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Nov 18, 2017

Pizzagate: A slice of fake news

Co-produced with PRX Logo

This week, we teamed up with Rolling Stone and The Investigative Fund to explore how fake news starts, snowballs and sometimes erupts into gunfire.

The conspiracy theory Pizzagate alleged that top Democrats were running a child sex-trafficking ring out of Comet Ping Pong, a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor. They weren’t. But that didn’t stop one armed man from traveling to the restaurant and firing three times during the Sunday rush, looking for a basement that doesn’t exist.

The episode opens as Reveal producer Laura Starecheski joins The Investigative Fund’s Amanda Robb to track down the people responsible for starting the hoax. Their reporting takes them to Joplin, Missouri, in search of the woman who may have launched Pizzagate on Facebook.

Next, Robb heads to Macedonia (one of the “fake news capitals of the world”) to better understand who profits from viral hoaxes. She finds that many fake news purveyors have no political bias or ideology; they’re just hoping to make money in a country where jobs are scarce. With their help, and with a surprising assist from American fake news sites such as Breitbart and TheBlaze, Pizzagate rocketed from a fringe idea into the mainstream conversation.

Finally, our reporters take a close look at automated social media accounts, also known as bots, which have become part of the political landscape. To what extent did these bots help spread Pizzagate? And were any of them tied to fake social media accounts run by Russian propagandists? Reveal cybersecurity reporter Aaron Sankin answers these questions.

Ultimately, the story shows how fake news can have real consequences.

“My name has been torn to shreds,” said Comet Ping Pong owner James Alefantis. “And then there are all these other people that continue to perpetrate these conspiracy theories and lies online, and there are absolutely no repercussions for these people, and I wonder when they will be held accountable.”

Dig Deeper

  • Read: Anatomy of a fake news scandal
  • Read: Reveal’s guide to spotting fake news

Credits

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.

 

 

  Section 1 of 5          [00:00:00 - 00:10:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Al Ledson: Hey, hey, hey, it is Al Ledson, and this show that you're listening to right now, what you're listening to is the type of journalism that you've come to expect from Reveal. So what does that mean? That means that we go in. We go deep. We get the answers that you are looking for, because my friends, that is what we do. But this is a two way exchange, we go deep, and we need you to go deep too. Give us a little bit of love. Look, let's seal the deal, alright. I'm gonna give you great stories and you can donate to Reveal. I mean, I think that's a fair exchange. Can we do that?
Okay, so here's how you do it; just get on your phone, text the word donate to 63735. Again, that's donate to 63735. And we will make it official baby, put a ring on it, that's what I'm talking about. So text donate to 63735. Any amount of money will really make a difference in us going out, getting the stories that you love to listen to every week. And remember there is always more to the story, but we only get there with a little help from our friends.
From the center for investigative reporting in PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Ledson.
Driving through Joplin, Missouri, you can see signs of a huge tornado that hit the city back in 2011. A lot of homes and businesses were destroyed, and they're all these empty lots that were never redeveloped. In the middle of one is the place reporters Laura Starcheski and Amanda Robb are looking for.
Laura: Oh my God.
Amanda: Oh there it is.
Laura: It's a food truck.
Amanda: It's a food truck. Okay.
Al Ledson: It's a smoothie place called Pineapple Bliss.
Laura: Is it closed?
Al Ledson: That's Laura.
Amanda: Can I ask you a question?
Al Ledson: And That's Amanda.
Amanda: I'm trying to find somebody I've been following on Facebook, and she liked Pineapple Bliss.
Speaker 4: Um, who is it.
Amanda: Her name's Carmen Katz, she goes by Carmen Cats on Facebook, do you know who it is?
Speaker 4: Carmen Katz [inaudible 00:02:03] Uh uh.
Amanda: No idea?
Al Ledson: The thing is, they're not even sure if the person they're looking for is real.
Amanda: If I show you a picture of her cat, would that help?
Al Ledson: Amanda and Laura are trying to find this person because she was the first person we found who posted anything on Facebook about one of the most bizarre fake news stories of 2016, Pizzagate.
Lora and Amanda have been investigating this story for months, working with our team at Reveal and the non-profit news room, the investigative fund. Amanda is writing a piece for Rolling Stone magazine, so Amanda, can you explain what the conspiracy theory is?
Amanda: 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, DC.
One of the many problems with the conspiracy theory, is there is no basement in the pizzeria. The theory is totally false.
Al Ledson: Okay Laura, we've heard about lots of fake news stories and lots of conspiracy theories. Why did you guys decide to look into Pizzgate?
Laura: Well, first of all we know that pizza gate 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, DC and he shot a gun
Al Ledson: Yeah, I remember. No one was hurt, but this was still a huge story.
Laura: Right, so we wanted to know, was there somebody who planted the story and why would they do that?
Al Ledson: And the first clue you guys had was Carmen Katz 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.
Laura: 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 Ledson: 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.

