Ajit Pai, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, appeared Wednesday in a video promoting the end of net neutrality regulations with a woman who has been accused of pushing the false "Pizzagate" conspiracy theory.
Pai campaigned to repeal the Obama-era policy on net neutrality, which prevents internet service providers from controlling the speed at which some websites load.
Repealing net neutrality — which the FCC voted to do on Thursday — is widely seen as good for corporations and bad for consumers, who could be asked to pay for higher internet speeds. Abolishing net neutrality also allows service providers to block access to certain websites, for example torrenting sites that allow users to download content illegally.
To promote his plan, Pai filmed a video with the Daily Caller that many have called cringeworthy. In it, he says users will still be able to upload selfies to Instagram and run memes into the ground. He also does the Harlem Shake with some of the Daily Caller's staff. (Baauer, who recorded the song, seems interested in net neutrality. He didn't return a request for comment, but later tweeted, "I'm taking action. Whatever I can do to stop this loser.")
The accompanying article was written by Benny Johnson, who was previously fired from BuzzFeed for plagiarism.
One of the people doing the Harlem Shake with Pai is Martina Markota, a video producer for the Daily Caller. In February, she uploaded a video to YouTube titled "some thoughts on Pizzagate," which has since been delisted.
Markota's video focused on the term "cheese pizza," which is one of the "code words" conspiracists point to when justifying the conspiracy theory.
"My family didn't know what Pizzagate was, but a lot of our viewers do and are well-informed on the subject," Markota says in the video. She then talks about knowing what the term "cheese pizza" meant "independently of the campaign." There are also humorous shots of Markota eating some cheese pizza.
The video itself was produced by the Proud Boys, a right-wing group headed by Gavin McInnes, the Canadian cofounder of Vice. The Proud Boys were present during the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, when a driver plowed into the crowd of counterprotesters and killed Heather Heyer. A member of the group, which later distanced itself from the violence, was one of the rally organizers.
The debunked Pizzagate theory started after Democratic National Committee chairman John Podesta's emails were leaked following a 2016 hack. Some conspiracy theorists extrapolated bogus meanings from pizza orders in the emails to say orders like "cheese pizza" were codewords that proved Democrats were running a pedophilia operation in the basement of the Comet Ping Pong pizza parlor in Washington, DC.
The theory burst into the mainstream after a gunman entered the pizza joint and fired his weapon while "investigating" the conspiracy, which he said he'd read about online. Nobody was hurt and he has since been sentenced to four years in prison.
When BuzzFeed News reached out to Markota for comment Thursday, she said the video was about "cheese pizza" being a codeword for pedophilia. She gave an example of reports that a New Jersey man was charged for child pornography after posting about "cheese pizza" on Craigslist — an action that came 8 months after her video was posted.
When asked whether Markota believes in the Pizzagate theory, she did not deny it. "Embrace the mystery," she wrote in a Twitter direct message.
After this article was published, Markota sent a statement to BuzzFeed News requesting a retraction and a public apology from several publications for portraying her as someone who believed in the Pizzagate conspiracy theory.
"I do not believe in the Pizzagate conspiracy theory," the statement says, "I have never believed in the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, and I have never said in any online video that I am a believer in the conspiracy theory."
And after Twitter user @LydiaBurrell, whose real name is Alexander Smith, posted about Pai appearing in a video with Markota, she distanced herself again from Pizzagate.
Smith, an electronic musician, told BuzzFeed News he was curious who was sharing the video when he found Markota's profile and website. His tweet went viral.
Smith said he believed the Daily Caller's article and video featuring Pai made a poor case for repealing net neutrality. "It didn't make me mad or anything — it was just a very infantile article about how you can still take Instagram photos of your food even without net neutrality, which isn't a compelling defense to me personally," he said.
After Smith's video spread, Markota tweeted that she didn't mention "any DC pizza joint."
The FCC didn't respond to BuzzFeed News' request for comment, but Washington Post reporter Brian Fung tweeted that Pai claimed he wasn't aware of Markota's previous comments on Pizzagate.
The pervasiveness of the theory is why some people — many who seemed against the net neutrality repeal — were put off by Pai's appearance in the video.
The full video and article weren't received much better. Reddit users, who frequently support conservative publications and movements, dubbed the video cringe-inducing.
On Twitter, Pai got ratioed — with thousands of responses compared to only a few hundred likes and retweets after posting the Daily Caller article.
"You sit on a throne of lies," one user tweeted.
While we're at it, catch up on today's net neutrality vote here:
This post has been updated to include additional comments from Martina Markota.
Jane Lytvynenko is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Toronto, Canada. PGP fingerprint: A088 89E6 2500 AD3C 8081 BAFB 23BA 21F3 81E0 101C.
Contact Jane Lytvynenko at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.