December 8, 2016

#83 Voyage Into Pizzagate

by Reply All

Background show artwork for Reply All
A conspiracy theory, a pizza related map, and a website fighting for its very soul.

Further Reading

Bryan Menegus' great article, "Reddit is Tearing Itself Apart."
An interview with Edgar Welch, the Pizzagate gunman.
The Donald Subreddit

If you have a question about a story we've reported this year, please email a voice memo of 30 seconds or less to with the subject line "updates."

More Like This


ALEX GOLDMAN: From Gimlet Media, this is Reply All. I’m Alex Goldman.

PJ VOGT: And I’m PJ Vogt.

ALEX: So last Friday, we sat down to do a segment that we do a lot on the show called Yes Yes No with our boss Alex Blumberg. And at the time, it felt like we were talking about a facet of the sort of strange, tiny world that Reply All inhabits — just this niche internet story that was never going to escape the orbit of the weird stuff that we are fixated on. And between Friday and today, the story has exploded. But we will get to that. First, the Yes Yes No we recorded on Friday at 6 p.m.


ALEX GOLDMAN: Welcome once again to Yes Yes No, the segment on the show where our boss Alex Blumberg, a card-carrying member of the AARP —


ALEX GOLDMAN: As of a couple weeks ago.

PJ: Well, a card a- uh — a registration-card-throwing-out member of the AARP.

ALEX BLUMBERG: I am not — I do not carry the card. I would carry the card but my wife threw it away when I got it in the mail.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Uh, comes to us with, uh, stuff that he doesn’t understand on the internet and we do our best to explain it to him. Um, so, what do you have for us this week?

ALEX BLUMBERG: Alright, so I have a series of tweets. I will read them —

PJ: Okay.

ALEX BLUMBERG: — in the order they were tweeted.

ALEX GOLDMAN: (laughs)

ALEX BLUMBERG: Uh, they are all from somebody named Tony Baby, @ItsTonyNow. Uh, first tweet: (in half-hearted fake Italian accent) “Giuseppe, we hava bigga problem! Pizza, eetza no good to-a call eet that!” Eet, E-E-T. “Call eet that. Something aboutta emails! We gottada call em-a Circular Pies now!”

PJ: That’s the first tweet?

ALEX BLUMBERG: That’s the first tweet.

PJ: Okay?

ALEX GOLDMAN: (laughs) Your accent is wonderful, by the way.

ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughs) Second tweet. “Giuseppe, alla da flyers aboutada Circular Pies, they-a no good! Eetza even worse! The designer made ada da C and P —” wait, “made-a da C and P too big!” Alright?

PJ: Okay? (laughs)

ALEX BLUMBERG: And then, final tweet: “Guiseppe, the new flyers, we gotta find and destroy em! The designer, bigga mistake! Kids Eat Free, not Eat Kids Free! We-a ruined!”

PJ: Wow.

ALEX GOLDMAN & PJ: (laughs)


ALEX GOLDMAN: So, uh ...

ALEX BLUMBERG: What’s - what h- what (laughs) what fresh horror is —

PJ: (laughs)

ALEX BLUMBERG: — is buried in that ironic tweet?

ALEX GOLDMAN: So um … let me just ask PJ. PJ, do you know what this is?

PJ: Uh, somebody making ... I guess acceptably racist jokes about Italian-Americans? I have no idea what this is.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Alex Blumberg, do you understand this series of tweets at all?

ALEX BLUMBERG: Uh ... no. There’s a reference to emails, which … I feel like when people reference emails, I - I feel like I know which emails they’re referencing.


ALEX BLUMBERG: Alex Goldman, do you understand these tweets?

ALEX GOLDMAN: (sighs) Yes. And I’d like to apologize in advance for everything that you’re about to learn.


PJ: Are we going to a bad place?

ALEX GOLDMAN: We’re going to a very bad place.

PJ: Ohhh. Okay, I might know 4% of this.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Okay, do you wanna — do you wanna drop your 4% knowledge?

PJ: There’s a thing called Pizzagate.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Mhmm. Do you know what it is?

PJ: Noooo. I’ve - I’ve actually, this has been one where I’ve seen it, I’ve known that I don’t want to know it, and I’ve avoided it — which is a new thing for me — and, up until this moment, it’s been working out really well.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Sorry bud. Okay. It all starts with the leaked John Podesta emails.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Okay, right. Okay, so John Podesta —

PJ: They weren’t leaked, like they were hacked.

ALEX BLUMBERG: They were hacked!


ALEX BLUMBERG: The hacked - the hacked — the apparently Russian hackers … broke into the DNC computers, right?

PJ: They sent - actually, they sent Podesta like, um … I think it was like one of those password reset things?


PJ: So it’s pretending to be from Gmail or whatever, you click it, you enter your password, and then they get everything.


ALEX GOLDMAN: He got phished.

PJ: He got phished.

ALEX BLUMBERG: John Podesta got phished?

PJ: Yeah.

ALEX GOLDMAN: So when the emails were hacked, you know, people who wanted to find scandals in them immediately started poring over them and looking for clues. And there was stuff in there that was not great, like um ... there was evidence that Donna Brazile from CNN had given the Clinton campaign, uh, debate questions before the debate. But beyond things like that, people started to see things that, well, um, were —

PJ: Weren’t really there?

ALEX GOLDMAN: I don’t — well. You tell me. I’ll — listen, I’ll provide you with the evidence —

PJ: Okay.

ALEX GOLDMAN: You come up with the conclusion yourself. So the first —

PJ: I'm very curious to see how this goes to pizza.

ALEX GOLDMAN: (laughing) So the first email that people really —

ALEX BLUMBERG: It's fun being in this chair, isn't it?

PJ: Yeah, it's a lot nicer, actually.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah, you're just on a ride.

