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In January, Andrew Richmond, a co-founder of a Toronto-based chain of ice cream shops called Sweet Jesus, started receiving strange online comments and phone calls.
Conspiracy theorists littered the Instagram and Facebook accounts of Sweet Jesus with accusations and menacing comments, pointing to the chain’s name, brand iconography and advertising featuring children. They posted the shop’s advertisements to their own social media accounts and tagged them #PedoGate. Others took their campaign offline, calling the company’s shops and threatening employees.
“People were saying that we were pedophiles and the Illuminati,” Richmond said. “I wish I were part of the Illuminati. Don’t they run the world? I’m just selling ice cream.”
The worst of it was over within a week, Richmond said.
“We were willing to say who we are and what we stand for, that it’s innocent,” Richmond said. “I realized we were winning the battle of reasonableness here.”
Sweet Jesus isn’t the only business that has been the target of an online conspiracy theory. Voodoo Doughnut, a popular chain based in Portland, Oregon, has received similar calls in recent weeks.
“They’re very persistent,” said Eamon Monaghan, a manager at the company’s downtown Portland store, adding that calls were coming in hourly claiming, “we know what is happening at your place.”
“We’re trying to firmly but politely say this isn’t a thing and carry on with our business and ignore it,” Monaghan said.
The harassment comes from a group of fervent online conspiracists who have been targeting private businesses and individuals with harassment campaigns and accusations of being involved with child-sex trafficking rings.
Sparked by a video posted on a popular YouTube conspiracy channel, the group, whose members are also largely followers of the Qanon conspiracy theory, has flooded Voodoo’s Instagram and Facebook posts and left Yelp reviews accusing the owners of child sex trafficking. Last week, the chain’s original Portland outpost received more calls from conspiracy theorists than customers ordering doughnuts, Monaghan said.
The group is fueled in part by a website called Big League Politics, a far-right media outlet that often publishes conspiracy content and has been used to raise funds for prominent Republican politicians. Some of the website’s stories appear to be sourced from a secret message board created by a Big League Politics staffer, in which members concoct elaborate, pedophilia-based conspiracy theories they hope will be published to a wider audience.
The harassment campaigns highlight how conspiracy theories that form in deep corners of the internet can have real-world consequences. The same theory that led conspiracists to Sweet Jesus and Voodoo Doughnut previously focused on Comet Ping Pong, a Washington pizza shop where a man fired a rifle in 2016 during a "self-investigation" of online rumors that a child-sex ring was being run out of its basement. The shop has no basement.
Monaghan said he refers callers to the Portland Police Department. Sgt. Chris Burley, a department spokesman, said that “an enormous” number of emails and calls had been made to the department asking why they aren’t investigating Voodoo Doughnut.
Burley said a detective had looked into the situation but that the so-called whistleblower, who made the allegations against Voodoo Doughnut in the widely shared video that was ultimately deleted by YouTube, failed to cooperate.
“The lead investigator has repeatedly attempted to contact the person who made these allegations and has not heard back,” Burley said. “We take these allegations seriously, but when the complainant won’t come forward with information, it’s difficult for us to continue.”
“Based on what we have seen, there is no information to suggest that any of the allegations against Voodoo are credible,” the sergeant said.
The baseless allegations are being lobbed daily by self-described “patriot researchers." Their harassment of Voodoo Doughnut and Sweet Jesus are just part of a larger war — waged on Twitter and in private groups on Facebook and Discord, a gaming-focused online chat program — against the politicians, celebrities and businesses they claim are part of a global conspiracy to harm children.
Their paranoia is partly fueled by Big League Politics, which has published articles that glorify the anonymous peddlers of the Qanon conspiracy theory and promote unfounded allegations that the Democratic National Committee had ordered and covered up the 2016 murder of staffer Seth Rich.
Run by former Breitbart News reporter Patrick Howley, who often writes the website’s most conspiracy-oriented content, Big League Politics has amassed a readership that prominent Republicans and their supporters have increasingly found attractive. Among the groups and GOP politicians that have used the Big League Politics email list to fundraise this year are the National Republican Congressional Committee; House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana; Rep. Devin Nunes of California; and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
When reached for comment, spokespeople for Scalise and Cruz said their campaigns would no longer work with Big League Politics and would return any money raised with the outlet.
The Nunes campaign and the NRCC did not respond to a request for comment.
“Need help digging”
Big League Politics writer Haley Kennington, who posts several stories a day on the site, appears to source some of her stories from a secret message board she created in July dubbed “Pedo Takedown Crew,” which was recently discovered by NBC News.
A staff writer for Big League Politics since May, Kennington often covers general pro-Trump news items, but has increasingly focused on a more specific beat — writing stories about what she calls “pedophilia-related” social media posts from liberal-leaning celebrities.
On the message board, hosted on the video game-focused social media network Discord, Kennington and some 40 self-described “researchers” crowdsource what they claim are pedophilia investigations. Members of the group have shared maps of “underground tunnels” that they speculate run between elementary schools and small businesses for child sex trafficking. Kennington has asked her team to investigate Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey and Beyoncé, among others.
Kennington recruited members to her group by posting invitations in private Qanon chatrooms, according to Discord logs viewed by NBC News. “Need help digging,” she wrote to her new group members in July. “Drop what you can find here. Links to any Nambla, pedo/child trafficking/organizations, $, connections. You know what to do.”
At Kennington’s request, others in the group have posted maps of Voodoo Doughnut locations alongside the city’s plumbing system, local schools, public transit network, and airports, suggesting a possible method of smuggling children in or out of the sweets shop.
“Small submarines arent (sic) out of the realm of possibility,” offered one member.
Kennington initially declined to speak to a reporter on the phone, but responded to emails by requesting a list of questions that she said she would answer. She did not reply to those questions. On Tuesday, Kennington asked on Twitter whether NBC News was “Compliant” or “Involved” in pedophilia.
When asked about Kennington’s “Pedo Takedown Crew” group, Howley, the editor-in-chief of Big League Politics, called the message board a “research operation,” but said he hadn’t heard of the group until NBC News asked about it.
“I think you are attacking a research community that I haven’t heard about to defend the doughnut shop. Have you been to the doughnut shop?” Howley said. “Are you associated with [Voodoo Doughnut] in some way?”
After an NBC News inquiry into the channel, Kennington kicked out half of her members. While it is unclear whether the channel is still operating, as of Monday, the discussions remained active, with various users posting links and maps associated with Voodoo Doughnut’s Portland location.
On Aug. 9, Discord user Zach1616 posted a note to the Voodoo Doughnut channel of Pedo Takedown Crew.
“Time for a roadtrip lol,” the message reads.