Potential for vi­o­lence from fake news trou­bling

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

The bizarre ru­mors be­gan with a leaked email ref­er­enc­ing Hil­lary Clin­ton and sin­is­ter in­ter­pre­ta­tions of ref­er­ences to pizza par­ties. It mor­phed into fake on­line news sto­ries about a child sex traf­fick­ing ring run by prom­i­nent Democrats op­er­at­ing out of a Wash­ing­ton, DC, pizza joint. On Sunday, it cul­mi­nated in vi­o­lence when po­lice say a North Carolina man fired an as­sault ri­fle in­side the Comet Ping Pong restau­rant as he at­tempted to “self-in­ves­ti­gate” the con­spir­acy the­ory known in the Twit­ter­verse as “Piz­za­gate.”

No one was hurt and the man was ar­rested. But the shoot­ing alarmed those from neigh­bor­ing busi­nesses all the way to the White House about the real life dan­gers of fake news on the in­ter­net. One of those peo­ple post­ing on the con­spir­acy the­ory is the son of Pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump’s pro­posed na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser. On Mon­day, White House Spokesman Josh Earnest, asked about the shoot­ing, said, “There’s no deny­ing the cor­ro­sive ef­fect that some of these false re­ports have had on our po­lit­i­cal de­bate, and that’s con­cern­ing in a po­lit­i­cal con­text. It’s deeply trou­bling that some of those false re­ports could lead to vi­o­lence.”

Edgar Mad­di­son Welch, 28 of Sal­is­bury, North Carolina, was ar­rested Sunday af­ter­noon out­side the pop­u­lar eatery in an af­flu­ent neigh­bor­hood of the na­tion’s cap­i­tal, po­lice said. At his ini­tial ap­pear­ance Mon­day in DC Su­pe­rior Court, Welch was or­dered held pend­ing a hear­ing sched­uled for Thurs­day. The pub­lic de­fender he was as­signed didn’t im­me­di­ately re­spond to an email seek­ing com­ment. Court records made pub­lic Mon­day state Welch fired an AR-15 as­sault ri­fle mul­ti­ple times in­side the restau­rant but later walked out with his hands up and un­armed, leav­ing his weapons in­side.

He told po­lice “he had read on­line that the Comet restau­rant was har­bor­ing child sex slaves and that he wanted to see for him­self if they were there.” He said he “was armed to help res­cue them” and “sur­ren­dered peace­fully when he found no ev­i­dence that un­der­age chil­dren were be­ing har­bored in the restau­rant.” Welch was charged on mul­ti­ple counts, in­clud­ing as­sault with a dan­ger­ous weapon. Au­thor­i­ties re­cov­ered the AR-15 as­sault ri­fle and a hand­gun from the restau­rant, court pa­per­work said.

Po­lice said an ad­di­tional weapon was re­cov­ered from his ve­hi­cle. The pre­cise ori­gins of the con­spir­acy the­ory Welch said he went to in­ves­ti­gate are murky, though it seems to have started gain­ing mo­men­tum in the week be­fore the elec­tion. Some el­e­ments trace back to hacked emails from Clin­ton Chief of Staff John Podesta that were re­leased by Wik­ileaks that re­fer to pizza par­ties, with on­line com­men­ta­tors spec­u­lat­ing that “pizza party” is a code word for some­thing more ne­far­i­ous.

By Nov 3, Comet Ping Pong - so named be­cause pa­trons can play ping pong on ta­bles in the back of restau­rant - had been pulled into the con­spir­acy. “Let me state un­equiv­o­cally: These sto­ries are com­pletely and en­tirely false, and there is no ba­sis in fact to any of them. What hap­pened today demon­strates that pro­mot­ing false and reck­less con­spir­acy the­o­ries comes with con­se­quences,” Comet’s owner, James Ale­fan­tis, said in a state­ment Sunday night.

At least one per­son who isn’t ready to give up on the con­spir­acy the­ory is promi­nently con­nected to Trump’s tran­si­tion team. Michael Flynn Jr is an ad­viser to his fa­ther, Michael Flynn, whom Trump se­lected to serve as na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser. Flynn Jr has sent nu­mer­ous posts on Twit­ter about the Piz­za­gate con­spir­acy the­o­ries. Flynn Jr, who has ac­com­pa­nied his fa­ther to pres­i­den­tial tran­si­tion meet­ings in­side Trump Tower and lists the pres­i­den­tial tran­si­tion web­site as part of his Twit­ter bio, tweeted Sunday night that, “Un­til #Piz­za­gate proven to be false, it’ll re­main a story.” Trump’s team had no im­me­di­ate re­sponse to ques­tions about the con­spir­acy the­ory or the younger Flynn’s role in the pres­i­den­tial tran­si­tion.

On Mon­day, at an ad­dress listed for Welch in Sal­is­bury, a woman drove out as a reporter was ap­proach­ing and asked him to leave. She then ham­mered a “no tres­pass­ing” sign on a stand by the pri­vate drive­way. Comet Ping Pong was closed Mon­day, but neigh­bors brought flow­ers and cards to the store­front say­ing “We sup­port Comet” and “we love you and stand by you.” Wik­to­ria Skrzyp­in­ska lives a few blocks from Comet. She said she had heard the ru­mors about Comet but was shocked to learn that some­body had be­come so en­meshed in the con­spir­acy the­ory to en­ter the restau­rant with an as­sault ri­fle. — AP

In this file photo, US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama hugs Shigeaki Mori, an atomic bomb sur­vivor; cre­ator of the memo­rial for Amer­i­can WWII POWs killed at Hiroshima, dur­ing a cer­e­mony at Hiroshima Peace Memo­rial Park in Hiroshima, western, Ja­pan. — AP

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