How cus­tomers saved me from con­spir­acy nuts who tried to destroy my busi­ness

Inc. (USA) - - LAUNCH -

IT WAS ABOUT 9:30 OR 10 on the night of Novem­ber 5 when I saw I had a voice mail from Will Som­mer, a re­porter at the Wash­ing­ton City Pa­per: “Do you know about this on­line con­spir­acy the­ory that you’re run­ning a child-slav­ery ring out of Comet with Hil­lary Clin­ton?”

It was right be­fore the elec­tion. A lot of crazy things were hap­pen­ing. A lot of talk about con­spir­a­cies was be­ing thrown around, and John Podesta’s emails had been hacked and were be­ing leaked. Over the years, I had had email ex­changes with Podesta about cook­ing for fundrais­ers. At first, I was like, “Oh, this is so funny. I’m in Wik­iLeaks.” We started get­ting weird com­ments on Comet’s Face­book and In­sta­gram posts and on my per­sonal ac­counts. I just deleted them and set my ac­count to pri­vate.

When Don­ald Trump won, I thought, now, fi­nally, at least this crazy con­spir­acy the­ory will go away. But the op­po­site hap­pened. It grew and grew and be­came more and more fo­cused on Comet. I got a call from a friend who works at MIT’s Me­dia Lab. He told me, this thing is out of con­trol.

Mes­sages and com­ments poured in. At one point, I was get­ting about 75 per­sonal mes­sages on so­cial me­dia a day. My re­sponse was to shut ev­ery­thing down— delete the com­ments, try not to re­spond. I thought, ob­vi­ously this has to end even­tu­ally.

But it only kept es­ca­lat­ing. Many of the mes­sages were vi­o­lent—“I have a gun. I want you to die”—and gory—“I pray that some­one comes in with an as­sault ri­fle and kills ev­ery­one in­side Comet. I want to cut open your guts and watch them spill out on the floor.” I’d just shut my lap­top and go on with my day.

It got scary when users started per­form­ing what I’ll call “cit­i­zen’s in­ves­ti­ga­tions.” Users sifted through my so­cial me­dia pro­files and started mes­sag­ing ev­ery­one who’d ever liked or com­mented on a post of mine. I started get­ting calls from friends, fam­ily, and cus­tomers who said they were get­ting ha­rassed on­line as well.

The phone started ringing all day long. You can’t ig­nore phone calls when it’s part of your busi­ness. Peo­ple call the pizza place to ask, “How busy is it? Can we get a ta­ble? We want to or­der food.” Now my staff was hear­ing “We know what’s go­ing on! You should turn James in! You’re go­ing to go to jail too if you

Of all the bizarre turns in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial race, few top Piz­za­gate. The con­spir­acy the­ory, spread across alt-right me­dia, cen­tered on the idea that Hil­lary Clin­ton and John Podesta, one of her top aides, were run­ning a se­cret child­traf­fick­ing ring out of a pizza place, Comet Ping Pong, in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. The story was lu­di­crous, but for Comet’s owner, James Ale­fan­tis, the night­mare was real and ter­ri­fy­ing– from the first vir­u­lent posts on­line to the day a gun­man stormed the pizzeria. –As told to Burt Helm

don’t.” Or scream­ing “You’re sick!” Some peo­ple I knew were like, “This is stupid.” Oth­ers were ter­ri­fied. I had to learn how to get these posts taken down, the steps you can take to re­claim your privacy. Mostly, there’s noth­ing you can do.

The stress does weird things to your body. I was ex­hausted every day but never tired. I was on full alert, full of adren­a­line. It was very in­tense. Then I’d go to the restau­rant, and ev­ery­thing was nor­mal. I’d feel fear, but there’d be all these fam­i­lies and kids hap­pily eat­ing. It was like a par­al­lel uni­verse.

Later, Ce­cilia Kang, a re­porter for The New York Times, asked to write a piece about what was hap­pen­ing. At the time, I’d been deny­ing me­dia re­quests. Once the Times piece came out, it wasn’t a dirty se­cret—ev­ery­one knew about Piz­za­gate. Em­ploy­ees and I talked every day about how to field ques­tions from cus­tomers.

The com­mu­nity re­ally ral­lied around us. On­line, a move­ment started—“We’ll all go to Comet at 6 p.m. Sun­day to show our sup­port!” It was like, thanks, peo­ple, but can’t you just come in sev­eral waves— 400 peo­ple showed up at once. The man­agers were say­ing, “We are go­ing to be hugged to death!” From that point on, every day was like our busiest day of the year.

The gun­man ar­rived on the af­ter­noon of De­cem­ber 4. I wasn’t in. I was at a church fair when I got the call from one of my man­agers. She was cry­ing and said, “A guy came in with an as­sault ri­fle.”

The man with the gun, Edgar Welch, had de­cided to “self­in­ves­ti­gate” Comet. He rushed in through the front door and walked toward the back, and shot open the only locked door in the restau­rant, a closet, dam­ag­ing com­puter sys­tems in­side. My man­ager told me ev­ery­one was safe and evac­u­ated to a fire­house across the street. When I got there, the po­lice had locked down the block. That night, we went back. It was so weird. The ta­bles were empty, but you could see full beers and half-eaten pizza on the ta­ble—the mo­ment when time stopped.

At that point, I was ready to close tem­po­rar­ily. The next day, the phone never stopped ringing— “When are you open? Are you open tonight?” Ba­si­cally, the com­mu­nity said, “We’re com­ing. Open your doors.” From Sun­day un­til Tues­day evening, I did ev­ery­thing I could to get se­cu­rity in or­der. And we opened. The way peo­ple came out to sup­port us, it was in­cred­i­ble, an over­whelm­ing sen­sa­tion.

From that point on, though, I was fear­ful. I was still re­ceiv­ing death threats. I started wear­ing a hat and sun­glasses to leave the house. And the se­cu­rity peo­ple were like, “Yeah. You’re in danger.”

In the days just be­fore the gun­man drove to Comet, he was tex­ting with a friend and told him he’d been in­spired by videos made by Alex Jones, the on­line con­spir­acy the­o­rist who runs In­fowars. It’s one thing if ru­mors swirl on 4chan or Red­dit. But Jones has an au­di­ence of mil­lions. He has in­flu­enced other gun­men. We’re still fig­ur­ing out our le­gal strat­egy, but we’re keep­ing our op­tions open. I was heart­ened to see Jones re­tract his sto­ries about us and apol­o­gize.

We con­tinue to see protesters, peo­ple who still be­lieve Piz­za­gate is real. On the day of the Women’s March, the day af­ter Trump’s in­au­gu­ra­tion, these guys came with gi­ant signs. They had mega­phones and were scream­ing, “Your neigh­bor­hood is Sodom and Go­mor­rah, with your rain­bow flags. And you’re pe­dophiles.” They were yelling at peo­ple go­ing into the restau­rant.

What hap­pened next was beau­ti­ful. Peo­ple got up from their seats and poured out onto the street and rushed them, drown­ing out their protests. We had a PA and put on dance mu­sic, and ev­ery­one started danc­ing around them. We had a big dance party in front of the restau­rant un­til they got weary and left. It was like, “Bring it on.”

TAR­GETED

Comet Ping Pong restau­rant owner James Ale­fan­tis talks to re­porters (left) af­ter Edgar Welch sur­ren­dered to po­lice (right). Welch at­tacked the restau­rant with an as­sault ri­fle af­ter read­ing false sto­ries about Comet on con­spir­acy web­sites. He pleaded guilty to weapons and as­sault charges.

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