World

A real consequence of fake news: Someone threatens to kill you

Bradley Graham says he understands why many people believe fake news, even when the details seem outrageous. Graham and his wife own a Washington, D.C., bookstore next to the pizzeria where a man who believed the "Pizzagate" fake story fired a gun.

'It was nuts,' says co-owner of bookstore beside pizzeria where shot was fired

Edgar Maddison Welch, 28 of Salisbury, N.C., surrenders to police on Dec. 4 in Washington, D.C. Welch, who said he was investigating a conspiracy theory about Hillary Clinton running a child sex ring out of a pizza restaurant, was charged with four counts, including felony assault with a deadly weapon and carrying a gun without a licence. (Sathi Soma/Associated Press)

After careers as journalists at the Washington Post, Bradley Graham and his wife Lissa Muscatine left the news business to buy a Washington, D.C., bookstore, Politics and Prose, only to unwittingly be drawn into the best known fake-news story on the planet.

"It was nuts," Graham told CBC's The Investigators, of the fake story that's been shared hundreds of thousands of times online.

"We thought it was just so absurd that nobody would believe it. But then we saw it spreading."

Diana speaks with Bradley Graham, a Washington DC book store owner bearing the real consequences of fake news. He's become the target of threats because of the Pizza Gate conspiracy theory. Watch The Investigators Saturdays at 9:30 pm ET (replays Sundays at 5:30 pm ET) on CBC News Network. 2:51

The story, now generally considered to be one of the most widely shared examples of the fake-news phenomenon, contends that a pizzeria next to Graham's business was a front for a child sex ring, run by none other than Hillary Clinton and her former campaign manager, John Podesta.

What's more, it charged that the children were being secreted away through a tunnel to the bookstore.

"We became, at Politics and Prose — like other neighbouring businesses — the recipient of threatening social media and menacing phone calls," Graham said. 

A 28-year-old man walks into a Washington DC restaurant with an assault rifle to 'self investigate' Pizza Gate, a fake news story. Diana speaks with Craig Silverman, Media Editor for BuzzFeed News, who's been digging into how the conspiracy theory got started. Plus, the CBC's Erica Johnson talks about investigating elder financial abuse. 22:27

"We started meeting together with other owners on the block to try to come up with some way to counter this, all the while worried that it could go from being just verbal online assaults, to something physical and more dangerous, which is exactly what happened last Sunday."

Graham told the Guardian newspaper, "Sometimes they would call 10-15 times an hour saying: 'We are going to kill you!'"

The online "Pizzagate" story, 28-year-old Edgar Maddison Welch of North Carolina told police, prompted him to go to the pizzeria on Dec. 4, armed with two guns to confront the abusers and rescue the children. Inside the restaurant he fired a shot from an assault rifle.

Employees and diners were able to get out safely, and Welch surrendered to police after determining there were no children in the restaurant.

He told the New York Times last week from his jail cell he knew "the intel on this wasn't 100 per cent" but felt he had to act.

Though police have said there's no truth to "Pizzagate," that hasn't stopped others from sharing the story online.

The Investigators with Diana Swain

Buzzfeed's Craig Silverman investigated how the "Pizzagate" story got started and how it spread. This weekend on The Investigators he walks viewers through what he discovered. The Investigators airs Saturday at 9:30 p.m. ET and Sunday at 5:30 p.m. ET on CBC News Network.

Before the shooting, Graham says, he and other business owners appealed to police for help and got some added patrols, but he says under current laws police felt there was little more they could do.

"You know, in sympathy with law enforcement, there's a lot of this stuff going on in a lot of places, so their resources are spread thin. And they also have a very high bar that has to be crossed before they can take more aggressive action. Of course, that bar was crossed last Sunday when the gunman walked into [the pizzeria]."

Graham says he understands why many people believe fake news, even when the details seem outrageous.

"On one level, I get what's happening. Many people have less confidence in the conventional sources of information. They're looking for other sources of fact.

"But what's happened is, to fill this void, you have these entirely fictitious — in the case of "Pizzagate," hateful — conspiracy theories that are jumping up. It'd be nice if people began to exercise a little more good judgment and common sense about what to believe."

About the Author

Multi-award-winning journalist Diana Swain is the senior investigative correspondent for CBC News and host of The Investigators on CBC News Network.