Skip to ArticleSkip to Radioplayer
Mar 16, 2019

Pizzagate: A slice of fake news

Co-produced with PRX Logo

As the investigation into foreign influence in the 2016 election heats up, we bring you a story of how fake news starts, snowballs and sometimes erupts into gunfire. This story takes us into the world of right-wing Twitter trolls, pro-Trump political operatives and fake-news profiteers from St. Louis to Macedonia.

This collaboration with Rolling Stone and Type Investigations was originally broadcast Nov. 18, 2017.

Dig Deeper

Our Partners

Credits

Today's show was produced in collaboration with Rolling Stone and Type Investigations.

Reveal: Produced by Laura Starecheski and Michael I. Schiller, with reporting by Aaron Sankin and data help from Michael Corey. Edited by Taki Telonidis.

Partners: This story was produced with Type Investigations reporter Amanda Rob and editor Esther Kaplan, with research help from Jasper Craven and Jaime Longoria. Thanks to editor Rob Fisher and Rolling Stone. WHYY provided production help on this episode.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Reveal is a co-production of The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
Speaker 1: No matter your lifestyle, Sun Basket caters to your kind of healthy. Try their new carb-conscious meal plan with high protein recipes to help you reach your goals without compromising on flavor. With Sun Basket, you can enjoy a dinner full of organic produce and clean ingredients in as little as 15 minutes. For a limited time, get 60% off on your first order today. Go to SunBasket.com and enter promo code Reveal60 on the payment page. That's SunBasket.com, promo code Reveal60 for 60% off your first box. SunBasket.com, promo code Reveal60.

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

Michael Cohen: A lot of people have asked me about whether Mr. Trump knew about the release of the hacked documents, Democratic National Committee email, ahead of time, and the answer is yes.

 

Al Letson: The Department of Justice and Congress are deep into their investigation of foreign influence in the 2016 election and the possible collusion with Russia by Donald Trump's campaign.

 

Donald Trump: There was no collusion, and everybody, even my enemies, have said there is no collusion.

 

Al Letson: We're waiting to find out what's in Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report. There's still a lot of unknowns, but what we do know is that the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. intelligence community say Russian hackers got ahold of the Democratic National Committee's email accounts and made thousands of their emails public. That hack and the contents of those emails gave birth to a wild conspiracy theory that came to be known as Pizzagate. Today, we're revisiting a show we did on Pizzagate that originally aired in 2017. It's a story about Russian interference in the Presidential election, weaponized fake news, the bots, and the real people who spread it. We begin in Joplin, Missouri.

 

Al Letson: Driving through the city you can see signs of a huge tornado that hit back in 2011. A lot of homes and business were destroyed, and there are all these empty lots that were never redeveloped. In the middle of one is the place reporters Laura Starecheski and Amanda Robb are looking for.

 

L. Starecheski: Oh my God.

 

Amanda Robb: Oh, there it is.

 

L. Starecheski: It's a food truck. Okay.

 

Al Letson: It's a smoothie place called Pineapple Bliss.

 

L. Starecheski: Is it closed?

 

Al Letson: That's Laura.

 

Amanda Robb: Can I ask you a question?

 

Al Letson: And That's Amanda.

 

Amanda Robb: I'm trying to find somebody I've been following on Facebook, and she liked Pineapple Bliss.

 

Speaker 7: Um, who is it.

 

Amanda Robb: Her name's Carmen Katz, she goes by Carmen Katz on Facebook. Do you know who it is?

 

Speaker 8: Carmen Katz [inaudible] ...

 

Amanda Robb: No idea?

 

Al Letson: The thing is, they're not even sure if the person they're looking for is real.

 

Amanda Robb: If I show you a picture of her cat, would that help?

 

Al Letson: Amanda and Laura are trying to find this person because she was the first one we found who posted anything on Facebook about Pizzagate.

 

Al Letson: Laura and Amanda have been investigating this story for months, working with our team at Reveal and the non-profit news room Type Investigations. Amanda wrote piece for Rolling Stone magazine, and, Amanda, can you explain what the conspiracy theory is?

 

Amanda Robb: The conspiracy theory is that Hillary Clinton and her Democratic underlings and colleagues are running a sex trafficking ring out of the basement of the pizzeria called Comet Ping Pong Pizzeria in northwest Washington, D.C.

 

Amanda Robb: One of the many problems with the conspiracy theory is there is no basement in the pizzeria.

 

L. Starecheski: The theory is totally false.

 

Al Letson: Okay, Laura, we've heard about lots of fake news stories and lots of conspiracy theories. Why did you guys decide to look into Pizzagate?

 

L. Starecheski: Well, first of all, we know that Pizzagate was one of those fake news stories that may have affected the outcome of the 2016 election, and everybody may not remember this part, but for a fake news story, Pizzagate got really real, because a guy who actually believed it went to that pizza shop in Washington, D.C., and he shot a gun.

 

Al Letson: Yeah, I remember. No one was hurt, but this was still a huge story.

 

L. Starecheski: Right, so we wanted to know was there somebody who planted the story, and why would they do that?

 

Al Letson: And the first clue you guys had was Carmen Katz's Facebook post. It went up on October 29th, 10 days before the election. Laura, why don't you read some of that post for us.

 

L. Starecheski: Okay. It says, "My NYPD source said it's much more vile and serious. We're talking an international child enslavement and sex ring. Not even Hillary's most ardent supporters and defenders will be able to excuse this!" exclamation point.

 

Al Letson: So Carmen's profile says she lives in Joplin, but there's no Carmen Katz in the phone book there and her profile picture's just a photo of a gray and white cat.

