A North Carolina man was arrested Sunday after he walked into a popular pizza restaurant in Northwest Washington carrying an assault rifle and fired one or more shots, D.C. police said. The man told police he had come to the restaurant to “self-investigate” a false election-related conspiracy theory involving Hillary Clinton that spread online during her presidential campaign....A lot of people spread the "Pizzagate" story -- you could read about it at 4Chan and on Facebook, and at a sites such as the New Nationalist and the Vigilant Citizen. Reddit was a hotbed of Pizzagate posts until the site banned the topic.
Police said 28-year-old Edgar Maddison Welch, of Salisbury, N.C., walked in the front door of Comet Ping Pong and pointed a firearm in the direction of a restaurant employee. The employee was able to flee and notify police. Police said Welch proceeded to discharge the rifle inside the restaurant; they think that all other occupants had fled when Welch began shooting....
The restaurant’s owner and employees were threatened on social media in the days before the election after fake news stories circulated claiming that then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and her campaign chief were running a child sex ring from the restaurant’s backrooms. Even Michael Flynn, a retired general whom President-elect Donald Trump has tapped to advise him on national security, shared stories about another anti-Clinton conspiracy theory involving pedophilia. None of them were true.
And then there's Alex Jones's InfoWars. Edgar Maddison Welch's "likes" on Facebook included both Jones and InfoWars -- for whom the story was an obsession:
Here's part of the description posted by the Alex Jones Channel for one of its YouTube videos on Pizzagate:
The FBI has long known the symbols pedophiles are using to operate. An FBI Unclassified document from wikileaks reveals "Symbols and Logos Used by Pedophiles to Identify Sexual Preferences.... to include those who sexually abuse children as well as those who produce, distribute, and trade child pornography, are using various types of identification logos or symbols to recognize one another and distinguish their sexual preferences. To specifically indicate the pedophile's gender preference, members of pedophilic organizations encourage the use of descriptions such as "boylove", "girllove", and "childlove." ...The owner of Comet Ping Pong received death threats after this story spread, and his employees were subject to abusive messages. And now this gunman.
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.
So where's our Peter Thiel? Where's the rich person who'll bankroll a massive lawsuit on Comet's behalf against media outlets that spread this story, the Alex Jones empire in particular?
Corporations can sue for defamation, although in D.C. a business, no matter how small, is considered a public figure for the purposes of such lawsuits, which means that plaintiffs must demonstrate actual malice -- that is, it must be shown that the defamer knew the story was false or acted with reckless disregard for its truth or falsity. It's a high but not impossibly high bar to clear.
I can understand why Comet's owner wouldn't want to go to court -- the deplorables are making his life miserable now, so imagine what they'd do if he sued Alex Jones.
But it seems to me that this is precisely the sort of abuse that libel and defamation laws are meant to prevent. It would not chill free speech to punish a media outlet that willfully accuses an innocent small-business owner of being part of a pedophile ring knowing full well that that's not true.
I'd be surprised if a suit of this kind is ever filed. But it would be a good thing.