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Elon Musk boosts Pizzagate conspiracy theory that led to D.C. gunfire

Elon Musk voiced support Tuesday for Pizzagate, the long-debunked conspiracy theory that led a man to fire a rifle inside a Washington, D.C., restaurant in 2016.

The far-right theory, a predecessor to QAnon, alleged that the Clintons and Democratic Party leaders ran a secret satanic child sex ring in a D.C. pizzeria known as Comet Ping Pong.

The theory, a mainstay of fringe Donald Trump supporters during the 2016 presidential campaign, was labeled “fictitious” by D.C. police investigators.

Musk’s post was the latest in what has become a string of tweets in which Musk boosted debunked theories and comes just one day after he visited Israel to try to tamp down anger over an explosion of antisemitism on X that has caused a growing number of advertisers to flee.

When Israeli President Isaac Herzog pressed Musk on Monday to put an end to X’s “reservoir of hatred,” Musk responded, “We need to do everything possible to stop the hate.”

A Washington Post spokesperson said Tuesday that the company had made the decision to pause its advertising on X.

Musk, who bought the social network formerly known as Twitter last year for $44 billion, posted a meme on Tuesday implying that the expert who debunked Pizzagate “went to jail for child porn.” Musk said that “does seem at least a little suspicious.”

The post was viewed more than 15 million times before being deleted at around 2 p.m., less than an hour after this story was published.

The meme itself is based on a fabricated headline that suggests Pizzagate was debunked by one person, the disgraced former ABC reporter James Gordon Meek, who pleaded guilty last year to possessing child sexual abuse images and was sentenced to six years in federal prison.

Meek covered national security and appeared to have mentioned Pizzagate only once, in a 2017 report about Russian disinformation, according to a Reuters fact-check article in August. And a different James Meek, a British journalist, briefly discussed Pizzagate in a London Review of Books article in 2020.

Pizzagate has been thoroughly debunked by news organizations since it arose from the 4chan message board in 2016. No victims or evidence have ever been revealed.

Logan Strain, a researcher of conspiracy theories who uses the name Travis View on the podcast “QAnon Anonymous,” said the false connection between Meek and Pizzagate gained popularity this summer among conspiracy theorists such as Ron Watkins, the longtime administrator of QAnon’s central message board 8kun, who posted about it on X.

Strain said it’s “incredibly dangerous” that Musk was boosting a fabrication that had already been cited in an act of violence. “It is very distressing that he’s validating a conspiracy theory that has radicalized people to destroy their lives and commit crimes,” he said.

Musk, X and a representative for X chief executive Linda Yaccarino did not respond to requests for comment.

Musk has sought to portray X as a counterweight to mainstream journalists he has criticized and worked to undermine. “The public will increasingly come to realize that X is the best source of truth, causing our user numbers to rise as they abandon the less accurate sources of information,” he posted Monday.

But his embrace of far-right messages has coincided with an exodus among some of X’s most notable users. The flagship accounts of big companies, including Disney and Sony Pictures, have stopped posting there in recent days or switched to rival platforms such as Threads, as first reported by CNN.

Pizzagate gained in popularity among fringe online users seeking to smear Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016. After Trump was elected, some of Pizzagate’s ideas were incorporated into QAnon, the jumbled set of conspiracy theories that falsely asserted that Trump was covertly fighting an elite cabal of satanic pedophiles that ran the world.

Musk last week responded to an X user’s post alleging that the founder of Media Matters, a liberal advocacy group, was connected to the owner of “the Pizzagate restaurant.” “Weird,” Musk said, boosting the message to his 164 million followers. Musk’s company sued Media Matters last week after the group released a report asserting that corporate ads on X have appeared alongside pro-Nazi posts.

Musk has previously boosted elements of QAnon, notably claiming that adults who have opposed him have sexualized children. Musk also shared false conspiracy theories about the violent attack on the husband of Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and called for the criminal prosecution of infectious-disease expert Anthony S. Fauci.

Musk was sued for defamation after calling a Thai-cave rescue volunteer a “child rapist” and “pedo guy” in 2018 but was cleared by a Los Angeles jury the following year. “My faith in humanity is restored,” he told reporters.

In July, X reinstated the account of a right-wing influencer who had tweeted an image of a toddler being tortured. The influencer is popular among QAnon adherents, and Musk’s decision, which he shared on X, to delete the image and reinstate the account conflicted with Twitter’s long-term “zero-tolerance” policy on child-sexual-exploitation material.

In December 2016, Edgar Maddison Welch, a 28-year-old man from North Carolina, walked into Comet Ping Pong with a loaded AR-15 rifle, a revolver and 29 rounds of ammunition across his chest while attempting to “self-investigate” the Pizzagate theory, as he later told police.

He pointed the rifle at an employee and fired multiple rounds to destroy the lock on a storage cabinet; no one was injured. He surrendered to police after finding no evidence of hidden rooms or child trafficking.

During his trial, Welch apologized for being misled by the internet rumor and wrote in a letter to the judge that he realized “now just how foolish and reckless” his decision was. He was sentenced to four years in prison, which ended in 2021.

Prosecutors shared during Welch’s trial that police had received reports of copycat threats to other pizza shops, including from a man in Louisiana who said he was “coming to finish what the other guy didn’t” and threatened to shoot “you and everyone in the place.”

Musk has often touted X’s “Community Notes” fact-checking feature as a selling point for the site’s reliability. The feature relies on X users to flag false or potentially misleading posts and write notes that debunk or clarify them by adding context. Notes that receive enough positive votes from other users will eventually appear on the site beneath the original tweet for all to see.

On Tuesday, numerous X users proposed Community Notes adding context to Musk’s tweet of the Pizzagate meme. As of early Tuesday afternoon, however, none had received enough positive votes from other users to be shown on X.

Will Oremus contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post
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