Many of us have a local pizza shop in our neighborhood—the one you grow up in that forever represents an outsized chunk of your childhood. Comet Ping Pong is mine. Comet is the place I went after our annual elementary school book fair; the pizza wasn’t particularly different or special, but the place was home to me and to scores of other neighborhood children. Comet is the place I first begrudgingly ate a salad when I was ten years old, finally overcoming my general aversion to eating leaves. Comet is the place where, after eating, I would scurry off to the ping pong room in the back of the restaurant to mingle with other kids.
But Comet isn’t just my local pizza shop anymore, it’s also the place where on December 4, 2016, a man named Edgar Maddison Welch broke in with a loaded AR-15 rifle and fired three shots, apparently looking for children enslaved in the basement by a ring of pedophiles led by prominent Democratic politicians and officials, based on a conspiracy theory known as Pizzagate.
Luckily, nobody was injured, and the day Welch chose was not the day that elementary schoolers were actually congregated around ping pong tables awaiting piping hot pizzas. When I initially heard about the incident, I supposed that this was a normal part of growing up. I was coming to terms with the fact that no place is truly safe from the threats of violence that accompany disinformation, even a harmless quintessential American venue like a local pizza shop. The theories so many people had been led to believe weren’t just trivial falsehoods; they had immense potential to harm my local community. However, I began to question my initial normalization of the situation, wondering what other harm other false theories could cause to other kids, communities, and the nation at large.
We cannot simply accept conspiracy theories and rampant disinformation as normal parts of growing up as I did, nor the threats of violence that sometimes accompany them. This idea should not be controversial. It should be a basic right—a right the government has the obligation to protect by condemning conspiracy groups and providing guidance to social media companies on how best to regulate false information.
Recently, a group called QAnon has gained significant political and media traction. QAnon is a social media based conspiracy group that was founded on the back of anonymous claims of a supposed high-ranking Trump administration official, who goes by Q. According to QAnon theorists, President Trump is working from the inside to dismantle a child sex trafficking ring run by influential politicians. The F.B.I. has declared QAnon as a potential domestic terrorism threat, and yet the sitting American President has not distanced himself from QAnon, nor condemned the falsehoods they spread. Instead, he has said its followers “love our country” and that he “appreciates” their support. The President has also spoken highly of Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican Congressional candidate who has publicly supported the QAnon theory, calling her a “future Republican star.” Asked again about the group again at his recent town hall, President Trump said that he “know[s] nothing of QAnon” other than that they are “against pedophilia.”
In a world where, to many, facts are no longer unambiguous, where a person can barge into a pizza parlor and fire a gun on the basis of unfounded claims spewed by conspiracy theorists, we need to fully recognize that words have real power—power that can end in danger or tragedy. The President’s reluctance to denounce QAnon likely stems from the fact that its supporters treat him as a hero trying to save the nation from villainous Democratic pedophiles, but this shallow praise should not be all it takes to win over the President’s support, given the power of his office. The President should not tiptoe around QAnon or disregard the fact that disinformation can have a direct negative influence on the nation in ways akin to my experience at Comet. The President’s words are still heard far and wide and hold immense power; his refusal to denounce QAnon groups in spite of their obviously false claims has allowed them to rapidly pick up supporters and shows American citizens that the Trump administration not only does not value facts, but is also willing to risk the safety of its people in exchange for political support. The President’s failure to denounce QAnon represents a massive disservice to the nation, a disgrace to the office he holds, and a potential danger for communities everywhere of another incident similar to Pizzagate, or worse.
Unlike the President, some social media companies have been actively working to improve their policies surrounding this kind of disinformation and its spread on their platforms, but there’s still a lot of progress to be made. YouTube recently updated its policies to prohibit
“content that targets an individual or group with conspiracy theories that have been used to justify real-world violence,” which is a move in the right direction, but QAnon content is still permitted so long as specific individuals are not targeted.
There are difficult questions confronting social media companies in restricting information, particularly in maintaining the balance between First Amendment rights to free speech defending truth and avoiding incitement of violence. Given this, the government might need to ultimately step in with guidelines for how social media companies should combat the formation and spread of QAnon-like groups, rather than leaving it up to the companies themselves.
The issue of combating the spread of conspiracy theory groups should be much more clear cut for the President, who has shirked his clear moral obligation to condemn them, seemingly for his own political purposes. In the case of the President, this isn’t a matter of free speech. It’s about whether political leaders will condemn or defend a system that allows someone like Edgar Maddison Welch to find a reason to barge into a pizza shop firing a gun, or, as the movement gains popularity, to do much worse. There are hundreds of thousands of people involved in QAnon groups, yet it would only take one misled person to believe baseless, but widespread conspiracy theories and attack another beloved Pizza joint. QAnon groups must be denounced from the highest office and banned by the companies providing a platform for their growth, because next time we might not be lucky enough to say that the elementary school kids chose to show up a different day, and that nobody lost their life.