PJ: (laughs)

ALEX GOLDMAN: Okay, so let me bring up the Podesta emails on Wikileaks, hold on just a second.


ALEX GOLDMAN: And the first email that, like, the right-wing blogosphere got really wound up about, and is part of the chain that leads to Pizzagate, was this email that was written by the performance artist, Marina Abramović.

PJ: Wait really?


PJ: Do we need i-, I feel like this is one of those things we don't, but do we need to explain who Marina Abramović is?

ALEX GOLDMAN: Marina Abramović is—



PJ: Yeah.

ALEX BLUMBERG: I don't know who she is.

PJ: Really?

ALEX GOLDMAN: You don't?

ALEX BLUMBERG: No. (slight laugh) But also, fuck you.

PJ: (laughs)

ALEX GOLDMAN: That was a — that was a big fuck-you.

PJ: That was a — that was a surprising snob direction, and I really enjoyed it.

ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughing)

PJ: Um.

ALEX BLUMBERG: (ridiculous surprised voice) "You don't know —”

PJ: (laughing)

ALEX BLUMBERG: “— who Marina Abramović is?!"

ALEX GOLDMAN: (giggles)

PJ: No, you do. You do.


PJ: Okay.

ALEX GOLDMAN: So Marina Abramović is this performance artist. She’s been around for about 40 years, so when you think about performance artists, you’re probably thinking about her, basically. She does these like very confrontational, very physical performances that usually involved a lot of nudity and direct interaction with the audience. So ...



ALEX BLUMBERG: Her work, uh, disturbs and provokes.

ALEX GOLDMAN: (laughs)

PJ: All great art does.

ALEX GOLDMAN: So Marina Abramović wrote this email to Tony Podesta, who is the brother of John Podesta, who is like Hillary’s right-hand man, like campaign manager guy.

ALEX BLUMBERG: And Tony Podesta is a big-time lobbyist in DC.


PJ: Right.

ALEX BLUMBERG: He runs the Podesta Group.

ALEX GOLDMAN: So it was an email that Tony had forwarded to John from Marina. And it said: "Dear Tony. I'm so looking forward to the spirit cooking dinner at my place. Do you think you will be able to let me know if your brother is joining? All my love, Marina." The end.

PJ: Okay. What is spirit cooking?

ALEX GOLDMAN: According to Marina Abramović, spirit cooking is just this normal dinner that she was doing as a reward for people who had donated to this Kickstarter campaign she did. But the name is a reference to this performance art piece she did like two decades ago, that was also called Spirit Cooking, in which she would write in pig’s blood on walls, like these kind of absurdist recipes? They would be like “Fresh morning urine, sprinkle over nightmare dreams.” That’s one of them.

PJ: That sounds like something you would tweet.

ALEX GOLDMAN: (laughs) It does sound like something I would tweet.

ALEX BLUMBERG: She's so ahead of her time.


ALEX GOLDMAN: Here's another one, "With a sharp knife, cut deeply into the middle finger of your left hand. Eat the pain."

PJ: Ugh. I don't need that.

ALEX GOLDMAN: So, she did this performance art project called Spirit Cooking. She claims that the “spirit cooking” she was referring to with the Podestas was just like, a nice dinner they were having.

PJ: Right, so she wasn't saying, “Come over to my house —”

ALEX GOLDMAN: “You guys come over to my house, and eat the pain.”

PJ: Right. She was just —

ALEX GOLDMAN: She was just like, “Come over to my house and eat some sweet potatoes.”

PJ: It’s like —

ALEX BLUMBERG: It's not like, "Come over to my house and - and we will participate in bizarre, left-wing elitist, uh, performance art rituals together."

ALEX GOLDMAN: Well, the way that places like Drudge and Breitbart and right-wing media places ran with it is that ... "Marina Abramović and the Podestas and probably the Clintons are performing occult rituals."


ALEX GOLDMAN: (laughs)

PJ: Okay.

ALEX GOLDMAN: (laughs) Okay, so that is the first email. That is the email that brings us into this fantastical world. Um, the second email is the one that gets us into Pizzagate territory.

PJ: Okay, I forgot we were even going anywhere.


PJ: This is nicer.


ALEX BLUMBERG: So fun, isn't it?

PJ: (laughing) Yeah.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Alright, so let's presuppose for a minute that the —


ALEX GOLDMAN: — uh, that the Clintons, the Podestas are occultists who worship Satan or whatever. Like just —

PJ: They do rituals.

ALEX GOLDMAN: They do rituals.

PJ: They get together. They do rituals.



ALEX GOLDMAN: Um, this is an email from a guy named James Alefantis, to John Podesta, and it says, "Great show. Great speech. Raised over 40 grand. My only regret is that I didn't make you a nice pizza. When can I?"

PJ: Is this guy a chef or something?

ALEX GOLDMAN: James Alefantis is a guy who own this pizza place called Comet Ping Pong, which is a rock venue and a ping pong place and a pizza place in Northwest DC.

PJ: Okay.

ALEX GOLDMAN: And James Alefantis is connected to the Washington DC liberal establishment by the fact that he used to date David Brock who founded Media Matters and who ran a pro-Hillary super PAC during the election this year. 

PJ: This is just - this is just, like, basically what we're getting is like the kinda like Facebook social graph of, like, the organized left. Like, it's like artists and business owners and whatever, but like emailing about fundraisers and hanging out and like —



ALEX GOLDMAN: So, the people who are trying to sniff out a conspiracy in the Podesta emails, they think they’re onto something really big. And so they’re all sort of sharing information on sites like 4chan and Reddit and there are a couple of sort of far right-wing blogs that are reporting on it.

And, they look into this guy, Alefantis … and his pizza place. And through a course of very big, logical leaps, like the fact that there are a lot of children, uh, in his Instagram photos, even though he doesn't have a - a kid.