 

L. Starecheski: And so since she was like the first poster that we could find, Amanda and I decided, okay, well, we've gotta go to Missouri and try to find her and figure out how did she know about this and where did she get it from. Why did she post this?

 

Amanda Robb: And so that's how we went to Joplin with a picture of the cat.

 

Al Letson: So you go ... both of you travel down to Joplin, Missouri, to find a woman, and all you go armed with is a picture of a cat?

 

Amanda Robb: You're following the story really well.

 

Al Letson: Meow.

 

L. Starecheski: Our whole plan was to go to businesses that Carmen liked on Facebook, so the next place we went was Jugz Liquor, J-U-G-Z, because Carmen Katz said she had bought a bottle of Bones Rum at this liquor store that was signed by the person who made it, so we were like, okay, that sounds like a memory. That's not just, "I picked up a bottle of rum." Maybe they'll remember her.

 

Linetta: Have you tried Bones Rum?

 

L. Starecheski: No.

 

Linetta: Step into my lair.

 

L. Starecheski: So the owner, [Linetta 00:06:11], she brings us behind this makeshift bar, and she fixed us a pretty disgusting cocktail that had Bones Rum and chocolate wine in it.

 

Al Letson: That sounds utterly disgusting.

 

L. Starecheski: It was. It was disgusting. She kind of acknowledged that it should be disgusting, but she really liked it. This is all before noon, by the way, on a Saturday, and we drank the chocolate s'mores drink with her, but she had no idea who Carmen Katz was.

 

L. Starecheski: I wish you knew who Carmen Katz was.

 

Linetta: I wish I could find her, because I'd just smack her myself. I'm not a Hillary fan, but that's just stupid crap that just makes people look stupid. And she better not be from Missouri.

 

Al Letson: So did you ever find the cat lady?

 

L. Starecheski: We spent three days looking for her, and at the end of the third we were basically ready to give up.

 

Amanda Robb: We went back to our hotel in despair, and I went back through Carmen Katz's Facebook feed, which I'd printed out for ... It must've been the 800th time I'd gone through it, and I saw that she had posted Change.org petitions, and they were things like, "Please put President Trump on Mount Rushmore," and the last person to sign every single one was someone named Cynthia Campbell.

 

L. Starecheski: So you think that Cynthia Campbell is Carmen Katz.

 

Amanda Robb: That Campbell is Carmen Katz.

 

L. Starecheski: No way.

 

Amanda Robb: It has to be. Who else could it be?

 

L. Starecheski: Huh.

 

Amanda Robb: And when you went to Cynthia Campbell on Change.org ...

 

Amanda Robb: Cynthia Campbell. All right so ... Oh, oh, oh, oh!

 

L. Starecheski: What, what, what?

 

Amanda Robb: It's the cat!

 

L. Starecheski: Oh my God.

 

Amanda Robb: Her profile picture was the same cat.

 

L. Starecheski: Seen that cat before.

 

Amanda Robb: That's the cat.

 

Al Letson: So after all that work, you finally found the cat. What about the woman?

 

Amanda Robb: There is a Cynthia Campbell who lives in Joplin. So we called, and I left very polite messages asking to speak to her ...

 

Amanda Robb: "Hi, it's Amanda Robb."

 

Amanda Robb: ... about the Carmen Katz account on Facebook, and she didn't call back.

 

Amanda Robb: "Maybe we can sort this whole thing out together and figure it out."

 

Amanda Robb: So we went to her home, which is a brick bungalow on a nice, sleepy street.

 

L. Starecheski: We knock, and it kind of sounds like someone's inside, like we heard some noises inside, but nobody came to the door. So we left, we came back, we knocked again, still nobody comes to the door. Amanda is texting with her and calling her. Finally she starts texting back, and then a couple more minutes after that, she calls.

 

Amanda Robb: She's calling me. Cynthia?

 

L. Starecheski: Amanda and Cynthia Campbell, a.k.a Carmen Katz, talked for like 20 minutes. We didn't get permission to use that call, so I'll just like basically tell you what she told us. She said that she did create the Carmen Katz Facebook page, but she claimed it had been hacked. She said she didn't know anything about the specific anti-Hillary/pro-Trump posts, she didn't know about the NYPD source's Pizzagate post. She said, "Yes, I created that account, but I didn't create those specific posts. I think I was hacked. I don't really understand what this is all about." And she was very nice. And so Amanda hangs up the phone.

 

Amanda Robb: Bye-bye.

 

L. Starecheski: And I'm thinking, okay, we're gonna get to talk to her a lot. Surely we can get to the bottom of this. We didn't really believe her, but we figured there would be more chances. Unfortunately, like right after that, her tone totally changed. She starts texting all of this stuff saying we were the ones that hacked her Facebook page.

 

Amanda Robb: She threatened to sue me, she threatened to call the ACLU on me, she threatened to call the Geek Squad on me, she told me I'd ruined her life, she told me I was soul-sucking, and she called me fake news.

 

Al Letson: Fake news. I mean, that sort of feels like a dead end, like there's nowhere to go from there.

 

L. Starecheski: Well, there was somewhere to go, because if you think about it, it does seem kind of weird that this random woman in Missouri would have invented this whole thing, so Amanda and I spent a lot of time digging back into all these creepy anonymous parts of the internet. We did find a post on 4chan from July — that's an anonymous message board — where one user called FBI Anon used some of the same language, so Carmen could have gotten some of her posts from there. And then there's another strand of Pizzagate that goes back to October 7th. That's just a few weeks before Carmen posted. You remember the Russians had hacked the Democratic Party's emails. In October, thousands of those emails went up on WikiLeaks from a guy named John Podesta. He ran Hillary Clinton's campaign.

 

Amanda Robb: And in John Podesta's emails, there are a few references to pizza.

