Online is a strange and terrifying place. It’s enabled us to connect with one another, advance the causes of science and culture, and unite the world with a glowing net of data. It’s also enabled people with very… particular interests to find each other. In this weekly series, we’ll be dipping into the Internet Gutter – the strange subcultures and weird worlds lurking in the dark pockets of the World Wide Web.PizzagateThe Internet is probably the best thing to ever happen to conspiracy theories. In olden times, if you believed something nutty you could only share it with the world through yelling on a street corner or putting up posters on lamp posts. In the modern era, believers can not only promulgate their ideas but also connect with people who share them, rolling up their craziness into a massive Katamari of misinformation and insanity.The greatest example of this sort of crowdsourced mania is a little thing called Pizzagate, which recently jumped off of the Internet and spurred a dummy into taking an assault rifle into a Washington, D.C. restaurant to shoot some computers. Thankfully nobody was hurt, but if this thing keeps rolling it’s only a matter of time.Clip on your tinfoil hat and grab your snorkel, because this might be our scariest dive yet into the Internet Gutter.Leaky LeaksIf you haven’t been paying attention, here’s a quick catch-up. In the summer of 2016, Clinton campaign manager John Podesta got a “password reset” in his email and didn’t look closely at it. It was a phishing expedition from an unknown cyber-criminal, and it wasn’t long until they had access to his entire email account, which they promptly handed over to WikiLeaks.The contents of those emails revealed that the Democratic party establishment was primarily composed of clueless, selfish, venal idiots. You know, like pretty much every politician ever. But for some people desperate to find actual evil, something more sinister lurked just below the surface.Reports of a dinner with performance artist Marina Abramovic was the first point of data. An email about a lost handkerchief with a “pizza-related map” was another. What tipped it over the breaking point was a list of “pedophile code” on 4chan that claimed various food-related words like “pizza” and “walnuts” were substituting for “girl” and “person of color.”Tying these threads together with so much virtual yarn produced “Pizzagate,” roughly summarized as the belief that high-level Democrats run a child slavery and human sacrifice ring out of the basement of a popular D.C. restaurant that doesn’t actually have a basement.Caught up? Let’s go.Absence Of EvidenceSo here’s what you typically need to prove child abuse: a child that has been abused. Pizzagate doesn’t have that, which is why law enforcement agencies aren’t investigating it. But for the true believers, that’s just part of the challenge. Without any actual evidence of a crime being committed, they have to be creative.The focus for Pizzagate quickly coalesced around Comet Ping Pong, a popular D.C. hangout. The owner of that restaurant, James Alefantis, is a gay man who used to be in a relationship with high-level Democratic operative David Brock.Comet Ping Pong not only serves solid pizza, but they also host ping pong tournaments and live music in a variety of genres. The Pizzagate investigative squad seized on the fact that their shows are “all ages” (i.e., not in a bar situation restricted to people 18 and over) and things got weirder from there.Naturally, the majority of this madness took place on Reddit, the fermenting bowl for most of the Internet’s worst ideas. In November, the site closed down the Pizzagate subreddit due to its pathologically high quantity of libel, so the believers migrated to Voat, the site that’s like Reddit but called Voat instead. They populate a bustling discussion forum dedicated to all things pizza and child sex related.How Deep Does This GoSo it wasn’t enough for these bold investigators to confine their activities to a single pizza place/child sex den. Like all good conspiracy theories, Pizzagate grew and grew. Other restaurants and businesses on the same block as Comet Ping Pong came under scrutiny. Posters started claiming that a system of underground tunnels connected them, knitting them together into a classic conspiracy diagram.Eventually, Pizzagate left the confines of Washington to go global. Roberta’s, a popular New York pizza restaurant in trendy Bushwick, became a focus after it was found that the Clintons once ate there. Other pizza places in Austin, Philadelphia and even Hawaii came under the Pizzagate eye as well. The only thing that united these restaurants, aside from pizza, is that sheltered Internet users thought they were “weird.” That was enough to get them to call in death threats and accusations of pedophile orgies.Too RealWith conservative news sites and Facebook posts whipping believers to a fever pitch, one brave soul decided to take action. Salisbury, North Carolina man Edgar Madison Welch had seen Pizzagate videos and set out to “self-investigate” Comet Ping Pong. Unfortunately, instead of using a magnifying glass or whatever, he brought an assault rifle.Walking into the restaurant during business hours, while a birthday party was being held in the back room, Welch walked into the kitchen and started looking for evidence of hidden tunnels or a murder room. Frustrated at not being able to find anything, he fired two shots into an office, hitting a computer. Thankfully, nobody was hurt, and police took him into custody.Within minutes, the Pizzagate community reacted. Did they decry Welch’s violent attack? Nope. Instead, they immediately accused him of being a “false flag,” an actor hired by the evil conspiracy to make them look nuts. Because they really need the help.Real-world manifestations of Pizzagate have continued. One believer decided to interrupt Christmas mass at a Philadelphia church by screaming about it. It’s attracted the best and brightest of the lunatic community under one umbrella.Extra CheeseThe thing about Pizzagate is that it’s attracted some remarkably high-profile supporters. A newscaster at an Atlanta TV station did a segment on it that was obviously heavily edited by lawyers to make sure it didn’t get them sued. Dallas Mavericks player Andrew Bogut tweeted about it, then went on the bench with a knee injury that some thought was caused by the shadowy conspiracy. Worst of all, Michael Flynn Jr, the son of Trump’s national security adviser, is a fervent believer – so dedicated to spreading the rumors that it got his security clearance revoked.The election of Donald Trump has many Pizzagate believers convinced that the end is right around the corner for this hive of pizza-loving pedophiles. Some claim that an ongoing Homeland Security investigation is about to snap the trap shut on these monsters. And we’re sure the comments section below is going to fill up with believers accusing your humble writer of being an enabler, or even a pedophile himself, for daring to suggest that Pizzagate is a load of crap. If there’s anything we’ve learned from this dive into the Internet Gutter, it’s that no one is without sin. Or pizza sauce.