PJ: (wary) Uh-huh.

ALEX GOLDMAN: And the fact that apparently on the dark web, the word “cheese pizza” is slang for child pornography.

PJ: (wary) Uh-huh.

ALEX GOLDMAN: They decide (pause) that James Alefantis is running a gigantic child sex-trafficking ring —

PJ: (wary) Uh-huh.

ALEX GOLDMAN: — out of the basement of his pizza place.


PJ: (sadly) Okay.

ALEX GOLDMAN: (laughs)


PJ: I knew I didn't want to know about this.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Right. And here's the third email. This is — this is the weirdest one, and this is the one they always talk about.

PJ: Okay.

ALEX GOLDMAN: It's an e-mail from a person named Susan, who is a friend of John Podesta's, apparently. And it says, "The realtor found a handkerchief. I think it has a map that seems pizza related. Is it yours? They can send it if you want. I know you're busy, so feel free not to respond if it's not yours or you don't want it."

PJ: It's funny ‘cause that does sound, maybe now I’ve just been like —

ALEX BLUMBERG: I'm convinced.


PJ: (laughing) No! Like —

ALEX BLUMBERG: Get the police over to that place right now!

PJ: (laughs) But it sounds coded and weird and like —


PJ: Oh, god.

ALEX BLUMBERG: The pizza-related napkin.


PJ: Yeah, like?

ALEX BLUMBERG: What - what's a pizza-related napkin.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Oh, it’s a —

ALEX BLUMBERG: What does that even mean?

ALEX GOLDMAN: It's a handkerchief that has a m- that has a map that seems pizza-related.

ALEX BLUMBERG: A handkerchief that has a map that seems pizza-related? That is very mysterious.

ALEX GOLDMAN: So, in another email, another member of Susan's family says, um, “I have a square cloth handkerchief, white with black, that was left on the kitchen island.” And ... now that they've made the presupposition that anything pizza-related has to do with —

PJ: Is code for —

ALEX GOLDMAN: — with child abuse, they ... were like, well handkerchiefs, uh ... gay men in the ‘60s and ‘70s used to use what they called the handkerchief code, which was a way where they would hang a handkerchief out of their back pockets so that you could identify that they were gay, and what kind of sex they were into.

PJ: Okay.

ALEX GOLDMAN: And they have decided that a white with black handkerchief means underage sadomasochist sex.

PJ: Wow!


ALEX BLUMBERG: Underage sadomasochistic sex. Alright.

ALEX GOLDMAN: So from these three emails, and a couple of other pieces of evidence —


ALEX GOLDMAN: — they decided that there was a massive child-trafficking ring, which has embroiled not only the Podestas, but Hillary Clinton's in on it, um, uh, Barack Obama's in on it, a couple of other high-profile media people are on it. Um, and they ha- and once they decided that they identified this trafficking ring —


ALEX GOLDMAN: — the people who we- who decided that this is a real thing, they see it ... they - they've just collected like mountains of crazy evidence.


PJ: Such as?

ALEX GOLDMAN: Uh, James Alefantis' name sounds surprisingly like, "J'aime les Enfants." I love children.

PJ: So the theory is that his parents just knew?

ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah. Or maybe he changed his name. Um ...

PJ: The name that he would get away with a secret pedophile ring was to have a name that —

ALEX GOLDMAN: (laughs)

ALEX BLUMBERG: Was to secretly encode the fact that he’s a pedophile in his name?

ALEX GOLDMAN: Well I mean —

PJ: (laughs)

ALEX GOLDMAN: — I mean, the thing —


ALEX GOLDMAN: — the thing about conspiracies is, like —

ALEX BLUMBERG: "You'll never catch me, coppers!"

ALEX GOLDMAN: The thing about conspiracies is, like, they want to point out, how the people who are - who are the masterminds behind it are operating with impunity or are trying to signal like how powerful they are, right? So the other thing is these ding-dongs who believe this conspiracy theory, they call it Comet Pizza, even though it’s called Comet Ping Pong, and it’s like, Comet Pizza, the acronym would be CP, same as “child pornography,” so, um …

PJ: This is ... I mean, even for a conspiracy theory, this is, like ... this is crazy?

ALEX GOLDMAN: Um, there was another document that was part of another Wikileaks dump, which was an FBI document that was all about, like, symbols that people who are involved in child pornography use to imply that they are involved in it.

PJ: Okay, so this was a real thing.

ALEX GOLDMAN: This was a real thing.

PJ: But —

ALEX BLUMBERG: So it was an actual FBI document that does use these sort of coded symbols that people —


ALEX BLUMBERG: — in child pornography use. Okay.

ALEX GOLDMAN: So there’s one that’s like a — that, like, sort of like a triangle that spirals in on itself.


ALEX GOLDMAN: And there’s a pizza place two doors down from Comet called Besta Pizza. Until very recently, their logo looked similar to this triangle logo —


ALEX GOLDMAN: So people were like, “Oh, they have this triangle logo on their - on their —”

PJ: So now all the pizza places like on the block are part of this ring.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Yes! And there’s a bookstore across the street called Politics & Prose, and the ampersand between Politics & Prose —

PJ: Sort of a famous bookstore.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Sort of looks — it’s like kind of a spiral? And there’s also a - a —

ALEX BLUMBERG: But isn’t all — aren’t all ampersands sort of spirals?

ALEX GOLDMAN: Yes, but they thought this one looked conspicuously like another logo that appears on this FBI document, that is a code for (clears throat) “little boy lover.”

PJ: (laughing) Okay.


PJ: But so wait, they’re believing in a world where there’s kind of a business district where every business is actually just a front for child porn.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah, there’s —

ALEX BLUMBERG: But it also some- is so covertly advertising that, based on, sort of, like, if you’re in the - in the know, by either the first letters of their names, or by weird signs.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Right, essentially they’re trying to broadcast to other people who might be interested in child trafficking.


