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Story falsely connects criminal sentencing to 'Pizzagate' conspiracy theory | Fact check

The claim: A Vice News journalist who claimed 'Pizzagate' was fake was imprisoned for child rape

A Dec. 1 article from The People’s Voice (archive link) tries to connect a recent criminal sentencing to a long-running QAnon conspiracy theory.

"Vice journalist, who said Pizzagate was 'fake news,' imprisoned for child rape,'" the headline reads.

The People's Voice article was shared over 50 times in five days, according to CrowdTangle, a social media analytics tool.

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Our rating: False

Each element of this headline is overstated. Rape was not one of the charges Efrem Zelony-Mindell was arrested on or sentenced for. There is no credible evidence Zelony-Mindell spoke out about "Pizzagate," and they were a contributor for Vice on only two stories seven years ago. The People's Voice is a website known to spread misinformation.

Article exaggerates Zelony-Mindell’s Vice connection, criminal charges

“Pizzagate” was a conspiracy theory that arose in 2016 and was picked up by the far-right conspiracy group QAnon. The theory baselessly claimed then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and other Democratic politicians and celebrities were involved in a child sex trafficking ring that operated out of a pizza restaurant in Washington.

News outlets, including The Washington Post and The New York Times, have repeatedly debunked the conspiracy theory.

Despite its headline and first sentence, The People’s Voice article provides no evidence that Zelony-Mindell spoke out about "Pizzagate." USA TODAY found no record of past articles or statements they made on the subject.

And Zelony-Mindell was not a staff writer at Vice. In a Nov. 30 article, Vice News addressed false "Pizzagate" conspiracy theories and wrote that Zelony-Mindell was a contributor who only wrote two stories about photography for Vice in 2016.

The Art Newspaper wrote in a Jan. 20 report that Zelony-Mindell was a Master of Fine Arts student at the University of Arkansas, a writer, photography curator and painter.

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The claim also mischaracterizes a criminal case against Zelony-Mindell.

In December 2022, they were arrested in New York following a months-long FBI undercover operation.

According to a complaint from the U.S. Attorney General's Office for the Southern District of New York:

Zelony-Mindell was in correspondence with undercover FBI agents from May to December 2022 using a dating app and the encrypted messaging app Telegram. In those messages, Zelony-Mindell distributed photos depicting the sexual abuse of children and expressed a desire to have sexual contact with children, according to the complaint.

One of the agents posed as the parent of a fictitious 9-year-old boy who would be willing to meet with Zelony-Mindell. In numerous messages, Zelony-Mindell repeated wishes to meet and engage in sexual conduct with the child. Law enforcement officers arranged a meeting in Manhattan on Dec. 16, 2022, where Zelony-Mindell was arrested.

They were charged with one count of distribution of child pornography, one count of possession of child pornography and one count of attempted enticement of a minor. On Nov. 15, 2023, Zelony-Mindell pleaded guilty to the count of distribution of child pornography and was sentenced to 90 months in prison, with five years of supervised release. The documents do not accuse Zelony-Mindell of rape or charge him with that crime.

USA TODAY previously fact-checked a similar claim that falsely connected another former journalist's arrest to "Pizzagate." Another recent claim wrongly asserted that the FBI had confirmed "Pizzagate" was real.

The People’s Voice, previously known as NewsPunch, has repeatedly published fabricated stories, including many USA TODAY has debunked.

USA TODAY reached out to The People’s Voice for comment but did not immediately receive a response.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Pornography sentence has no connection to 'Pizzagate' | Fact check