 

Laura: And so since she was like the first poster that we could find, Amanda and I decided 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: And so that's how we went to Joplin with a picture of the cat.

 

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

 

Laura: You're following the story really well.

 

Al Ledson: Meow.

 

Laura: Are 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 Bone's 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.

 

Lauretta: Have you tried Bone's Rum?

 

Laura: No.

 

Lauretta: Step into my lair.

 

Laura: So the owner Lanetta, she brings us behind this make shift bar ... and she fixed us a pretty disgusting cocktail that had Bone's Rum and chocolate wine in it.

 

Al Ledson: That sounds utterly disgusting.

 

Laura: 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.

 

Lauretta: I wish I could find her because I'm gonna smack her myself. [inaudible 00:06:14] I'm not a Hillary fan ...

 

Laura: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

 

Lauretta: But that's just stupid crap.

 

Laura: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

 

Lauretta: It just makes people look stupid. And she better not be from Missouri.

 

Al Ledson: So did you ever find that cat lady?

 

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

 

Amanda: 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 went 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.

 

Laura: So you think that Cynthia Campbell is ... [crosstalk 00:07:05]

 

Amanda: Is Carmen Katz.

 

Laura: Carmen Katz. No way.

 

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

 

Laura: Huh.

 

Amanda: And when to Cynthia Campbell on change.org ...

 

Cynthia Campbell, alright so ... oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh ...

 

Laura: What, what, what?

 

Amanda: It's the cat!

 

Laura: Oh my God.

 

Amanda: Her profile picture was the same cat.

 

Laura: Seen that cat before.

 

Amanda: That's the cat.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

About the Carmen Katz account on Facebook, and she didn't call back.

 

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

 

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

 

Laura: We knock and it kinda 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: She's calling me.

 

"Cynthia?"

 

Laura: Amanda and Cynthia Campbell, AKA, 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 sources, 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: Bye - Bye.

 

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

 

Al Ledson: Fake news, I mean that sorta feels like a dead end, like ...

 

  Section 1 of 5          [00:00:00 - 00:10:04]
  Section 2 of 5          [00:10:00 - 00:20:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

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

 

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

 

Laura: 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 DC.

 

Amanda: We're here for Mr. Alefantis.

 

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

 

Speaker 3: You're not the [inaudible 00:12:00].

 

Amanda: No, he's expecting us.

 

Speaker 4: Is he? [inaudible 00:12:05].

 

Amanda: Yeah.

 

Speaker 4: You can talk to the manager.

 

Amanda: OK.

 

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

 

How's it going?

 

Speaker 3: James isn't arrived yet. Can we get you guys some pizza? Or if you guys want to walk around, James will be [inaudible 00:12:21].

 

Amanda: He's super friendly. Seemed to know everyone.

 

James A.: Sorry I'm late. Hi.

 

Amanda: Hi.

 

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.

 

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 DC 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 is, "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 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 two guns and a knife.

 

He fired off three rounds in the restaurant. And when he found out no kids were being held there, he surrendered to the police.

 

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.

 

Speaker 6: 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 in PRX.

 

Rachel de Leon: Hey. I'm Rachel de Leon, a video producer here at Reveal. Over the past year, our Glassbreaker films team has been working on a bunch of short documentaries. Our second series just came out. It's called the Aftermath and it revisits people who were caught up in major stories that dominated the news years ago. One video follows a support group for survivors of mass shootings. They talk about their shared experiences like being hounded by the media.

 

Speaker 8: She's got the mic in my face and it was like, "So, how does it feel to be a mass shooting survivor?" How do you answer that question?

 

Rachel de Leon: You can watch all four short documentaries over at RevealNews.org/theaftermath.

 

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

 

We're teaming up with the nonprofit newsroom, the Investigative Fund and Rolling Stone magazine to deconstruct Pizzagate. Reveal's Laura Starecheski and reporter Amanda Robb started out trying to find a woman in Missouri who's the first person to post about it on Facebook. They tracked her down but she says she was hacked and knew nothing about it.

