news cameras. “The whole age of the computer has made it where nobody knows exactly what’s going on. We have speed, we have a lot of other things, but I’m not sure we have the kind of security we need.”

Few Washingtonians agree with Trump on anything, but his vague, quasi-Luddite take on digital security is not lost on them. Computers—or, more specifically, certain computer users—have complicated lives here very greatly. Even before Trump’s victory, which few here foresaw, online mobs, many of which had pledged loyalty to him, were already screwing up the lives of regular people across Washington, from local business owners to low-level political staffers to people just eating dinner with their families. They show no sign of letting up as the calendar turns over and Trump prepares to be sworn in.

Where the political turns personal, though, is that the anger against the “Washington” of campaign ads and op-eds that fueled the election is becoming directed against actual Washington. Residents who normally feel exempted from government bashing—say, a family in Chevy Chase that just wants to eat at a neighborhood restaurant—is now as guilty of making America un-great as the politicians pushing trade deals and immigration reforms that Trump railed against. Trump’s “Drain-the-Swamp” mantra goes from being a slogan about government reform to a promotion of the idea that Washington’s robust local economy is entirely the result of self-dealing government employees, even though federal employment only accounts for about 14 percent of the area’s workforce.

The most notable case of harassment right now is “Pizzagate,” the enduring sludge with which digital vigilantes have painted Comet Ping Pong, an innocuous pizza place in Northwest DC: ridiculous allegations on social media, death threats, and actual gun violence all because of a few message-board users’ deluded readings of emails stolen from the personal account of Hillary Clinton‘s campaign chairman, John Podesta.

After the publication of the emails on Wikileaks in late October, an old correspondence between Podesta and Comet’s owner, James Alefantis, about a potential fundraiser, was interpreted as evidence that the restaurant was the hub of a child-trafficking ring. The fundraiser never happened, but toss in an email Podesta’s brother received from the avant-garde artist Marina Abramović about an auction he won, and the whole thing turned “Satanic.” Sites like Reddit and 4chan, already havens for conspiracy theorists and the white-nationalist (and Trump-supporting) “alt-right” movement, were overrun with Pizzagate claims. By the weekend before the election, it spilled into view on Twitter, where it really took off.

Alefantis was inundated with abusive emails and phone calls, as were other businesses in the neighborhood. On December 1, three days before a heavily armed North Carolina man named Edgar Maddison Welch showed up to “self-investigate” the Pizzagate claims, Comet announced it would start paying for police and private-security protection during operating hours. Even though Comet has enjoyed an outpouring of support from its customers, visiting the restaurant now usually includes walking past an on-duty cop, imbuing the family-friendly spot with an uncomfortable air of caution.

But you didn’t even need to be a restaurant owner with a meager connection to the campaign to have your life upended by 2016’s online mobs. Some trolls have moved their focus to group houses. Circulating on some of the same message boards where the campaign against Comet started is a list of houses around the country—including several in DC—that are known as DIY venues for up-and-coming bands. Also being circulated: orders to call local authorities to report noise- and building-code violations. While ostensibly inspired by the warehouse fire in Oakland, California, that killed 36 during a concert, the push against DIY spaces is also motivated by the same deranged politics that fueled Pizzagate. (Even earlier, “Gamergate,” a swell of online abuse against women in the video-game industry, gave mainstream attention to antagonists who were previously on the fringes.) Descriptions of the targeted houses are littered with references to “liberal radicalism” and “degeneracy,” and far nastier. Users in these boards call themselves “Right Wing Safety Squads.” The initials of those last two words appear to be intentional.

Residents of at least one DIY venue in Washington say the fire marshal was called about their house, although no enforcement resulted from it. Photos of another local venue, Rhizome, were posted on one of the 4chan threads where the “Safety Squads” congregate. Local arts communities are now taking precautionary measures. Fewer social-media notices for house shows are listing actual addresses, and a Facebook page for sharing DC show announcements recently changed from being an open group to one with closed, moderated membership.

There’s an obvious link from Pizzagate to the abuse of these group houses. Also a music venue, Comet Ping Pong has been a required stop for DC’s alternative and punk scenes. Most of the bands that play its intimate back room have also performed in grungy living rooms around town. And the politics and identities of those artists—leftist, progressive, queer, other—challenge the alt-right’s belief in a culture dominated by white masculinity.

It’s possible this much conspiracy pushing and abuse would’ve eventually bubbled over into to the mainstream anyway. But it would undoubtedly be easier to limit the impact if the people behind the noise didn’t enjoy the agency they feel Trump’s win offered. Pizzagate chatter continues unabated both online and off. (And not just in DC, as worshippers celebrating mass in Philadelphia found out on Christmas.) House shows are going on guardedly, while residents of those spaces are putting together a guide for repelling the attacks against them.

Wikileaks’s publication of Democratic National Committee documents went beyond Podesta. They also revealed troves of personal email addresses, physical addresses, and phone numbers for elected officials, their staffs, and numerous other people. Another website believed to be the work of Russia-backed hackers, DCLeaks.com, posted archives lifted from the private accounts of a range of individuals from as high-ranking as former Secretary of State Colin Powell to low-level Clinton campaign staffers like Billy Rinehart, whose private correspondence went public because he was duped by the same kind of phishing attack that got Podesta.

Even if your information wasn’t exposed in the Podesta, DNC, or DCLeaks hacks, there was a clear message: if you are living or working in Washington, you can no longer count on privacy and security, both online and, increasingly, off. In response, people are turning to technical solutions like two-factor authentication for email or using encrypted-messaging apps. Some have stopped using email to share information altogether. Where we once saw convenience, we are now forced to see vulnerability.

The countermeasures and sanctions against Russia the Obama administration announced last Thursday offer high-level retaliation against the people believed to have meddled with the presidential election. But those steps do nothing to console or abrogate the effects of Pizzagate, the targeting of house shows, the anti-Semitic harassment of Jewish journalists, or the exposure of personal information that all flourished thanks to 2016’s online mob. When the impact is as much physical as it is digital—the diners at Comet Ping Pong on the afternoon a gunman walked in probably weren’t thinking about email security while divvying up their pies—one doesn’t need to be working in politics or media to suffer the consequences. Just living here is enough.

Not Just Another Political News Roundup: Get Our “Washingtonian Today” Newsletter

A daily dose of DC life, politics, and culture—not just another political news roundup.

Or, see all of our newsletters. By signing up, you agree to our terms.
Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.