PJ: (sighs) Okay.

ALEX BLUMBERG: That this is the place to get your pizza and —


ALEX BLUMBERG: — books and politics.

ALEX GOLDMAN: And then also, you know, it’s a venue. It’s a music venue. And they frequently have all-ages shows, and to people who have never been to a rock concert before —

PJ: Oh, all-ages?

ALEX GOLDMAN: — “all-ages” sounds deeply sinister.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Wait, they are taking issue with “all-ages?”

ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah, “all-ages” to you and me means, like, “it’s a show where there’s no alcohol.”

ALEX BLUMBERG: I didn’t realize that that would be a weird term. I thought that would be a term like “no turn on red” or something that, like, pretty much everybody (laughs) everybody in - in America was familiar with, like —

PJ: The concept.

ALEX BLUMBERG: — the concept of an all-ages show. But I guess not.

ALEX BLUMBERG: So “all-ages” was like a very sinister-sounding thing to them.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah, I mean to them it sounded like, “Bring your children to this - to this — whatever Satanic ritual we might be having.”

ALEX BLUMBERG: Right. So wait. So - so — okay. So there’s like a couple of … there was a couple of - of committed people who were, like, determined to - to find, uh, conspiracy where — where there isn’t one.

ALEX GOLDMAN: I don’t think it’s —

ALEX BLUMBERG: Does this get —

ALEX GOLDMAN: — just a couple people.

ALEX BLUMBERG: — does this go anywhere?

ALEX GOLDMAN: Generally when you think about an online conspiracy, it’s like, “Oh, I believe in chem trails, but, uh, I mean, I only write about how I believe in chem trails on my Twitter account.”


ALEX GOLDMAN: People are actually going to Comet Ping Pong every day and protesting.

PJ: How many people?

ALEX GOLDMAN: Like half a dozen, but they’re there every day.

PJ: And they’d say, “Comet Pizza, stop being a secret child pornography distribution center?”


PJ: (sighs)

ALEX GOLDMAN: Um, and one — the way that I sort of found out about this, my friend John got in touch with me, he was like, "Alex, I need to talk to you, my friend Amanda is in this band called Heavy Breathing. And Heavy Breathing has played at this place, Comet Ping Pong. And, um, people found videos of her band, on ... on the internet, and she plays — she uses like a voice modulator, and she wears like a balaclava, and —”

PJ Oh no.

ALEX GOLDMAN: “— and they've decided that she's some kind of like high priestess of their Satanic sex cult, and they're, like, harassing her."



PJ: Ugh.

ALEX GOLDMAN: It's really nuts. And Amanda actually (slight laugh) Amanda sent an email to all of her friends, and she basically said like, “I'm removing everything from the internet. Like I'm gonna go dark. I don't want to be a part of this, I don't want people to misinterpret things we're doing. I want to take down all our videos, I want to get off Facebook.”

PJ: Does — has hiding everything convinced the people who are paranoid that she has nothing to hide?

ALEX GOLDMAN: (laughing) Absolutely not, the people who are paranoid think that every time someone does something, like, James Alefantis made his Instagram profile private —every time something like that happens, they're like, “A-ha! These people wouldn't do this if they had nothing to hide!”

PJ: (sigh-groans)

ALEX GOLDMAN: So, um, rather than calming down after the election, it's just ... it's like gathering a head of steam. I looked on Twitter today, and there were - there were Pizzagate tweets coming up every couple of seconds.

PJ: Huh.

ALEX GOLDMAN: And until very recently, there was a subreddit about Pizzagate that had 22,000 people talking about this very thing.

PJ: Okay.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Alright. I have one question.


ALEX BLUMBERG: What is up with the map on the napkin?

PJ: ‘Cause it doesn't sound — like everything —

ALEX BLUMBERG: You haven't sold me, Goldman. I’m like … you haven't disproven that this, a b- I mean, I don't know. It sounds like code.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Listen, if I could get John Podesta on the phone to ask him about the pizza-related map, I would.

ALEX BLUMBERG: I mean, how hard it is it. Did you try?

ALEX GOLDMAN: I don’t know, I didn’t try. (laughs)

ALEX BLUMBERG: Well, okay. So … (laughs) “If I could try to get John Podesta on the phone I would try.”

ALEX GOLDMAN: (laughs)

ALEX BLUMBERG: And then maybe even succeed! But I’m not going to. I got it.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Well, I can try.

ALEX BLUMBERG: That’s the kind of — I guess that’s the kind of talent we have around here.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Oof, this is harsh.

ALEX BLUMBERG: I know. Anyway! Enough hijinks, right? I think the time has come for me to perform my sacred duty.

ALEX GOLDMAN: (laughing)

ALEX BLUMBERG: And that sacred duty —

ALEX GOLDMAN: (laughing harder)

ALEX BLUMBERG: — is to summarize.

PJ: I’m glad that even as a “no” —

ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughing)

PJ: — I don't have to summarize. Because, like, I don't think that I could do it at this point.


ALEX BLUMBERG: And so, um, I'm going to let my fellow passenger on the “no” train, PJ Vogt —

PJ: (laughing) No, what I was explicitly saying is that I can't do it and don't want to!

ALEX BLUMBERG: No, I heard you say it, "I want to do it."

PJ: OK. No, nope, that's, um —

ALEX GOLDMAN: I'm very excited to hear you make this a “yes,” PJ.

PJ: Oh, this feels bad. Okay. (scanning the tweets) “Giuseppe, the new flyers, we gotta find destroy ‘em. The designer …” Oh wait, no — this is how it works. Okay, so the original series of tweets from the user, @itstonynow, said: "Guiseppe, the new flyers, we gotta find and destroy em! The designer, bigga mistake!"

