It’s been four years since a conspiracy-theory-obsessed man walked into Forest Hills pizza shop Comet Ping Pong and fired three shots from an AR-15 rifle. Nobody was hurt, but the incident felt like it had to be the climax of the bogus far-right conspiracy theory known as “Pizzagate” —which encompassed a supposed child sex ring, Satanic rituals, powerful Democrats, and the pizza shop’s basement (sidenote: the pizza shop has no basement). But in recent weeks, as the Washington Post reported, owner James Alefantis has had to balance dealing with a global pandemic and keeping his three restaurants alive with a fresh wave of online messages—about 70—tied to the theory.
It’s a definite uptick, Alefantis says. Last month, a new and disturbing video appeared on YouTube linking the conspiracy theory not just to Comet but to Barack Obama, the late Anthony Bourdain, and a number of DC food- and art-scene figures with even less of a connection to politics than Alefantis.
A bigger reason: It’s an election year. Alefantis believes the online messages, many of which are seemingly from bots and coming from Germany, aren’t just from conspiracy nuts with keyboards. “I think it’s part of a disruptive movement,” he says. “A purposely designed, something-backed movement.” If the disinformation campaign worked in 2016, why not try it again?
Still, Alefantis says, all these years later, pizzagate-related harrassment has never completely died down for him and his staff (Alefantis’s other restaurant, Buck’s Fishing and Camping, remains unaffected). “We’re used to getting a few weird messages a week,” he says. At least the phone calls have quietened, save for one guy who calls and plays music just to clog up the phone lines.
“[Pizzagate] is a part of history,” Alefantis says. “It’s referenced all the time in real news. If you’re looking at other conspiracy theories, the one everyone points back to is this one.” And anytime Pizzagate gets mentioned, its flame keeps burning.
“It’s kind of weird because for awhile, I was just like, lucky that we’re OK,” says Alefantis. “And then it’s just annoying. I realize not everyone lives like this…for me I don’t even realize there’s another way anymore.”