 

Al Letson: And a couple of references to Comet Ping Pong. Podesta knew the owner, and Democrats would hold fundraisers there. In the emails, they did talk a lot about pizza. People thought it was code for something.

 

Amanda Robb: People on Reddit came to see cheese pizza, CP, standing for child pornography.

 

L. Starecheski: And the restaurant starts getting like people calling them, tons of people calling them, threatening them. All the employees are getting threats. People are basically saying, "You guys are a bunch of pedophiles. You're perverts. We're going to come and get you. We're going to shut this down."

 

Al Letson: Laura and Amanda went to northwest Washington, D.C.

 

L. Starecheski: We're here for Mr. Alefantis.

 

Al Letson: They're here to meet the owner of Comet Ping Pong, James Alefantis.

 

Speaker 10: You're not [inaudible 00:12:31].

 

L. Starecheski: No, he's expecting us.

 

Speaker 11: Is he? [inaudible 00:12:36].

 

L. Starecheski: Yeah.

 

Speaker 11: You gotta talk to the manager.

 

L. Starecheski: Okay.

 

L. Starecheski: I don't know how to really describe him. He's totally late, always seems to be running way behind, running around.

 

L. Starecheski: How's it going?

 

Speaker 12: James isn't arrived yet. Can we get you guys some pizza? Or if you guys want to walk around, James will [inaudible 00:12:53].

 

L. Starecheski: He's super friendly, seemed to know everyone.

 

James A.: Oh, I'm so sorry. Hi.

 

L. Starecheski: Hi.

 

L. Starecheski: Comet Ping Pong is this big cavernous restaurant. There's a bar on one side. There's tons of tables full of families. In the back, there's a whole game room with kids playing ping pong.

 

L. Starecheski: Before November 4th, right before the election, Comet Ping Pong was this pizza place that James ran, and he was super proud of it. It's like a community institution. And then after November 4th, really everything changed. James gets a call from this D.C. reporter asking him, "Do you know that your restaurant is at the center of this conspiracy theory on Reddit?"

 

James A.: I mean literally my response was like, "What is Reddit?" because I didn't even know.

 

Al Letson: In case you haven't heard of it, Reddit is an anonymous online message board.

 

James A.: And so they began to look into it a little, and they were like, "Wow. Did you know there's an entire page on Reddit devoted to Comet Ping Pong and this theory about Hillary Clinton and human trafficking or something." And I was like, "That's insane."

 

Al Letson: James thought the harassment would die down after the presidential election. Instead, it got worse.

 

James A.: And the voices became louder, more filled with hate, more harassing, more direct messages, and the volume of messages increased immensely.

 

Al Letson: And then, it all came to a head. On December 4th, 2016, a 28-year-old man from North Carolina named Edgar Maddison Welch became obsessed with the Pizzagate story and drove up to Comet Ping Pong armed with three guns and a knife. He fired off three rounds inside the restaurant, and when he found out no kids were being held there, he surrendered to the police.

 

Speaker 14: [inaudible] do we have the suspect in custody?

 

Al Letson: Back when we were working on this story, we filed a request for the police body cameras from Welch's arrest. It took the D.C. police over a year to get us this video.

 

Speaker 15: [inaudible 00:15:02].

 

Speaker 16: What were you doing in the location? [inaudible 00:15:05].

 

E. M. Welch: Making sure there was nothing there.

 

Speaker 16: Making sure there's nothing there regarding what?

 

E. M. Welch: Pedophile ring.

 

Speaker 16: Regarding what?

 

E. M. Welch: Pedophile ring.

 

Speaker 18: Pizzagate. He's talking about Pizzagate.

 

Al Letson: How did the hoax take on that much power? Laura and Amanda try to answer that question, and it takes them to the darkest corners of the internet. They track the Twitter feeds of bots and trolls and meet fake news profiteers from Missouri all the way to Macedonia. When we come back, Pizzagate gets a push from a private investigator in Erie, Pennsylvania, who says he has evidence.

 

Doug Hagmann: All of the components are here to expose the greatest perversion, the greatest satanic, and I mean satanic, cabal of people that are associated with Hillary Clinton and the people in the halls of people in the United States.

 

Al Letson: You're listening to Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

Al Letson: For the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Today, we're bringing you a show that originally aired in the fall of 2017, when we teamed up with the non-profit news room Type Investigations and Rolling Stone magazine to deconstruct Pizzagate. Reveal's Laura Starecheski and reporter Amanda Robb starting by trying to find a woman in Missouri who used the online name Carmen Katz. She was the first person to post about it on Facebook. They tracked her down, but she said she was hacked and knew nothing about it.

 

Amanda Robb: We could go backwards from the Carmen Katz post into the deep, dark web looking for pieces of DNA of the story.

 

L. Starecheski: Or we could go forwards from the Carmen Katz post and see how the story actually spread to go from dozens to hundreds to hundreds of thousands and reaching millions of people.

 

Al Letson: We're going to do both. We asked Reveal's data editor, Mike Corey to help us out. Hey, Mike.

 

Mike Corey: Hi, Al.

 

Al Letson: So Mike, can you describe how a story like Pizzagate goes viral on the web?

 

Mike Corey: When something goes viral on Twitter, it really ultimately goes back to one tweet or a couple of tweets that for some reason catch fire. And you can sort of think of it like, you know, in Fantasia when Mickey Mouse chops up the broom. So what was one broom turns into five brooms, which turns into twenty-five brooms, which turns into a hundred brooms, and it just keeps building and building exponentially until you have this flood of tweets going out that really all go back to a couple individual tweets at the beginning.

 

Mike Corey: So to understand that, we're going to get a sample of tweet data, and so we can understand who was tweeting about this, when were they tweeting about this, and what was going on at that time.

