If you’ve paid any attention at all to politics in recent years, you’ve probably heard this expression at least once or twice: “We’ve always had differences of opinions, but back in the old days, at least we all operated off the same set of facts.”
In case you were wondering why this isn’t the case anymore — and why this lament for the bygone days of a unified information ecosystem is a frequent refrain for scholars, pols and pundits — look no further than the (not so) curious death of a junior Democratic National Committee staffer named Seth Rich in 2016. Courtesy of a blockbuster Yahoo News investigation — and corresponding podcast series, Conspiracyland — the details about how Rich’s slaying gave birth to a nutty yet consequential right-wing conspiracy theory are now out in the open, and would make for a rich chapter in a textbook about fake news economics.
As it turns out, the dark theorizing about Rich’s death, which became a favorite topic among conservative influencers and Fox News hosts, has roots in Russian troll farms. Yes, Rich’s tragic death first got spun by foreign fabricators. But it’s hard to believe our domestic fake news ecosystem wouldn’t have spawned the same chatter on its own.
Some context: Back in July 2016, in the heat of election season, the 27-year-old Rich was shot to death while heading back to his home in Washington, D.C. Police reported the killing as the result of a botched robbery. Seems straightforward enough, right?
All it takes is the donning of a tinfoil MAGA hat and barely a squint to see what really happened here. I mean, just connect the dots! Rich worked for the DNC. The DNC was about a week away from officially handing Hillary Clinton the party’s nomination, itself the result of a conspiracy against Bernie Sanders. Clinton is well known to be a creature of pure wretchedness and evil, consumed by all kinds of vile secrets, harebrained schemes and diabolical plans. Therefore, if it can safely be assumed Rich was a whistleblower — likely the source of those soon to be Wikileaked DNC emails — gunned down in the streets by a Clinton-sanctioned hit squad. Case closed. Didn’t even need to break out the old pin board and yarn to piece this one together. Nope, it’s a clean shave without even the slightest hint of Occam’s razor burn.
On the sliding salaciousness scale of “Hillary has seizures” (remember that one?) to the infamous pizzagate conspiracy, this one falls squarely in the sweet spot: not too wild for any two-decade resident of Camp ABC (Anyone But Clinton) and just ridiculous enough to seem truly sinister.
You would know this all, of course, if you’d spent a little time splashing around the super clean waters of fringe-conservative Twitter. Or maybe you’re a vigilant citizen staying properly informed via the extremely well-sourced diatribes of Alex Jones of Infowars. Of course, all you really would have had to do is visit Fox News in the summer of 2016 to catch Sean Hannity drop this atomic truth bomb on Killary Clintonites.
Not quite so fringe anymore.
So it’s clear, at least to those willing connecting these dots: Rich died because Clinton wanted him dead. What this Yahoo News report presupposes is, maybe he didn’t?
Using evidence gathered by Deborah Sine, a former assistant U.S. attorney who served as the chief investigator on the Rich case until her retirement a year ago, the report alleges Rich’s slaying almost certainly came at the hands of one of two known drug dealers in the area. And the narrative — read: crazy conspiracy theory — that Clinton or the DNC was involved? Yeah, that first hit the internet via a story planted by Russians on the conspiracy website WhatDoesItMean.com.
There’s been a lot of pointing and laughing at Hannity and Fox News in the past 24 hours. And it’s deserved. Hannity peddled this conspiracy for almost a year after Rich’s death, though eventually retired the gimmick — reluctantly — some time after Fox News retracted a story on the theory after sourcing fell apart.
But to say Fox News got tricked by Russian trolls, like this GQ headline serves up, is just wrong. Or, at least, it misses the point. Hannity didn’t have the rug pulled out from under him by some foreign trickster hiding behind a screen in a Moscow. He openly peddled a conspiracy without anything to base it on, and does so regularly. This is the world he lives in and the language he speaks.
Look no further than the recently released text exchanges between Hannity and Paul Manafort, which were made public by a federal court during the trial of Trump’s former campaign chairman (of which I read all 56 pages, because I’m a masochist with too much time on his hands).
Here’s one literal word salad the Fox News host threw Manafort’s way: “HRC, E-mails, Obstruction, Destroying emails, bleach bit, devices no sim cards, Uranium one, Ukraine interference… Intel Leaks Unmasking Potus conversations leaked. My God.”
(If you want a real laugh, read all 56 pages. Hannity and Manafort play a cuter game of digital footsie than anything I’ve ever experienced on a dating app.)
Make no mistake. Hannity didn’t need the subtle incepting of information by Russian trolls. This Rich conspiracy would’ve made its way onto his show regardless of where it came from. Because, as this Yahoo News story neatly lays out, that’s how this stuff works. It starts on some weird website somewhere. Then come the Reddit memes and jokes, and soon extremely popular Twitter trolls — oops, I mean “conservative thinkers” — like Mike Cernovich and Bill Mitchell are pumping it into the public discourse. Alex Jones will certainly pick it up. Sooner or later, a guest panelist will bring it up on Fox News. And Hannity will repeat. So will those close to or even in the White House, as Steve Bannon and Roger Stone did with the Rich fantasy.
Before you know it, the conspiracy becomes conservative canon. This is the fake news economy, where the lifespan of fact and fiction are one and the same.
And if you find that distressing, consider that Hannity is known to have frequent conversations with the president. And, all those weirdly popular Twitter personalities like Bill Mitchell, pro-Trump memeologist Carpe Donktum (online pseudonym) and “investigative” outlet Project Veritas founder James O’Keefe? Trump just invited them all to the White House for a “Social Media Summit.”
Brian Boyle is The Times’ editorial page intern.