Getting to the bottom of the Seth Rich conspiracy theory

Note: This is something I originally wrote for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

It was one of the first prominent “fake news” conspiracy theories to metastasize from Internet rumor all the way to the White House: In the summer of 2016, stories began to circulate in various online forums that Seth Rich, a fairly low-level Democratic National Committee staffer who died in July, wasn’t the victim of a botched robbery at all, but had actually been assassinated by a contract killer working for Hillary Clinton. Rich, the theory went, was actually the secret source who had leaked DNC emails to WikiLeaks—a theory that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange appeared to lend credence to when he offered a $20,000 reward for information leading to the identity of Rich’s killer or killers. “Our sources take risks,” he said.

As these theories were being spread by Reddit users, denizens of 4chan forums and even Fox News hosts like Sean Hannity, suspicion arose that there were shadowy forces trying to promote the loony-sounding conspiracy. But it wasn’t clear who exactly these forces were, or what their intentions were. On Tuesday, Yahoo News investigative reporter Michael Isikoff announced that he had tracked down the original source of the theory: A fake report concocted by the Russian intelligence agency SVR (short for Sluzhba vneshney razvedki Rossiyskoy Federatsii), a unit of the former KGB. The phony “bulletin,” designed to look like an authentic intelligence report, was released just 3 days after Rich’s death, Isikoff writes.

The idea that the Rich conspiracy theory was distributed by agents acting on behalf of the Russian government is not a new one. When information started to come out about the activities of the so-called Internet Research Agency during the 2016 election—which engaged in a sustained campaign of disinformation and outright propaganda on Facebook and other platforms—the Seth Rich assassination theory turned out to be one of the many pieces of fakery the IRA distributed as a way of destabilizing the campaign. But the agency was a privately run, arm’s-length entity (albeit one run by a close associate of Russian president Vladimir Putin). Until Isikoff’s report, it was not clear that this conspiracy theory originated from Russian intelligence itself.

According to the Yahoo News scoop—which also forms the basis of a podcast series the site has launched about the story, called Conspiracyland—the Russian intelligence report’s existence was confirmed by the former federal US prosecutor who was in charge of the Rich case. “To me, having a foreign intelligence agency set up one of my decedents with lies and planting false stories, to me that’s pretty outrageous,” said Deborah Sines, who was an assistant US attorney in charge of the Rich case until her retirement last year, and has never spoken publicly about the case or Russia’s involvement.

The Rich theory was promoted heavily not just by the Internet Research Agency but also by Russian-owned media companies RT and Sputnik, Isikoff says, and from there it spread to right-wing media players such as Alex Jones of Infowars, and to a number of conservatives with ties to the White House, including Roger Stone. But one bombshell exposed by the Yahoo News report is that the theory was also directly promoted by a senior advisor to Trump: namely, Steve Bannon, at one time a key player in the administration. According to Isikoff, who saw some of Bannon’s text messages, the former co-founder of Breitbart News texted a CBS “60 Minutes” producer on March 17, 2017 saying: “Huge story … he was a Bernie guy … it was a contract kill, obviously.”

Here’s more on the Seth Rich conspiracy theory:

The Russians are coming! Philip Bump at The Washington Post argues that Isikoff’s story overplays the Russian intelligence angle, and says it is more likely the theory got traction because it played into existing right-wing tropes about the Clintons’ alleged involvement in multiple deaths long before Trump. Blaming the Russians makes for a better story, Bump says, but the truth is “it was politically useful for a number of people to hype the allegations.”

Worse than you remember: At the height of the Seth Rich conspiracy frenzy, Fox News ran a report claiming it had confirmed that Rich was the WikiLeaks source who provided the hacked DNC emails. The company later retracted the story and said it would look into how it happened, but no investigation has ever been released. So Media Matters ran its own series of articles looking into the bogus story, a series it released on the second anniversary of the Fox report. Isikoff says a person close to Fox told him the network came to doubt that the anonymous source in its story ever existed.