I'm trying not to do the accent, but you like can't read it without doing the accent.

"Kids Eat Free, not Eat Kids Free! We-a ruined!”; "Giuseppe, alla da flyers about a Circular Pies, they-a no good!” “Eetza even worse! The designer made ada da C and P too big!”; “Giuseppe, we hava bigga problem! Pizza, eetza no good to-a call eet that! Something aboutta emails! We gottada call em-a Circular Pies now!”

So the joke is ... that, in this sort of like, Simpson's-world, stereotypical, like, Italian pizzeria owner, has accidentally misprinted a bunch of promotional materials for his pizza restaurant, implying that ... he is a pedophile.

ALEX GOLDMAN: (laughing) It's not funny, I apologize.

PJ: It is funny, and the - and the - and the reason this joke is funny is because in real life, um, political operative? What d’you — what's the noun for John Podesta?


ALEX BLUMBERG: Political insider.

PJ: Political insider John Podesta, uh, had his emails hacked — probably by Russia. Those emails were disseminated to an internet that included a lot of people who wanted to find evidence of a vast and evil conspiracy in them. Some of them took a few ambiguous — or not ambiguous — emails, chained them together, and decided they were evidence of a secret pedophile ring —

ALEX BLUMBERG: That goes all the way to the top.

PJ: — that goes all the way to the top. And even though, um, the Democratic machine that they think runs this pedophile ring was defeated in the election, that has not stopped them in their, uh, quest to stop it.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Which is basically the plot of True Detective, season one.

PJ: Yeah! That's what I was thinking, too.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Wait, but, I still don't understand. Is Tony Baby … a believer in the conspiracy?

ALEX GOLDMAN: No, he's making a joke.

ALEX BLUMBERG: He's making a joke.

PJ: At the expense of the believers.


ALEX BLUMBERG: At the expense of the believers.

ALEX GOLDMAN: — he's making a joke about the idea of, like, a pizza place that would be … that would realize suddenly that they can't use the word “pizza” anymore because it's a code word for pedophilia —

ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughing) Oh god.

ALEX GOLDMAN: — for child pornography.

PJ: It’s like —

ALEX BLUMBERG: But now they're calling it circular pies now, which is also —

ALEX GOLDMAN: Which is also problematic because circular pies —


ALEX GOLDMAN: — is - is CP —

PJ: Oh.

ALEX GOLDMAN: — “child pornography.”

ALEX BLUMBERG: That's right.

PJ: It’s like sketch comedy —

ALEX BLUMBERG: (impressed) That’s good.

PJ: — that only —

ALEX BLUMBERG: That’s pretty good!

PJ: — makes sense in the world of —


PJ: It's like SNL for conspiracy theorists.


PJ: Or about conspiracy theorists.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Uh, yeah —

PJ: So —

ALEX GOLDMAN: — so we're at Yes Yes Yes.

PJ: We are?

ALEX GOLDMAN: I'd like to apologize.

PJ: Thank you.

ALEX GOLDMAN: (smile-laughing) For bringing us to Yes Yes Yes.


ALEX GOLDMAN: So it’s been three days since we recorded that Yes Yes No. Um —

PJ: How was everybody’s weekends? (laughs)

ALEX GOLDMAN: And, you know, the tone of that Yes Yes No was sort of like, “Oh, we are covering something pretty niche, a very silly conspiracy theory that’s kind of nuts, but doesn’t really touch the real world in any significant way.” And then —

PJ: This weekend happened.


PJ: Did you see — did you follow the news at all?


PJ: Oh really?

ALEX BLUMBERG: No, what happened?

ALEX GOLDMAN: You don’t know anything about what happened?

ALEX BLUMBERG: No, what happened this weekend?

PJ: (whispering) Oh my god!

ALEX GOLDMAN: Uh, a man with an assault rifle went into Comet Ping Pong ... fired it. Um, he … uh, held up in there for an indeterminate time, according to the news — like it’s unclear exactly how long. Um, and he was there, according to his own testimony, to self-investigate the rumors of child abuse at this place.


ALEX GOLDMAN: And actually … agreed to surrender peacefully to police when he was satisfied that there was no grounding to those rumors. So —


PJ: Yeah.


ALEX GOLDMAN: And ... um … the first thing I wanted to do, of course, is, like, see what the reaction of the folks who believe this conspiracy was. Um, to a person going into this very pizza place and leaving when he was satisfied that there was no conspiracy.


ALEX GOLDMAN: (clears throat) And apparently people had dug into this guy’s background, seen that he’d done a couple of, uh, acting roles on Internet Movie Database—

PJ: Not even acting rolls. I looked at this too. He was crew on a couple movies.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Well, he did play a victim in a movie called The Bleeding, so he was an actor in one movie.

ALEX BLUMBERG: He was vaguely associated with the film and TV industry.

PJ: Yeah.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Right. And the sort of consensus decision was that this person was a crisis actor, or a false flag, like the government had coordinated this person going in there, it wasn’t real ... it hadn’t actually happened, no one was in any real danger.

ALEX BLUMBERG: That’s the most terrifying thing you’ve told me in this segment.

PJ: Yeah.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah, it’s pretty grim. And it went from being this thing that we were like, “Oh, well, this is so ridiculous that we can make fun of it,” to, uh, there — it’s just not — it’s just dangerous now.


ALEX GOLDMAN: It just feels, like, toxic. Not — not good.

PJ: (deep breath) Yeah. I don’t know how we got here.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Uh — well. I’ve actually been doing some reporting on, kind of, how we got to this point.


PJ: Like where everything’s broken?

