Pizzagate -- the online conspiracy theory that inspired a man to fire a gun inside a pizza place in Washington -- has arrived in Philadelphia. The notorious fake news story has been expanded to include a pair of popular Philly places: Pizza Brain, a pizzeria/museum, and the ice cream parlor Little Baby's. They share a space on Frankford Avenue in Fishtown.
Little Baby's learned a few weeks ago of the online threads and YouTube videos spreading claims of a connection between pizza shops and child sex trafficking.
"Around the same time, we noticed an uptick in prank/harassing phone calls to our shops, strange chatter on social media, and even a few hateful and vaguely threatening direct emails that I received in the middle of the night," wrote Pete Angevine, one of Little Baby's owners, in an email.
He said he was bewildered, then concerned. "We are worried that someone could go to any one of our shops, which are public places, and cause our staff or customers serious harm. That is alarming and troubling."
Angevine said the threats had not been specific enough to warrant a police report: "What are you going to tell them: 'Go to the YouTube comments section?'" He was trying to laugh it off, "as the whole notion simply has no basis in reality and is comically outrageous."
But to be safe, Little Baby's has clarified safety precautions with shop staff, and set new policies for logging and reporting harassing phone calls and any YouTube videos that infringe on its copyright.
Michael Carter, co-owner of Pizza Brain, said he had made harassment reports to Twitter and YouTube. "We do also encourage employees to contact the Philadelphia police if a pizzagate customer makes them uncomfortable or becomes belligerent/aggressive," he said in an email.
Asked if Philadelphia police were monitoring the situation, a spokesman said that no incidents had been reported this year from Little Baby's or Pizza Brain's addresses. "If the police are made aware of any criminal incident, then we will investigate such claims," Lt. John Stanford said in a statement.
The most famous iteration of Pizzagate is a fake news story, incubated on sites like Reddit, Voat, and 4Chan, claiming that the Washington pizza shop Comet Ping Pong was headquarters for a child-abuse ring run by Hillary Clinton. (If that makes no sense -- and why should it? -- here's a good explainer.) In December, a North Carolina man named Edgar Welch decided to investigate for himself, bringing an AR-15 rifle and firing shots inside the pizza place.
The Philadelphia-based version of the yarn dissects the social-media feeds of Pizza Brain and Little Baby's and finds cause for alarm. In the quirky, silly, and sometimes edgy Instagram posts about pizza and ice cream, the Pizzagaters find "very luciferian, very satanic stuff." They fixate on posts like a photo of a baby next to a large slice of pizza, perhaps because of an Instagram commenter's joking remark: "pizza and babies!! Da best topping ever."
Posts began appearing last November, then again this January, targeting the local businesses. The most popular YouTube video on the topic has been viewed nearly 100,000 times in three weeks, and generated hundreds of outraged comments.
"What is it about pizza and pedophilia?" a Texas man named Jim Blake says in the video, posted on the account Victurus Libertas. "This is just more concrete evidence that there is definitely something going on."
In the video, Blake then clicks around in Google Street View searching for clues. The video makes generous use of the surreal Little Baby's commercials from several years back.
Blake, responding to questions from a reporter, said he did not believe he was agitating his fans.
"You say agitate, I say enlighten," he wrote in a Facebook message. He said that he still believes there is nefarious activity at Comet Ping Pong, and that only a full FBI investigation would assure him otherwise. He said he was no longer actively "investigating" Little Baby's and Pizza Brain, but they ought to "clean up their social media of inappropriate posts" to avoid such implications.
Carter pointed out an especially ironic twist around the claims of satanism: "It's no secret in Philly that Pizza Brain is owned by Jesus followers."
Pizza Brain's website describes an affiliation with the Circle of Hope religious community.
He added: "It's terrifying how readily some have allowed themselves to be manipulated into contemplation of carrying out hostile acts against stores like Pizza Brain just because their social-media accounts depict pizza in an ironic, artful and at times controversial way."
Sure, he'll post a photo of a slice of pizza worn as a thong every now and then, but that is no crime.
A photo posted by @mypizzabrain on Oct 31, 2014 at 6:05am PDT