 

Al Letson: While Mike gets started on that, Laura and Amanda are going to track how the story popped out of Facebook and spread across social media. Like we said, that Carmen Katz Facebook post was on October 29th. Now, the next day, someone takes a screen grab of that post and tweets it out.

 

Amanda Robb: This goes straight from Carmen Katz within 12 hours to a Twitter account @DavidGoldbergNY.

 

L. Starecheski: He says, "Yes, I confirm this. I'm hearing the same thing from my secret NYPD source." So we don't know who this guy is, if he even lives in New York. He claims to be a New York lawyer.

 

Al Letson: We don't even know if he's a guy. For his avatar, he uses a photo of a man with a large Photoshopped nose. White supremacists have been using this picture on social media for years as an antisemitic meme.

 

Amanda Robb: After he posts it, it gets shared at least 6000 times on Twitter, and the very, very next day, it becomes a news story at a site called YourNewsWire.com, which is a fake news site.

 

L. Starecheski: So eventually the story would get picked up by lots of fake news sites, and we wanted to understand just a little bit about that market. Why were they carrying this story? So Amanda started talking to people in the fake news business.

 

Al Letson: And this is the part of the story that takes Amanda all the way to Macedonia, about 4600 miles away.

 

Amanda Robb: Tell me your name and tell me what you do.

 

Borce Pejcev: I'm Borce, and I'm web developer and web designer.

 

Al Letson: She meets Borce Pejcev in Veles, a depressed former factory town. It also happens to be the home of many of the fake news websites that popped up during the 2016 election, about a hundred of them.

 

Amanda Robb: So I met Borce at an outdoor café, and he looks like Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh. He's very sad-looking guy, very melancholy. So he makes extra money by setting up fake news sites, and he charges 100 euro a pop.

 

Borce Pejcev: I don't know if you can say that we are fake news capital of the world, but we are sharing the fake news capital of the world. Probably this is the best description of our town.

 

Amanda Robb: Because they don't actually invent fake news there, they just copy-paste it from American fake news sites.

 

L. Starecheski: In Macedonia, this business model is not new. Borce had been doing this for a while.

 

Amanda Robb: He used to make fake news websites about muscle cars and health and yachts, but business was sort of slowing down. It was getting to be a crowded market. So, during the primary elections, one of his clients and he were brainstorming about what a new good fake news business would be, and they thought, "Well, there's a lot of interest in the American presidential election. Why don't we try politics?"

 

L. Starecheski: This is kind of important to understand: the people making the Macedonian fake new sites didn't have anything against Hillary themselves, they just knew that people would click on Hillary stories.

 

Borce Pejcev: Hillary was [inaudible] when you're writing a [inaudible 00:21:13]. She needs to be locked. She needs to go to jail. She's involved in this crime. She's involved in that crime. People — I mean, everywhere in the world — love to read stories about how someone would go to jail.

 

Amanda Robb: And do you remember the story about her being a pedophile, like her being running a pedophile ring?

 

Borce Pejcev: There are many stories about that. And there are stories, "Oh, she's involved with ISIS, with pedophilia." I don't know what else, but as I said, 100% of the articles are from the American site.

 

L. Starecheski: They copied and pasted fake news from websites in America, like Glenn Beck's site The Blaze or Breitbart. And there were Americans who ran fake news websites, too. Amanda and I met a guy from St. Louis who said he made six figures during the election. For them, fake news is not about politics, it's just a really good way to make money.

 

Al Letson: The dollars were flowing and the rumors kept going just as the presidential election was is in its last crazy week. Pizzagate was bouncing back and forth between social media and fake news sites, but it was still on the fringes. Then something happened on November the 2nd.

 

Alex Jones: This is the end, whether Hillary steals it or not. The globalist dynasty is on fire.

 

L. Starecheski: This is a show called Infowars. It's a webcast and a radio show hosted by this guy Alex Jones, and Alex Jones is a very prolific conspiracy theorist. He says stuff like, "No one actually died at the Sandy Hook shooting," or "9/11 was a hoax," or he had a guest on one time who said there's a child slave colony on Mars.

 

Amanda Robb: Oh my god.

 

L. Starecheski: Yeah.

 

Amanda Robb: No.

 

L. Starecheski: And his audience is huge. This show reaches millions of people, and the first person who actually launched the Pizzagate story on Infowars was this private investigator living in Erie, Pennsylvania.

 

Alex Jones: Doug Hagmann, thank you for joining us, sir. Take over.

 

Doug Hagmann: Alex, thanks for having me. Yeah, basically everything that you've come up with, my source independent of yours has said ...

 

L. Starecheski: Hagmann goes on to say that his source knows someone who's affiliated with the NYPD who told him that there's proof of the Pizzagate conspiracy.

 

Doug Hagmann: All of the components are here to expose the greatest perversion, the greatest satanic, and I mean satanic, cabal of people that are associated with Hillary Clinton and the people in the halls of power in the United States.

 

Amanda Robb: So we called Mr. Hagmann, and he said we could come up and see his courtroom-ready documents proving that the former Secretary of State is running a pedophile ring.

 

Amanda Robb: Hi. Are you Mrs. Hagmann?

 

Renee Hagmann: Yeah, I'm Renee Hagmann.

 

Amanda Robb: Oh, hi. My name's Amanda.

 

Renee Hagmann: Hi, Amanda.

 

Amanda Robb: It's [inaudible 00:24:11].

 

L. Starecheski: Hi.

 

Amanda Robb: This is my colleague, Laura.

 

Renee Hagmann: Hi.

 

L. Starecheski: Hi there.

 

Amanda Robb: Nice to meet you.

 

Renee Hagmann: She won't bite.