 

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

 

Laura: 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.

 

Hi 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

 

So to understand that, we're going to get a sample of tweet data 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 had 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: This goes straight from Carmen Katz within 12 hours to a Twitter account at David Goldberg NY.

 

Laura: 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 anti-Semitic meme.

 

Amanda: After he posts it, it gets shared at least 6,000 times on Twitter. And the very, very next day, it becomes a news story. A site called YourNewsWire.com which is a fake news site.

 

Laura: 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: Tell me your name and tell me what you do.

 

Borcha Pechev: I'm Borcha and I'm web developer and web designer.

 

Al Letson: She meets Borcha Pechev 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: So I met Borcha 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.

 

Borcha Pechev: I don't know if you can say that we are-

 

  Section 2 of 5          [00:10:00 - 00:20:04]
  Section 3 of 5          [00:20:00 - 00:30:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Citizen 1: I don't know if you can say 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: Because they don't actually invent fake news there, they just copy and paste it from American fake news sites.

 

Laura: In Macedonia, this business model is not new or to have been doing this for a while.

 

Amanda: 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 though, "Well, there's a lot of interest in the American presidential election, why don't we try politics?"

 

Laura: This is kind of important to understand. The people making the Macedonia fake new sites didn't have anything against Hilary themselves, they just knew that people would click on Hilary's stories.

 

Citizen 2: Hilary was kind of interesting when you writing a [inaudible 00:21:09]. She needs to be liked. 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.

 

Reporter: Do you remember the story about her being a pedophile? Like her being running a pedophile ring?

 

Citizen 1: There are many stories about that. And there are stories on she's involved with ISIS, pedophilia, [inaudible 00:21:36], but as I said 100% of [inaudible 00:21:40] are from the American site.

 

Laura: They copied and pasted fake news from websites in America, like Glen 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.

 

Announcer: 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 Hilary steals it or not. The [inaudible 00:22:31] dynasty is on fire.

 

Laura: This is a show called Infowars. It's a webcast and a radio show hosted by a guy named Alex Jones.

 

And Alex Jones is a very prolific conspiracy theorist.

 

He says stuff like, "No 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: Oh my god.

 

Laura: Yeah.

 

Amanda: No.

 

Laura: 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: [inaudible 00:23:17] thanks for having me. Yeah, basically everything that you have come up with, my source independent of yours has said-

 

Laura: Hackman 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 Hilary Clinton.

 

And the people in the halls of our power in the United States.

 

Amanda: 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: Hi, you Mrs. Hagmann?

 

Mrs. Hagmann: How are you?

 

Yeah. I'm Renee Hagmann.

 

Amanda: Hi, My name's Amanda.

 

Mrs. Hagmann: Hi, Amanda.

 

Laura: Hi.

 

Amanda: This is my colleague Laura.

 

Laura: Nice to meet you.

 

Mrs. Hagmann: She won't bite.

 

Amanda: So we went to his basement studio, which was unbelievably decked out.

 

There's an anchor chair and everything and we asked for the court room ready documents and he said they were at the copiers and that he hadn't kept a copy.

 

I mean on the second 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: Okay.

 

Doug Hagmann: Okay.

 

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

 

Doug Hagmann: I do.

 

Amanda: -go back and like and check it with anybody who'd really believe him?

 

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

 

Amanda: 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 ya?

 

Announcer: So, he claimed to have court room ready documents and didn't have anything?

 

Amanda: No.

 

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

 

Amanda: I thought I was gonna have to carry Laura out in my arms. She was so sad for him.

 

I mean, it was just humiliating. It was awful. And his former claim to fame like, we looked him up. Was he help break up a cable pirating ring in Erie. And those are his [inaudible 00:25:57].

 

Doug Hagmann: For me, as an investigator, I understand how crazy, stupid this sounds. And how little ... evidence that is [inaudible 00:26:07] I can give to you.

 

So I get that.

 

Amanda: 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.

 

Announcer: 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: That's a really good way of putting it. Like every time somebody else gets it, it mutates and becomes grosser.

 

Announcer: 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.

 

Michael Corey: So what we're actually talking about here is something like 1 million or so tweets in this one month period.

 

Announcer: Mike made this colorful graph that shows the spike in Twitter traffic, starting with the first @DavidGoldberg NY tweet on October 30th until December 4th.

 

The day Welch fired the gun in the pizzeria.

 

Michael 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 that are sampled from that data.