Multi-channel strategy: Disinformation expert Kate Starbird says the Yahoo News report is a great example of how conspiracy theories flow from alternative media sites through to mainstream television. “This is why when we focus on social-media effects of Russian disinfo, we completely miss the point,” Starbird said on Twitter on Tuesday. “This is a multi-dimensional, multi-channel strategy, which uses different tools in complementary ways, and through which they have shaped U.S. political discourse.”

Other notable stories:

Vicky Ward writes for The Daily Beast about Jeffrey Epstein, a New York financier who was recently arrested on charges of sex trafficking, after reports that he helped cultivate a network of underage girls and coerced them into sex acts at his 21,000-square-foot New York apartment and his Palm Beach mansion. Ward says details about Epstein’s abuse of two young sisters were removed from a profile she wrote for Vanity Fair magazine in 2003.

A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that Donald Trump cannot legally block people from following him on Twitter because doing so is a breach of their First Amendment rights. The unanimous ruling from a three-judge panel on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit said since Trump uses the account to conduct government business, he is not allowed to block users from what amounts to a public governmental forum. The lawsuit was filed in 2017 by the Knight First Amendment Institute.

Ten journalists from news organizations across the country are receiving support from the American Press Institute for year-long projects aimed at helping their newsrooms incorporate community engagement into their journalism. The 2019 Community Listening Fellows will receive training and support on how to employ listening strategies to inform their journalism and to help them represent and serve their communities better.

A spokesman for Facebook said the social network has not been invited to attend a social-media summit the president is holding later this week at the White House. The Trump administration has said the summit is designed to “bring together digital leaders for a robust conversation on the opportunities and challenges of today’s online environment.” So far, several conservative groups have said they will be attending, but no official list has been released. Twitter and Google have not been invited, according to a number of reports.

NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt is the 2019 recipient of the Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism, Arizona State University officials announced Tuesday. Holt will receive the 36th-annual Cronkite Award from the university’s Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication in Phoenix on Nov. 4, which was Cronkite’s birthday. The late CBS News anchor would have been 103 this year. Holt has anchored the flagship NBC broadcast since 2015, following eight years as anchor of the newscast’s weekend edition and 12 years as co-anchor of “Weekend TODAY.”

For CJR, Matt Haber talked with author Lisa Taddeo about her new book “Three Women,” a book about desire that she has been working on for almost a decade. Taddeo says she wanted to write about how desire and love change people’s lives, and she drove across the country six times looking for the right stories and the right communities to write about. She tells Haber that she became such a part of the lives of the three women she writes about that it was like she had moved into their homes for the duration of the book.

YouTube has been under fire recently for advertising to children who watch its videos, and in the process harvesting data on them. The Federal Trade Commission has said it is investigating the practice, but experts who have been interviewed by the commission tell Vice that the regulator is likely to put the onus on video creators to turn off advertising for children, rather than requiring YouTube itself to take action, such as forcing all videos with child-focused content into its existing dedicated kids portal, YouTube Kids.

Alex Stamos, former Chief Security Officer at Facebook and now the director of the Stanford Internet Observatory, tells fact-checking service First Draft News that the media often rushes to find a compelling reason for the spread of disinformation campaigns, but the sexiest story is usually the least accurate. “A big thing I always tell all journalists is: look, it’s probably not Russia,” he says. “The vast majority of the time, it is not a foreign influence campaign.”

Twitter released new rules Tuesday that it says are designed to prevent hate speech directed at religious groups. In a blog post, the company said that the new standards were developed after “months of conversations and feedback from the public, external experts and our own teams.” In the future, it said, tweets that use phrases such as “We need to exterminate the rats. The [Religious Group] are disgusting,” or “[Religious Group] should be punished. We are not doing enough to rid us of those filthy animals” will be removed and could lead to account suspensions.

According to an investigative report from Vice News, online retailing giant Amazon worked with police in Arizona to co-ordinate a sting operation aimed at thieves who were stealing Amazon packages from people’s houses. The company reportedly provided police with a “heat map” of various neighborhoods, showing where packages had gone missing, and provided dummy packages with GPS trackers in them, as well as video from the automated Ring doorbells at certain homes (Amazon acquired Ring last year for $1 billion).

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