ALEX GOLDMAN: (chuckles) Yeah. Uh, just — I’ve been doing some reporting on, like, how we got to this point where conspiracy theories that are propagated on places like Reddit ... end with a guy walking into a pizza place with an assault rifle. And I will tell you all about it.

PJ: Okay.

ALEX GOLDMAN: After the break.

PJ: Ahh.


PJ: Welcome back to the show. Alright, Alex, what are we talking about?

ALEX GOLDMAN: Okay, here we go. So part of the reason that pizzagate managed to gain so much traction, in spite of the fact that, like, on its face it’s totally ludicrous, is because there was a lot of discussion around it on Reddit.


ALEX GOLDMAN: For a while, Reddit was like one of the main places that people discussed this theory. And like, people would meet there, talk about it, push each other further and further down this sort of absurd rabbit hole. And the pizzagate community on Reddit actually spun off from a much larger community, a community that over the past year has managed to gain a ton of influence over the way the site works. Essentially, they managed to game the site so that their ideas were always at the forefront. So the way Reddit works, if you’ve never been there, is that Reddit is made up of many smaller sites, which are called subreddits.


ALEX GOLDMAN: And during the primaries, this subreddit started that was called the_donald. And it started out actually pretty small, originally people were just posting Donald Trump news. And then, at some point, they decided to make it sort of have the anarchic, insane spirit of the Donald Trump campaign. Here, lemme play you some tape I got from a conversation I had with one of the moderators — he asked me not to use his name.

THE_DONALD MODERATOR: So the_donald is pretty much an online 24/7 Trump rally. We have 314,000 plus subscribers — I always have to go back and check because we get a couple thousand a day now. And, uh, it’s just, it’s nonstop, it’s a nonstop Trump train.

ALEX GOLDMAN: So the members of the_donald basically used this subreddit as a base camp for activities, like, on and off the site. So for example, when Meghan Kelly’s book came out, they all went to Amazon and gave it one-star reviews.

THE_DONALD MODERATOR: When Wikileaks was coming out, the_donald kind of spearheaded that effort where we crowdsourced the investigation. We said, “OK, listen, they’re dumping thousands of pages a day, no single person can go through this,” so we essentially would post the Wikileaks article on the top and say, “OK, go through this, and everyone post what you find.” And within minutes, sometimes, the things that we were finding were getting posted on the news.

ALEX GOLDMAN: And the other thing that they started to do was that ... the front page of Reddit is called r/all, and that’s the page where everything that is most popular on the site shows up. And this is important because if something makes it to the front page of Reddit, that’s kind of like having it reach the entire internet, because it will get shared everywhere.


ALEX GOLDMAN: So the more something gets upvoted, the more popular it becomes, and if it gets upvoted enough times it ends up on the front page of Reddit. But the people in the_donald figured out that if you start — if they just upvoted everything, no matter what it was, that appeared in the_donald, it would just totally clutter up the front page with stuff from the_donald.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Oh, so they could just like take over the front page.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Right. And most of it was just like goofy trolling stuff, like I saw one just now that says, “Trump is here to MAGA,” which means “make America great again,” and it’s a picture of a Pepe with Donald Trump hair, and his fist is cocked back like he’s about to punch someone. That’s it. That’s the entire thing.

PJ: America?

ALEX GOLDMAN: He’s about to punch America, I guess. Um —

ALEX BLUMBERG: He’s about to punch the people that made it not great.

ALEX GOLDMAN: (laughs)

PJ: Ohhh, okay.

ALEX GOLDMAN: On the night —

PJ & ALEX BLUMBERG: (laughing)


ALEX GOLDMAN: On the night of the election, a post that made it to the front page, which was posted by a the_donald moderator ... it’s just text, not a link to anything, it says, “Hey losers and SJWs” — that’s social justice warriors — “of Reddit. How does our dick taste? Go fuck yourselves. We’re the future and you’re a bunch of 100% losers. I openly laugh in your face.”


PJ: That’s not very useful.

ALEX GOLDMAN: And another thing that the_donald would do, is when people would talk about Donald Trump in another subreddit, they would go to that subreddits and do what’s called brigading.

PJ: They’d flood the conversation completely, shut it down, basically.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Uh-huh, right. And the thing is, the folks in the_donald had this belief that moderators on other subreddits, especially like other politics subreddits, where anti-Trump stuff was being posted, were actually being paid by the Hillary Clinton campaign to keep Donald Trump material off the page. So since they believed that, they felt totally righteous in, like, sending them harassing personal messages, or threatening them, or just abusing them. One person we spoke to actually said that she would get hundreds of messages, threats, abuse, people threatening to kill her dog.

PJ: That’s horrible.


ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah. So, the_donald has established itself as kind of this toxic force on this website. And it was in the_donald subreddit that some of the first pizzagate stuff began. And it became big enough that it broke off and became its own community of, like, amateur investigators who wanted to get the bottom of this sexual abuse ring.


ALEX GOLDMAN: And part of what they were doing on this subreddit was they were posting the personal information of people they suspected to be a part of pizzagate. And posting personal information is a bright-line violation of Reddit's rules. So on November 22, right before Thanksgiving, uh, they shut down the pizzagate subreddit. And that's an event.


ALEX GOLDMAN: Any time that Reddit shuts down an entire subreddit, it's a big deal.

ALEX BLUMBERG: They turn it off. Alright, so the tens of thousands of people that are in the pizzagate subreddit, they go to Reddit, what happens?

ALEX GOLDMAN: They try to go to the subreddit and it says, "This subreddit has been banned."


ALEX GOLDMAN: They all —

ALEX BLUMBERG: There's a term for that.

ALEX GOLDMAN: What is it?

ALEX BLUMBERG: It's called “kicking a hornet's nest.”