 

Amanda Robb: So we went to his basement studio, which was unbelievably decked-out. There's an anchor chair and everything. And we asked for the courtroom-ready documents, and he said they were at the copiers and that he hadn't kept a copy.

 

Amanda Robb: I mean on the 2nd, you made a big declaration to the world.

 

Doug Hagmann: Yeah, I did, and that is based on the ... I made that based in large part on the information I received from my source.

 

Amanda Robb: Okay.

 

Doug Hagmann: Okay.

 

Amanda Robb: And you trust them so much you didn't have to ...

 

Doug Hagmann: I do.

 

Amanda Robb: ... go back and check it with anybody. You really believe him.

 

Doug Hagmann: I think that's a little bit ... No, I think that there was enough supporting evidence or supporting documentation — not evidence but documentation — to substantiate the veracity of his assertions. Now ....

 

Amanda Robb: What documentation? We don't have any.

 

Doug Hagmann: Okay, if you look ... Okay. That's true. We don't have any direct ... You're gonna hate me, aren't you?

 

Al Letson: So, he claimed to have courtroom-ready documents, and he didn't have anything?

 

Amanda Robb: No.

 

Al Letson: It seems to me like he's, I don't know, embarrassed to be confronted by you guys.

 

Amanda Robb: I thought I was gonna have to carry Laura out in my arms. She was so sad for him. I mean, it was just ... it was humiliating. It was awful. And his former claim to fame — we looked him up — was he help break up a cable pirating ring in Erie. And those are his bonafides.

 

Doug Hagmann: For me, as an investigator, I understand how crazy-stupid this sounds and how little evidence that is actionable I can give to you. So I get that.

 

Amanda Robb: And that's who Alex Jones' expert is. So Hagmann doesn't check his sources, and Jones doesn't check his experts, and out goes the story.

 

Al Letson: It seems like this virus. Every time someone contracts it, it adapts, it evolves, and it becomes more deadly, and it keeps going and going and going.

 

Amanda Robb: That's a really good way to put it. Every time somebody else gets it, it mutates and becomes grosser.

 

Al Letson: So it's getting weirder and bigger. Let's talk specifics about how it grew. Reveal's data editor, Michael Corey, is back with us to break it down, and he's been working on getting some Twitter data together to analyze.

 

Mike Corey: So what we're actually talking about here is something like one million or so tweets in this one-month period.

 

Al Letson: Mike made this colorful graph that shows the spike in Twitter traffic, starting with the first @DavidGoldbergNY tweet on October 30th until December 4th, the day Welch fired the gun in the pizzeria.

 

Mike Corey: Okay, so if we look at the very start of this chart, it's starts at October 30th, 2016, and there was just a couple tweets in our sample from that date. It's just a sample, so we know there's probably a few more than that, but there's a little blip on the 30th of October.

 

L. Starecheski: Okay. I can see that. There's like, it's just a tiny little bump.

 

Amanda Robb: That's when @DavidGoldbergNY tweeted the Carmen Katz story.

 

Mike Corey: Oh okay. And then after October 30th, there's not much going on in our data until November 4th. There's another little bump that happens in our data. There's a little bit more going on than ...

 

Amanda Robb: Yeah, I see it. That's when Erik Prince went on Breitbart.

 

L. Starecheski: And he also claimed to have NYPD sources.

 

Erik Prince: So, the plot thickens. NYPD was pushing because, as an article just ... quoted one of the chiefs [inaudible] level just below commissioner. He said as a parent, as a father with daughters, he could not let that level of evil continue.

 

Al Letson: Erik Prince, you might remember, is the guy who started Blackwater, the private security firm the U.S. used in places like Iraq. He was a big donor to the Trump campaign, and his sister is Betsy DeVos, who is now the Secretary of Education.

 

Erik Prince: They found a lot of other, really damning criminal information, including money laundering, including the fact that Hillary went to this sex island with convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein. Bill Clinton went there more than 20 times. Hillary Clinton went there at least six times.

 

Erik Prince: The amount of garbage that they found in the emails of criminal activity by Hillary, by her immediate circle, and even by other democratic members of Congress, was so disgusting they gave it to the FBI, and they said, "We're going to go public with this if you don't reopen the investigation, if you don't do the right thing with timely indictments."

 

Al Letson: Prince wasn't the only Trump advocate to push the conspiracy. Micheal Flynn tweeted about it, and we found other people who worked for Trump who tweeted it, too. But Erik Prince, that was a big deal. He barely ever gives interviews at all. Now, he was sticking his neck out to push a crazy conspiracy theory on Breitbart.

 

Yochai Benkler: When you look at Twitter shares or Facebook shares, Breitbart is really the epicenter of this part of the galaxy that we're describing there.

 

L. Starecheski: We talked to a Harvard professor named Yochai Benkler about this. He studies the internet, and he looked at how information spread during the 2016 campaign.

 

Yochai Benkler: You really have a major Breitbart node, which clearly had a very powerful social media strategy and visibility. It is the central node, and it is literally the same size as the Times, the Post, are for everything else.

 

L. Starecheski: When Benkler studied how the media worked during the 2016 campaign, he created this network map. It's like a visualization of all the media outlets out there and basically like what did they do during the campaign season, what did they cover.

 

Yochai Benkler: We collected about two million stories from the year and a half before the election. That gave us a pretty clear image of who was producing media and connecting to whom and who was paying attention to what.

 

Amanda Robb: I was stunned that Breitbart pulled Fox to the right during the election. On the visualization map you could actually see it.

 

Yochai Benkler: My initial thought was that we probably measured wrong. It was so surprising, but when you look at the right, you really see a completely separate constellation of planets orbiting around a Breitbart that is as bright and influential as anything there is throughout the entire rest of the system.