 

It's just a sample so we know there's probably a few more than that, but there's a little blimp on the 30th of October.

 

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

 

Amanda: That's when @DavidGoldberg NY tweeted the Carmen cat story.

 

Michael 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: Yeah, I see it. That's when [inaudible 00:27:56] went on Breitbart.

 

Laura: And he also claimed to have NYPD sources.

 

Erik Prince: So, the [inaudible 00:28:02] NYPD was pushing because, as an article [inaudible 00:28:09] one of the chiefs. [inaudible 00:28:10] level just below commissioner.

 

He said that as a parent, as a father with daughters, he could not let that level of evil continue.

 

Announcer: 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 Hilary went to this sex island with convicted pedophiles, Jeffrey Epstein.

 

Bill Clinton went there more than 20 times. Hilary Clinton went there at least 6 times.

 

The amount of garbage that they found in the emails of criminal activity by Hilary, by her immediate circle, even by other democratic members of Congress, was so disgusting they [inaudible 00:29:09] gave it to the FBI and they said, "We're going to go public with this if you don't re-open the investigation. If you don't do the right thing with timely indictments."

 

Announcer: 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 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.

 

Male - Acccent: When you look at Twitter shares or Facebook shares, Breitbart is really the epicenter of this part of-

 

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Yochai Benkler: -the art is really the epicenter of this part of the galaxy that we are describing there.

 

Rachel DeLeon: 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 note, 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.

 

Rachel DeLeon: 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.

 

Speaker 3: 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.

 

Speaker 5: Please raise your right hand and repeat after me. I, Donald John Trump, do solemnly swear.

 

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

 

Speaker 5: That I will faithfully (recording of President being sworn in continues in background)

 

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.

 

Speaker 3: Yes. Two things happened that day.

 

Rachel DeLeon: Yeah. One the story gets picked up in Turkey. Turkey was.

 

Al Letson: In Turkey?

 

Rachel DeLeon: In Turkey. Yeah-

 

Speaker 3: Pizzagate was huge in Turkey.

 

Al Letson: I had no idea.

 

Rachel DeLeon: It was front page news all over Turkey. It hit on the 16th.

 

Speaker 3: 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.

 

Speaker 3: 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.

 

Rachel DeLeon: Jack goes into Comet Ping-Pong. He's got his phone sticking out of his front shirt pocket.

 

Jack Posobiec: I turned it off.

 

Speaker 9: 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.

 

Rachel DeLeon: He orders garlic nuts, 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.

 

Speaker 9: I am, because ...

 

Rachel DeLeon: 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. This, we're dealing with something, we're dealing with some high level stuff here guys. We're doing 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 live streams 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. What happened then?

 

Rachel DeLeon: 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.

 

Rachel DeLeon: 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. 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?

 

Rachel DeLeon: The day before that Alex Jones put out this short quote "documentary" called Pizzagate Is Real.

 

Alex Jones: This story, it's been the biggest thing on the internet for several weeks, Pizzagate as it's called is a rabbit hole that is horrifying to go down. 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.

 

Video: A warning to viewers. The following images on disturbing. This all began after Wikileaks founder Julian Assange released hundreds of thousands of secret documents detailing a backstabbing Clinton foundation ...

 

Rachel DeLeon: This video goes out on the Infowars YouTube channel.

 

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

 

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

 

Video: 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 documents symbol for child love.

 

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

 

Alex Jones: If you're a radio listener, you're lucky you didn't actually see the video. The art they tweet and 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 last year.

 

Alex Jones: It's up to you to research it for yourself, but you 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: 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.

 

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

 

Coming up next on Reveal.

 

Rachel DeLeon: Hey, it's Rachel DeLeon again a video producer here at Reveal. Earlier in the show I mentioned our new video series called The Aftermath. It follows up on stories that were once big news but have fallen off the headlines. One of the films follows Wanda Johnson. Her son, Oscar Grant, was shot and killed by a police officer in Oakland eight years ago. Since then, she's been bringing together other women who have also lost their children to police violence.

 

Wanda Johnson: 'Cause the only reason why I know some of you is because Oscar died. Oscar was killed. Because had he not been killed, I would not know you, you, or anybody else in this room.

 

Rachel DeLeon: Watch the rest of that story and the other videos in The Aftermath series at revealnews.org/the aftermath.