PJ & ALEX GOLDMAN: (laughs)

ALEX GOLDMAN: So they all immediately regroup —


ALEX GOLDMAN: — on the_donald. And start posting threads, with — so the CEO of Reddit is named Steve Huffman, he goes by the username “Spez” online —


ALEX GOLDMAN: S-P-E-Z. And so they immediately go onto the_donald, start posting threads that are like, "Fuck you Spez, Spez is a pedophile, Spez is a cuck, Spez lets his wife fuck whoever."

PJ: Which is kind of redundant to saying that he's a cuck.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Right. Um, “Fuck you Spez, fuck you Spez,” on and on and on and on forever. So they're doing this for, they're doing this nonstep, over and over again, for 24 hours. And after a day of this, Steve Huffman, the CEO of Reddit, did something, that ... is ... totally … (laughs) that did not help his case at all. Which is, that he went in to's database and started editing other people's comments.

PJ: To do what?

ALEX GOLDMAN: Instead of saying "Fuck you Spez," he changed all references to his name to the names of moderators of the_donald.

PJ: (laughs)


PJ: That is wildly unprofessional but so satisfying. It’s like —

ALEX BLUMBERG: But also just so bad.

PJ: So bad.

ALEX BLUMBERG: You can't do that.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Like it's a pretty bright line. You really can't do that.

ALEX BLUMBERG: You can't do that.

PJ: But it's like, it's like, it's like … Oh man, I so sympathize. I so sympathize.

ALEX GOLDMAN: So I talked to Steve Huffman, and according to him, he just thought that he was, like, trolling the trolls, and was just sort of joking around in the spirit of the_donald.

STEVE HUFFMAN: I almost felt like I was extending them an olive branch, which was like, “Hey, I’m a real person, like, I can play this game, you know, we have something in common in that we can toy with people on the internet.” I thought they would notice, they’d freak outta little bit, we’d have a laugh, I’d change it back, and we’d move on. I was just like, “You kids, you’re just being annoying, and I can be annoying too.”

ALEX GOLDMAN: But the_donald didn’t quite have the sense of humor about it that he expected, because very quickly they figured it out and they were super mad. They immediately started calling for his resignation.


PJ: I like this guy. I really do.

ALEX BLUMBERG: You can't do that dude.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah, you really can't.

PJ: You can't do it, but it's just like —

ALEX GOLDMAN: I think that what you don't, what you're not thinking about is, is these people, people who are conspiratorially minded and believe that like, there are ... people holding the levers of power.

PJ: Yeah yeah yeah, it’s more evidence for them. But they —

ALEX BLUMBERG: And also, like, this is the thing, this is the thing that you're — this is the thing, this is what people who fear Hillary Clinton, fear that she's going to do. And this is what people who fear Donald Trump fear that he's going to do, which is to sort of like, get into power, and then fuck the rules. And then just do things that you're not allowed to do.

PJ: I understand. I understand that my love of this action is basically a love of fascism. But —


PJ: But, the reason I like it —

ALEX BLUMBERG: Get shit done.

PJ: The reason I appreciate it, it's because like, what has frustrated me so much this year is that, all these websites, that like, convey information and that have a job to do, they - they never present a human face. Like, Facebook is being used to disseminate fake news, and they're like, "Well, we don't know how to fix the algorithms!" And they're never like, "We're humans, we’ve made a decision." Like, Wikileaks, like, never says, like, "Hey, I'm a guy with a grudge, and so I've decided to, like, completely destroy American democracy for a little bit." Like, I get that when someone shows a human face, you don't want it to be a like a juvenile, miscreant human face.


ALEX GOLDMAN: But the problem is —

ALEX BLUMBERG: But is it ... is it more simple than that? Is it like literally the pleasure of seeing somebody with power stand up to bullies?

PJ: Yes, that too. Mainly that. Wait, Alex, so what actually happens next in the story?

ALEX GOLDMAN: Well Steve Huffman, the CEO, he ends up apologizing, but he told me that editing the comments was kind of a turning point.

STEVE: I think this whole event, um, you know, it was a big mistake on my part. But there are some silver linings, and one of which was that it was a big — it was a good wakeup call for the company. We removed hundreds of our most toxic users and we made some technology changes that prevent communities like the_donald from kind of gaming the system and having a more dominant voice.

PJ: Seems like a very mild fix to a not-mild problem.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah, well, you and I think this sounds pretty mild. Steve Huffman thinks that he’s cracking down on abuse on the site. And the_donald moderator that I talked to, he just feels like they’re being censored.

THE_DONALD MODERATOR: I see at Reddit the same thing that liberals are grappling with around the country. And at Reddit, I don't think the problem is the comments and the posts themselves, but the realization that, holy crap, this stuff's more popular than we thought it was. People went into the election genuinely thinking that Donald Trump had zero chance of winning.

What you're seeing on Reddit is not the realization that, "Holy crap, we've been living in a bubble, we need to accept that there are people that disagree with us." We're not seeing that. Instead, we're seeing an effort to push us out of the conversation, and reconstitute the bubble.

ALEX GOLDMAN: So he basically argues that like —

PJ: But the problem is, nobody has said, "We have a problem with their message." What people have said is, "We have a problem with their tactics." We have a problem with the specific way they manipulate the site's engineering to force themselves in the conversation and like, we have a specific problem with the way that they target individuals for abuse.

ALEX BLUMBERG: It’s like when you’re, you know, have you ever been on the subway car and then someone comes on and starts loudly, loudly, loudly preaching —

PJ: Yeah.


ALEX BLUMBERG: — the gospel from a Bible and like, you’re just like taking over the space for your position that you hold very, very strongly. But now you are making everyone else hear it. 

PJ: And - and nobody - nobody listens to that, whether they agree with you or don't agree with you, it ... it's not about the words anymore, it's just about like, your right to yell.


