Fallout from fake news, election divide triggers tension from Mt. Airy to D.C.

Listen
 Ken Weinstein owns the Trolley Car Diner in Mt. Airy. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Ken Weinstein owns the Trolley Car Diner in Mt. Airy. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Ken Weinstein was shocked. Just a few weeks earlier, a fake news story had turned his quiet Mt. Airy diner into a hub for angry, presidential election-fueled phone calls, Facebook posts and emails from across the country.

Now, another false report online had stoked a similar, but potentially violent episode at a popular restaurant in Washington.

“It’s incredibly scary what’s going on these days,” said Weinstein during the tail end of a recent lunch rush.

“The internet and social media was something that was originally something to be used to our advantage, and now it’s being used to our detriment.”

On Sunday, Washington police arrested a 28-year-old North Carolina man after a rifle was fired inside Comet Ping Pong, a pizza shop in the northwest section of the city. Edgar Welch told police he made the trip to “self-investigate” a baseless conspiracy theory involving the restaurant, then-presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, and a child sex ring.

The afternoon incident followed a series of virtual threats against Comet employees.

No injuries were reported.

No one walked into the Trolley Car with a gun, but a customer’s allegations did lead to some tense and chaotic weeks at the diner.

It all started the morning after November’s stunning presidential election when a waitress spotted a customer wearing a hat supporting president-elect Donald Trump. Weinstein said the waitress told the woman she was “glad you’re not in my section.”

After speaking to a manager, the woman stormed out. But it’s what happened when she returned a week later that set off a storm Weinstein won’t ever forget.

According to Weinstein, the customer moved toward the bathroom and then stood “uncomfortably” close to the waitress from the week before, who was working a different section. When the server, who had been reprimanded for her comment, turned around to help another customer, she ran into the woman.

“The customer started yelling and screaming that she was physically assaulted … then she took the unnecessary and scary step to let a friend of hers know who was head of a group Citizens for Trump and has 60,000 Twitter followers,” said Weinstein, adding that the management apologized to the customer during both visits.

Things got pretty hectic after that. Immediately.

“Our phones started ringing to the point that we instructed our staff to stop answering the phone because the language was so scary and ugly and hateful,” said Weinstein.

Thousands of people from across the country also posted on the diner’s Facebook page and emailed Weinstein. Some of it was anti-Semitic. Some of it was racist.

These days, the phone calls and emails have slowed to a trickle, but Weinstein said he remains concerned about what implications the episode has for the future, especially after reading about what happened at the Comet Ping Pong.

“It’s easy to take fake news and act like it’s real. It’s another thing to actually act on it.”

While many have found such incidents upsetting, Michael Cornfield, an associate professor of political management at George Washington University, isn’t particularly surprised by what unfolded at Comet Ping Pong or the Trolley Car. He said, unlike the media industry, social media doesn’t have any gatekeepers.

“And so, when there are times of tension and anxiety, which is the post-election atmosphere in the United States, these things are going to happen,” said Cornfield.

To counter that, he offers one simple solution: patience.

“We all have to learn that when we hear or see something on social media, it’s raw and we have to check, and we have to wait for other people to check before we react. We all have to learn patience,” Cornfield said. “I don’t know how many more of these kinds of incidents there will be before that becomes a habit.”

Before someone potentially gets hurt.

Weinstein said the social media blitz didn’t hurt business. If anything, it’s helped.

As for the customer at the heart of it all, she’s been back at the Trolley Car — without incident.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.