 

Al Letson: Breitbart was a sleeper powerhouse, and it became a major influencer. Prince, a former Navy Seal, was the ultimate Pizzagate validator. Now the story had legs. Pizzagate Twitter traffic spiked.

 

Donald Trump: I, Donald John Trump, do solemnly swear ...

 

Speaker 27: That I will faithfully ...

 

Al Letson: So we all know what happened in the election on November 8th. Trump won the electoral college and became President, but that didn't stop the spread of Pizzagate. It actually grew after the election.

 

Mike Corey: So then the next major thing looks like is November 16th. There's a decent-sized spike all of a sudden.

 

Al Letson: Once again, that's Reveal's data editor, Mike Corey.

 

L. Starecheski: Yes.

 

Amanda Robb: Two things happened that day.

 

L. Starecheski: Yeah.

 

Amanda Robb: One, the story gets picked up in Turkey, and Turkey was.

 

Mike Corey: In Turkey?

 

Amanda Robb: In Turkey.

 

L. Starecheski: Yeah, Pizzagate ...

 

Amanda Robb: Pizzagate was huge in Turkey.

 

Mike Corey: I had no idea.

 

Amanda Robb: It was front page news all over Turkey, and it hit on the 16th.

 

L. Starecheski: And then the other thing that happened on the 16th was Jack Posobiec, he went to Comet Ping Pong, to the pizzeria, and he live-Periscoped his investigation where he was going to go inside Comet Ping Pong and find out once and for all if there was any truth to the rumor.

 

Jack Posobiec: I was feeling a little bit hungry tonight, and I decided that I wanted to go for some pizza. So let's go take a look, shall we. Comet Pizza. Here we go.

 

L. Starecheski: Jack Posobiec is like a Twitter Troll extraordinaire. He's an agitator. He worked with the right wing dirty trickster Roger Stone during the Trump campaign. Jack goes into Comet Ping Pong. He's got his phone sticking out of his front shirt pocket.

 

Jack Posobiec: I turned it off.

 

James A.: I understand that to you this is maybe like a game, but considering that I myself and my staff receive death threats many times a day ...

 

Jack Posobiec: It's not a game. It's not anything.

 

L. Starecheski: He orders garlic knots. Before he can try them, he gets kicked out of Comet Ping Pong.

 

Jack Posobiec: I can't control what somebody posts on the internet, what someone comments. Oh, you're throwing me out.

 

James A.: I am, because ...

 

L. Starecheski: He's still filming. He goes outside, and it's like as if his mind was blown by what he saw inside, which was nothing. There as nothing to see. It was just a normal pizza place.

 

Jack Posobiec: The threat level here is much higher, much higher than I thought it would be. The stuff that was going on is much, much worse than I thought it would be. We're dealing with some high-level stuff here, guys. We're dealing with some very high-level stuff. There are people here that have a lot of interests and a lot of money, so they have a big secret that they are trying to hide.

 

Al Letson: So, when Jack Posobiec livestreams his trip to Comet Ping Pong on Twitter, we saw another big spike in the tweets about Pizzagate, but it wasn't at its peak just yet.

 

Mike Corey: After the 16th, it kind of drops off again and then, boom, there's this big hit, this big spike on the 20th, and the peak is the 21st. So what happened then?

 

Amanda Robb: That's when the New York Times publishes a debunking story. James Alefantis, the owner of Comet Ping Pong, actually really, really wanted the New York Times to publish the story because he thought it would debunk it. He thought that having the truth out there would help.

 

Mike Corey: Apparently not.

 

Amanda Robb: It seems to have only fueled the fire.

 

Mike Corey: Yeah, like if you look at the graph, this is like the event, this the big spike. It just takes off at this point. And then so there's that really big peak and then there's another valley, and then there's something else on November 28th. There's another spike where it's almost up to that stratosphere again. Something happen on the 28th?

 

L. Starecheski: The day before that, Alex Jones put out this short "documentary" called Pizzagate Is Real.

 

Alex Jones: Now, if you're a radio-listener, this is a powerful video, but I've had it re-posted. This is real stuff going on. Here it is.

 

Speaker 29: This all began after Wikileaks founder Julian Assange released hundreds of thousands of secret documents detailing a backstabbing Clinton foundation ...

 

L. Starecheski: This video goes out on the Infowars YouTube channel.

 

Speaker 29: Why is the artwork adorning Comet Ping Pong's walls at the very least so insanely creepy, especially for a family restaurant?

 

L. Starecheski: The clip is basically a list of things that are supposed to be proof of Pizzagate.

 

Speaker 29: ... and code words, now clues. The menu from Comet Ping Pong. Notice the symbol of the ping pong paddles and its clever resemblance to the FBI document's symbol for child love.

 

Al Letson: This video is the one that really inspires Edgar Maddison Welch, the guy who went into Comet Ping Pong with an assault riffle.

 

Alex Jones: The art they tweet in Facebook is of children being murdered, cut in pieces, and raped by men with giant genitalia.

 

Al Letson: Alex Jones has since publicly apologized for spreading Pizzagate, but this is what he was saying in 2016.

 

Alex Jones: It's up to you to research it for yourself, but you've got to go to Infowars.com and actually see the photos and videos inside these places. You've got to see their menus. You've got to see it all, ladies and gentlemen.

 

Al Letson: And Welch did exactly what Alex Jones asked his listeners to do. He went to investigate Comet Ping Pong for himself. Welch wasn't the only one caught up in Pizzagate. Fake news infiltrated the American mind with an assist from Russia.

 

Sam Woolley: 126 million users saw these Russian propaganda posts, which is just an enormous number.

 

Al Letson: Coming up next on Reveal.

