In mid-January, the Pizzagate conspiracy theory seemed to be gaining a sympathetic voice in the mainstream when Reality Check host Ben Swann aired a six-minute fact check segment discussing some of its major talking points.
The CBS46 Atlanta reporter discussed the speculative links which have led some to believe that Democratic Party elites are secretly running a child sex trafficking ring out of a Washington, D.C., pizzeria. Pizzagate, as the conspiracy theory has become popularly known, stems from what Ben calls “suspicious” language referring to pizzas and handkerchiefs in the leaked emails of Hillary Clinton campaign adviser John Podesta.
In the video, Swann repeatedly states that there is absolutely no hard evidence high-ranking politicians are running a pedophile ring out of Comet Ping Pong Pizza, yet he proceeds to weave together what he refers to as “strangely worded emails” into a narrative that suggest he might be inclined to trust the conspiracy theory.
Among them is a swirled triangle symbol that the FBI reports have been used to represent “boy love.” The pizza place next door to Comet also once used it as their logo. A band called Sex Stains, who have performed at the pizzeria, also featured similar iconography in one of their music videos. Still, Ben claims that the most shocking evidence, too explicit for TV, are various pictures found on the social media of people in the Podesta inner circle.
Still, Swann is careful to never put his full support behind the veracity of Pizzagate. While he does advocate for a deeper investigation, he never quite points the finger directly at his subjects.
“Keep in mind again, there is no proof here that there is a child sex ring being operated out of a D.C. pizza parlor… To be clear, not one single email in the Podesta emails discusses child sex trafficking or pedophilia. That is a fact.”
Shortly after the clip aired and was posted online to his Facebook, Ben disappeared from social media entirely. Swann’s Reality Check fan page, which boasted 428,000 subscribers, was scrubbed from the internet, angering those who admired the journalist for shining a light on what mainstream media deems fringe conspiracy theories. Before officially pulling the plug, a message was posted that warned that the “page was going dark.”
“Everyone is asking if things are OK. They are. I will be heading back to CBS46 on Monday but there are going to be some changes. The biggest one will be that this social page will go dark f/n on Tzuday [sic], Feb 1. We’ve been building this project for 6 years and those who have come to know me.. I hope you have also come to trust me.”
— Grace (@FranSeenWrites) January 28, 2017
As promised, Ben returned to CBS46‘s newscast on January 30 after nearly a week’s absence. It appears that Swann’s Reality Check segment, as well as his Truth in Media website and any other related projects, have evaporated.
That response might not be particularly surprising given the blowback from his latest Pizzagate segment. The Daily Beast released a scathing criticism of his recent work that featured an illustration of Ben in a tinfoil hat. Shortly after the fact check of Swann himself was published, CBS contacted the author to stress that the Atlanta channel was not owned or operated by the national CBS company.
These responses are unlikely to crush the conspiracy theory. If anything, they will foment the belief that Pizzagate is facing a cover-up by both the media and the government. On social media, fans of Ben Swann have condemned the decision to cut his segment, and several smaller outlets have published articles and videos criticizing the decision.
Is Ben Swann still alive? He covered pizzagate and ALL of his websites were taken down. Damn near everything of his was taken away
— Eric (@ericobayley) February 4, 2017
— Juliette (@Juliet777777) February 4, 2017
Ben swann is back on cbs46 and at first glance it looks like hes been Took off the #pizzagate story. that looks very suspicious…
— Nicholas Brennan (@Futuristicnick) February 4, 2017
Why is @BenSwann_ gone? Did he speak too much truth to power?
— Lars █████ (@LarryCyprus) February 4, 2017
The Pizzagate conspiracy theory has been significantly fact checked by several mainstream sources. Some of the most pivotal claims — such as pictures of a supposed kill room below Comet Pizza and a mysterious swirled triangle symbol associated with pedophilia — were scoffed at by papers like the New York Times. Triangles, the fact checkers argued, are not an uncommon enough symbol to indicate pedophilia. The AOL company logo, for instance, featured a triangle. Additionally, the so-called kill room was impossible to investigate when Comet revealed that the property does not actually have a basement.
“In the span of a few weeks, a false rumor that Hillary Clinton and her top aides were involved in various crimes snowballed into a wild conspiracy theory that they were running a child-trafficking ring out of a Washington pizza parlor. The fast evolution of the false theory revealed how a powerful mix of fake news and social media led an armed North Carolina man to investigate the rumors about the pizza place, Comet Ping Pong, last Sunday.”
Pizzagate is just one of several conspiracy theories that Ben Swann has given airtime to on his Reality Check program. He has also claimed to fact check the link between autism and vaccines, the narrative that Sandy Hook and Aurora were carried out by lone shooters, American intelligence findings that Russia hacked the 2016 presidential elections, and the predominant media presentation of the war in Syria.
[Featured Image by Jose Luis Magana/AP Images]