WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House on Monday condemned a surge in politically motivated fake news after one such bogus story allegedly prompted a man to walk into a crowded Washington pizzeria and fire a gun.
A North Carolina man was arrested at the Comet Ping Pong restaurant on Sunday after he showed up with an assault rifle. The man said he wanted to investigate reports that claimed the restaurant was the hub of a child sex ring organized by former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Police arrested him and the incident ended without bloodshed.
"There's no denying the corrosive effect these false reports have had on our political debate. And that's concerning in a political context," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said at a briefing. "It's deeply troubling that some of these false reports could lead to violence."
The restaurant and its workers were the target of social media threats ahead of the Nov. 8 election after fake news stories, known as "Pizzagate," claimed that Clinton and her campaign chief John Podesta were running a child sex ring out of the pizzeria.
Republican Donald Trump won the election.
The Comet Ping Pong case was one example of a proliferation of fake news reports during the election year, often disseminated through websites purporting to be news outlets and quoting unnamed or bogus sources.
The suspect in Sunday's incident was Edgar Maddison Welch, 28, of Salisbury, North Carolina. He was accused by police of assault with a dangerous weapon, which carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison, and other charges. Police seized an AR-15 military-style rifle, a .38-caliber handgun and a shotgun.
It was not immediately known if Welch had a lawyer.
Welch pleaded guilty in 2013 to a misdemeanor charge of driving while impaired, a clerk with the Rowan County Court in North Carolina said.
Hours after Sunday's incident, the bogus sex ring story was given a boost by Michael Flynn Jr., the son of retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, Trump's pick to be his national security adviser.
"Until #Pizzagate proven to be false, it'll remain a story. The left seems to forget #PodestaEmails and the many 'coincidences' tied to it," Flynn tweeted, referring to the leak of emails tied to Podesta during the campaign.
The elder Flynn tweeted the false story a few days before the election as well.
Earnest said President Barack Obama "is concerned that that kind of harsh, sometimes violent rhetoric obscures legitimate policy debates that we should be having in this country."
(Reporting by Susan Heavey and Ian Simpson; Editing by Scott Malone and Frances Kerry)