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Today, we're bringing you show we first aired in 2017. It's about Pizzagate, the completely false conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton and her former campaign chair John Podesta ran a child sex trafficking ring out of the basement of a pizza place in Washington, D.C. Keep in mind there is no proof of any kind. Reporters Amanda Robb of the non-profit newsroom Type Investigations and Reveal's Laura Starecheski looked into this and found that some of the people spreading this story the most weren't people at all.

 

L. Starecheski: Throughout our reporting, we've been looking at our list of tweets about Pizzagate, tweets that went out right around the election last year, so we can understand exactly how this story spread. We took the top 10 most prolific tweeters on our list to this professor, Sam Woolley. He researches social media and propaganda at a place called the Digital Intelligence Lab in Palo Alto, California.

 

Sam Woolley: The account is, without a shadow of a doubt, highly automated. It makes use of some kind of software to tweet, because it has tens of thousands of tweets in its relatively short lifespan.

 

L. Starecheski: When Woolley says, "automation," he's talking about bots. "Bot" as in "robot."

 

Sam Woolley: A bot is a piece of computer software built to do an automated task that a person would otherwise have to do. Bots have existed on the internet since the internet was made public.

 

L. Starecheski: Woolley actually did this study with some of his colleagues at Oxford University where they looked at Twitter bots specifically during the 2016 presidential campaign.

 

Sam Woolley: What I talk about when I talk about bots usually are social bots, and social bots are bots that are built to mimic human behavior. They look like a real person, but they actually are using a fake identity. During recent political events over the last several years, social bots have been used in attempts to manipulate public opinion.

 

L. Starecheski: We wanted to look into this, and we found something really weird. On our list of Pizzagate tweets, 41% of them ended up getting deleted, or they came from accounts that got deleted or were suspended or were made private. I asked Woolley, "What does that mean about who was spreading Pizzagate?"

 

Sam Woolley: Right. Well, the first thing that really speaks to me is the accounts that were deleted. That's a red flag. A lot of the accounts that were being used to spread effusively pro-Trump automated traffic, those accounts a few weeks after the election were deleted. In fact, the day after the election a lot of those accounts suddenly went missing.

 

L. Starecheski: I didn't really understand this before, but it turns out that in a modern presidential election campaign, bots are just part of the picture.

 

Sam Woolley: Donald Trump-related bots, bots that were tweeting on behalf of Donald Trump or in attempts to support his messages in an automated way, were outperforming similar accounts that were working on behalf of Clinton at a rate of five to one. The Clinton botnets were basically way outperformed by the Trump botnets.

 

L. Starecheski: If you are watching the news at all lately and paying attention to all these congressional investigations into Russian influence, you're probably wondering, "Were these Russian bots?"

 

Al Letson: That's a really good question. It feels like an international spy thriller with all these Russian bots.

 

L. Starecheski: I know, it's like the Cold War never ended, right? Congress has been looking into whether Russia interfered with our elections with propaganda spread on social media. I don't know how much you've been following this, Al, but it's pretty nuts.

 

Al Letson: Yeah, I've totally been checking it out. I actually got into a Twitter exchange with one of the fake Russian accounts that seemed to be an actual person.

 

L. Starecheski: These accounts are everywhere.

 

Speaker 32: On Thursday, Twitter announced that it's found 201 accounts that were linked back to potential Russian interference in the 2016 election.

 

Speaker 33: We've heard a lot this year about Russia and its attempt to use social media to influence the 2016 presidential election.

 

Speaker 34: Facebook recently announced it will give congressional investigators some 3000 ...

 

Speaker 35: We only still have scratched the surface in terms of our knowledge ...

 

Speaker 36: A major foreign power, with the sophistication and ability to involve themselves ...

 

Speaker 37: Russian trolls were encouraging both sides to battle in the streets and create division between real Americans.

 

L. Starecheski: Congress released a list of social media accounts that their investigators say were set up and run by a Russian company called the Internet Research Agency. The company's tied to the Kremlin, and we wanted to see if any of those accounts turned up on our list of Pizzagate tweets. We brought in someone on the Reveal staff who's just as obsessed with Pizzagate as me and Amanda.

 

L. Starecheski: Hey, Aaron.

 

Aaron Sankin: Hey, how's it goin?

 

Al Letson: Aaron Sankin is Reveal's internet and cyber security reporter.

 

L. Starecheski: What we basically want to know from you is, is there evidence that Pizzagate was spread by Russia?

 

Aaron Sankin: From our initial sample of people who tweeted about Pizzagate between October 30th and December 4th of last year, we found 15 tweets that came from Russian propaganda accounts. The earliest of these tweets on November 8th came from-

 

L. Starecheski: Wait, hold on.

 

Amanda Robb: [inaudible] slow down.

 

L. Starecheski: Wait, slow down. We found 15 Pizzagate tweets that came right from these Russian propaganda accounts?

 

Aaron Sankin: Yeah.

 

Amanda Robb: It's mind-blowing to me. It is mind-blowing to me.

 

Aaron Sankin: The earliest of these tweets, which was on November 8th, came from an account with the handle @CalvinChambers, and it also tagged Conservative Fox media personalities Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs.

 

L. Starecheski: To try to get them to kind of latch on to it and push it out themselves?

 

Aaron Sankin: Yeah. I think it was an attempt to spread this to people with a larger public platform to spread the narrative.

 

L. Starecheski: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

 

Aaron Sankin: There was another account, Garrett Simpson, that retweeted a tweet from the Trump-supporting former sitcom star Roseanne Barr on November 23rd.

 

L. Starecheski: Oh, my God.

 

Aaron Sankin: It's kind of like a word salad of a whole bunch of different far-right conspiracy theories that loop in Pizzagate.

