The murder of a 27-year-old Jewish Democratic staffer is now being used to distract attention from criticism of President Trump.
Massive coverage in conservative media outlets and websites, and a organized campaign to promote the news on social media, have taken a widely debunked story from the realm of obscure conspiracy into front-page news headlines, nearly overshadowing the public outcry over Trump’s disclosure of top-secret information to Russia and possible obstruction of justice.
At the heart of story is a Fox News report claiming Rich, a Democratic National Committee employee, had been in touch with WikiLeaks before being shot dead last summer. If true, this could confirm conspiracy theories floated since then by far-right activists that Rich was behind the hacking of the DNC and was therefore targeted by Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party.
But the story fell apart within hours, as Rob Wheeler, the private investigator who had claimed he had evidence of Rich’s contact with WikiLeaks, said he was duped by a Fox News reporter and had never had any proof tying Rich to the leak. Rich’s parents, who had been battling similar claims for months, also denied there was any validity to the story. The D.C. police, which is investigating the case, has never given credence to similar accounts and believes Rich was murdered in a botched robbery attempt. And the FBI made clear it did not have Rich’s laptop computer, which allegedly was used to contact WikiLeaks.
But this did little to kill the story, which broke with suspiciously perfect timing for Trump supporters seeking to draw media attention away from the barrage of negative coverage the president was receiving.
“It’s sad but unsurprising that a group of media outlets who have repeatedly lied to the American people would try and manipulate the legacy of a murder victim in order to forward their own political agenda,” a spokesman for the Rich family, Brad Bauman, said in a statement, adding that “there is a specific place in hell for people like that.”
Leading the coverage was Breitbart, the right-wing website whose previous chief Steve Bannon now serves as President Trump’s top strategist and close adviser. While the mainstream media was focused on scandals surrounding Trump’s leaks to the Russians and on former FBI director James Comey’s memo that Trump had encouraged him not to investigate then-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, Breitbart blasted out coverage of the Rich conspiracy. At one point, the website’s homepage was plastered with a headline reading: “Not Russia, But An Inside Job?”, suggesting that there was no Russian involvement in the efforts to tilt the elections in favor of Donald Trump.
Following suit were other right-wing news outlets, including The Drudge Report, which ran stories quoting the private investigator’s account claiming Rich had contacts with WikiLeaks before he was murdered.
Fox News ran a story about what a title graphic called the “DC Murder Mystery,” even after Rich’s family and officials close to the investigation refuted the claims. Leading the coverage was anchor Sean Hannity, a vocal Trump supporter.
The pro-Trump conspiracy theory outlet Infowars spelled out what others had just hinted at — that the real news story was the DNC’s targeting of Rich, and not Trump’s scandals. “Donald Trump and Seth Rich are both victims of this cold, hard reality,” the website argued, explaining that both were victims of a silencing campaign — Trump by critics determined to drive him out of office, and Rich by the DNC. “The fear and intimidation tactics that are used in Democratic circles are well known, and Seth Rich found out the hard way that you do not cross party leaders,” Inforwars stated.
And as was the case throughout the 2016 election cycle, conspiracy theories posted online found a platform on Twitter, where believers stood ready to spread these stories to millions of followers.
“There never was a Russian hack, There never was Russian interference. There only was a disgruntled Bernie supporter/DNC staffer,” read one of these tweets using the hashtag #Sethrich.
Supporters of the Rich conspiracy theory found some help from automated social media promotion, known as bots. As one Twitter user observed the #Sethrich hashtag was driven by bots at the wee hours of Monday morning, causing America to wake up to a trending story dominating social media.
The claim that Seth Rich had contacted WikiLeaks even made it to the White House briefing room on Tuesday, when press secretary Sean Spicer was asked to comment on the reports. “Generally, I don’t get updates on former DNC staffers. I’m not aware of that,” Spicer responded, refusing to confirm claims of a DNC conspiracy, but also passing on the opportunity to put an end to the rumors.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.