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Today, we're talking about Pizzagate. The completely false conspiracy theory that Hilary Clinton and her former campaign chair John Podesta ran a child sex trafficking ring out of the basement of a pizza place in Washington DC. Keep in mind there's no proof of any kind. Reporter-

 

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Al Letson: Keep in mind, there's no proof of any kind.

 

Reporters Amanda Robb of the non-profit newsroom, the Investigative Fund, and Reveal's Laura Starecheski have been looking into this. It turns out that some of the people spreading this story the most weren't people at all.

 

Laura S.: 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 Wooley. He researches social media and propaganda at a place called the Digital Intelligence Lab in Palo Alto, California.

 

Sam Wooley: 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.

 

Laura S.: When Wooley says, "Automation," he's talking about bots. Bot as in robot.

 

Sam Wooley: 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.

 

Laura S.: Wooley 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 Wooley: What I talk about when I talk about bots usually are social bots. 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.

 

Laura S.: 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 Wooley, "What does that mean about who was spreading Pizzagate?"

 

Sam Wooley: 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.

 

Laura S.: 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 Wooley: 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.

 

Laura S.: 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.

 

Laura S.: 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.

 

Laura S.: These accounts are everywhere.

 

Speaker 4: On Thursday, Twitter announced that it found 201 accounts that were linked back to potential Russian interference in the 2016 election.

 

Speaker 5: We've heard a lot this year about Russia and its attempt to use social media to influence the 2016 presidential election.

 

Speaker 6: Facebook recently announced it will give congressional investigators some 3,000 ...

 

Speaker 7: We only still have scratched the surface in terms of our knowledge ...

 

Speaker 8: A major foreign power, with a sophistication and ability to involve themselves ...

 

Speaker 9: Russian trolls were encouraging both sides to battle in the streets and create division between real Americans.

 

Laura S.: Congress just 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. 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.

 

Hey, Aaron.

 

Aaron Sankin: Hey, how's it goin?

 

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

 

Laura S.: 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 an ac-

 

Laura S.: Wait, hold on.

 

Amanda Robb: Slow down.

 

Laura S.: Slow down. We found 15 Pizzagate tweets that came right from these Russian propaganda accounts?

 

Aaron Sankin: Yeah.

 

Laura S.: 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: Calvin Chambers. It also tagged Conservative Fox media personalities, Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs.

 

Laura S.: 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.

 

Laura S.: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

 

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

 

Laura S.: 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.

 

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

 

Aaron Sankin: Yeah.

 

Laura S.: Okay. 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.

 

Laura S.: 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 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. Even what we have now about this is only the tip of the iceberg.

 

Laura S.: 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.

 

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.

 

Speaker 12: 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 13: 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 and 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.

 

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

 

James Alefantis: This man is going to spend years in jail and years in supervised probation. My name has been torn to shreds. 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.

 

Laura S.: 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. They can't un-know that.

 

Al Letson: There's nothing they can do about it. The social media companies whose platforms spread so much of the fake news that's out there still don't know how big the problem is, or exactly how to go about fixing it. Neither does congress.

 

Laura S.: So many big news events now have an accompanying conspiracy theory that is pumped out on Twitter and Facebook. It takes on a life of its own. It could be the shooting in Las Vegas, the biggest mass shooting in recent American history, that now has a whole set of conspiracy theories associated with it. 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. For more on Pizzagate that didn't make it into the radio story, you should definitely check out Amanda Robb's article in Rolling Stone magazine.

 

We couldn't have done today's show without Reveal's Aaron Sankin. He helped report this story and provided invaluable help investigating how Pizzagate surfaced on Twitter, Reddit and in many of the corners of the internet. And, he helped us dig up the Russian link that counts who tweeted about Pizzagate.

 

Thanks to Esther Kaplan at the Investigative Fund and Rob Fisher at Rolling Stone magazine.

 

Our data editor Michael Corey helped us decode our sample of Pizzagate tweets. That information was provided to us by Phil Messer at Indiana University.

 

Jasper Craven and Jaime Longoria at the Investigative Fund helped with research.

 

John Daniels, Sashka Svetkoska and Dubomir Alexi gave us a hand in Macedonia.

 

WHYY provided production help on this episode.

 

Our sound designer is Jim Briggs. He had help from Claire Mullen, Katherine Rae Mondo and Kat Shutnitt.

 

Amy Powell's our editor and chief. Suzanne Reber's our executive editor. Kevin Sullivan's our executive producer, he also edited this week's show.

 

Our theme music is by Camerado-Lightning.

 

Support for Reveal's 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.

 

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

 

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