PJ: And like, I don't know what you do with this, because it's like, we're gonna have, in the next year, two years, five years, whatever, we're gonna have a lot of conversations about like, how we want to argue on the Internet, and like, this fight that is happening right here is also just like a fight we're going to have as a culture. And like, I don't see anything to be optimistic about here. I don't see anything to like — like it just feels like the same stuck we are everywhere else.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Well, I asked the moderator of the_donald that I spoke to, I said, you know like, basically ... there is a pretty ugly divide right now, and I’m curious how we are going to talk to each other and make this divide feel less ugly. (laughs) I want to play you his answer.

PJ: Sure.

THE_DONALD MODERATOR: Well, in that question there's kind of - kind of an inherent question of, “How are we gonna mend, um, these relationships?” That's why I get you're kind of asking, "How do we bring people together?"

And, I don't think we need to. It’s really funny how, Trump won the presidency, the Republicans retained the House and the Congress. And now it's, “Oh, we need to come together.” Well no, Donald Trump won the presidency because he flipped blue states that hadn't voted for Republicans since 1988. When you flip those states and you win like that, the first agenda item is not "compromise everything you're fighting for and seek middle ground." It's — there's nothing to apologize for. That's, that's a very liberal way of thinking, apologizing for winning.

The American people are tired of identity politics, they are tired of being forced to toe the line with political correctness. And they don't see the - they don't see value in the argument that words are as damaging as actions.

ALEX GOLDMAN: So what I heard was we - we don't talk, and things don't get better. But, you know, Steve, the Reddit CEO, for all that he’s been through, for all of the times he’s been called a cuck and called a pedophile, he has a much, much, much more positive view about discourse in America, and on Reddit specifically, than I expected. Like, I asked him, what would it take for you to decide to shut down the_donald subreddit, like how toxic would it have to get. And he basically said, I don’t want to do that, full stop.

STEVE: So, when we take a step back and look at the entire country, and we saw this play out through the last election, there’s about half the country that feels alienated and unheard. And they elected a candidate, despite many flaws, that they felt like was giving them a voice. And the last thing we want to do is take away that voice. We will do we the best we can to provide them that voice, and do our best to prevent the toxic minority of users from undermining it.

ALEX BLUMBERG: So the position of Reddit is — it’s like, we want to hear what everybody says, and we want to preserve everybody’s right to stay it. Sort of like, he’s trying the preserve the voice of somebody who doesn’t want to engage other people’s views.

PJ: Yeah, weirdly, it’s a really similar tension to what is happening in the real world, which is that a lot of people feel like a lot of Trump’s — like, Trump has said a lot of things that suggest he wants to do things that are basically anti-democratic, but he’s a guy who won in a democratic process. And so you somehow have to, like … the system has to incorporate somebody who’s like antagonistic to the system. And every impulse like I always have is to be like, “Well kick those people out, because if you let them in they’re going to break it.” But if you kick them out, then you’ve broken the system. (laughs)


PJ: It’s really tricky.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah, it’s really hard to know what a proportional response is. And I asked Steve, like do you feel responsible for even allowing this conversation to appear on your website?

ALEX BLUMBERG: That results in somebody going into, like, a pizza parlor with a gun.



ALEX GOLDMAN: And, I mean, surprisingly, he said yeah, to some degree. Um … and even though the Pizzagate subreddit wasn’t up that long, he still wishes that they’d gotten to it sooner.

ALEX BLUMBERG: But see, I guess, that is what I wonder. Is like, is the problem Reddit or is the problem people. Like if there wasn’t a Reddit, would people have found some other place to gather and convince — work themselves into a frenzy.

ALEX GOLDMAN: This, to me, feels like the question of, like, “Well if you put fences up on the Golden Gate Bridge, people will find other things to jump off of.” It’s like, yeah, that’s true, but it’s a big landmark that people typically go to to jump off of.


PJ: It’s funny, though, talking about this, the thing it makes me realize, and I did not expect to feel … I don’t know, I have a feeling which I did not expect to feel, which is like, if you did — if, like, Reddit — if we lived in an alternate universe where two months ago Reddit had been like, “You know what, we feel like we’re doing more harm than good in the world, we’re just gonna close up shop.” There’d still be Breitbart, there’d still be InfoWars, there’d be like a section of the internet for people who believe that Hillary Clinton is a pedophile who hangs out at a pizza place to do her pedophila. And you’d still have, you know, people in the Trump transition team who were tweeting links to those places. Like, you’d have a more closed loop of conspiracy shenanigans.

And, like, as — Reddit actually is like the one place where even though they’re behaving horribly, the people who believe things that are dangerous and scary and not true are hanging out with, like, people who are there to post pictures of their pets, or talk about anime, or whatever. Like, they’re all in one place, and so like if Reddit can find a way to get people to behave enough to talk to each other, like that’s the one place where people who believe in Pizzagate and people who think it’s absurd, might run into each other and have a conversation.


ALEX GOLDMAN: Yeah, I guess.

PJ: That’s like as close to optimism as I can get.

PJ & ALEX GOLDMAN: (laugh)


PJ: Reply All is hosted by PJ Vogt and me, Alex Goldman.

We were produced by Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Phia Bennin, Chloe Prasinos, and Damiano Marchetti. Our executive producer is Tim Howard.

We were edited by Jorge Just. Production assistance from Thane Fay. We were mixed by Rick Kwan.

Matt Lieber is a space heater on cold feet.

Our theme song is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder and our ad music is by Build Buildings. You can find more episodes of the show at or wherever else you get your podcasts. Our website is

We’re gonna revisit a bunch of stories that we reported this year to find out what happened to the people in them since the stories aired. And if there’s someone that you’re wondering about, or if you just have some random question that a story of ours didn’t answer, you should record a 30-second voice memo and email it to, and use the subject line, “Updates.”

Thanks for listening, we’ll see you next week.