 

L. Starecheski: Okay, wait. That's a tweet from Roseanne Barr that was retweeted by one of these Russian accounts.

 

Aaron Sankin: Yeah.

 

L. Starecheski: Okay, so Roseanne Barr tweeted about Pizzagate, then a Russian propaganda account liked it and retweeted it? They thought, "This is a good thing we'll help get out there?"

 

Aaron Sankin: Yeah, I think so, or they just were fans of the Roseanne show, which was a great show in the '90s.

 

L. Starecheski: Oh my God. What's Twitter going to do to stop this from happening again?

 

Amanda Robb: And what's Facebook going to do, and YouTube going to do, and Google going to do?

 

Aaron Sankin: You're getting a lot of ... you're getting Facebook just really starting now to take this seriously. For example, they recently made public that 126 million users saw these Russian propaganda posts, which is just an enormous number. So much of this stuff is just breaking right now, and even what we have now about this is only the tip of the iceberg.

 

L. Starecheski: This whole thing is a lot bigger than just the Clinton/Trump election and the campaigns of 2016, because Pizzagate kept going after the 2016 election was over.

 

Amanda Robb: Right. Pizzagate went viral after the presidential election was over, and that viral activity is what — if you want to use the word — infected Edgar Maddison Welch down in North Carolina.

 

Al Letson: This is where Pizzagate had real-world consequences, for the pizzeria owner and his staff and for the shooter. To recap: On December 4th, 2016, a guy named Edgar Maddison Welch became obsessed with the conspiracy theory and the idea that he was the one who had to go save all the children he thought were being held at Comet Ping Pong. And so he snuck out of the house before dawn, before his girlfriend and his two daughters woke up. He drove from North Carolina to Washington D.C. with a handgun and a semiautomatic rifle. On the way, he made a suicide video.

 

E. M. Welch: Girls, I love you all more than anything in this world.

 

Al Letson: It's hard to hear him in this recording, but he's saying that he needed to do this because he needed to sacrifice himself to save the children. When he gets to the pizzeria, he starts looking for the basement. All he finds is a locked door. He shoots it up only to discover there is no basement.

 

Speaker 39: D.C. police say this North Carolina man, 28-year-old Edgar Maddison Welch, was inspired by a lie spread online to walk into this D.C. pizza restaurant with two guns Sunday.

 

Al Letson: Amanda, Laura, what became of Welch?

 

Amanda Robb: Edgar Maddison Welch surrendered to a SWAT team.

 

Speaker 40: Stop! Get on your knees! Get on the ground! Lay prone on the ground! [inaudible] ...

 

Speaker 41: What weapons do you have back there? [inaudible]

 

Speaker 40: Got a pocket knife in the right pocket.

 

Al Letson: This is from the police body cam video we got ahold of from Welch's arrest. In this shot, he's laying facedown on the asphalt. His hands are cuffed behind his back.

 

Speaker 44: How'd you get up here?

 

E. M. Welch: Drove that Prius.

 

Speaker 44: The Prius is yours?

 

E. M. Welch: Yes, sir.

 

Speaker 44: Anything else in it?

 

E. M. Welch: There's a shotgun in the back.

 

Amanda Robb: He was arraigned on federal charges, and he was placed in solitary confinement. He eventually pled guilty. Now, his life, and his families life, is ruined.

 

L. Starecheski: Back at Comet Ping Pong, the owner, James Alefantis, his life is also changed forever by this.

 

James A.: This man is going to spend years in jail and years in supervised probation, and my, really, name has been torn to shreds. And then there's all these other people who continue to perpetrate these lies and conspiracy theories online, and there are absolutely no repercussions for these people. I wonder when they will be held accountable.

 

L. Starecheski: He still gets death threats anywhere he's reachable. On the internet, on social media, he's getting threats. His staff is getting threats.

 

Amanda Robb: They can't tell themselves, "It's just an internet rumor. Nothing will happen." They know what can happen. Someone can show up at your restaurant during the Sunday rush with a semiautomatic weapon and start shooting. And they can't un-know that.

 

Al Letson: And there's nothing they can do about it. The social media companies whose platforms spread so much of the fake news are struggling to handle the problem, and Congress doesn't know how to fix it, either. Since we originally aired this show, Alex Jones and his Infowars show has been deplatformed, as in banned from YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, but that's definitely not the end of it.

 

L. Starecheski: So many big news events now have an accompanying conspiracy theory that is pumped out on Twitter and Facebook and takes on a life of its own. If there's anything we learn from reporting this story it's that fake news is not going away anytime soon. Pizzagate is just one of a ton of theories, and there's nothing that's been done to effectively control them.

 

Al Letson: That was Reveal's Laura Starecheski. She and Michael Schiller produced today's show. They had a lot of help from cybersecurity report Aaron Sankin. For more on Pizzagate, check out Amanda Robb's article in Rolling Stone magazine.

 

Al Letson: Our data editor Michael Corey helped us decode our sample of Pizzagate tweets. That information was provided to us by Fil Menczer at Indiana University.

 

Al Letson: Thanks to editor Esther Kaplan and researchers Jasper Craven and Jaime Longoria at Type Investigations.

 

Al Letson: We'd also like to thank Rolling Stone magazine and editor Rob Fisher. WHYY provided production help on this episode.

 

Al Letson: Our sound designer is J-Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs. He had help from Claire Mullen, Katherine Rae Mondo, Kat Shutnitt, and Fernando "My Man, Yo" Arruda. Our production manager is Najib Aminy. Our senior supervising editor is Taki Telonidis. Our CEO is Christa Scharfenberg. Matt Thompson is our editor-in-chief, and our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Camarado, "Lightning."

 

Al Letson: Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

Al Letson: I'm Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.