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Can't Handle the Truth

The Wikileaks-Linked Murder Conspiracy Consuming Conservative Media

A baseless rumor about a tragic murder has become the most important story in some corners of the internet—and on Sean Hannity's show.

by Mike Pearl; illustrated by Lia Kantrowitz
May 20 2017, 4:00am

Photo illustration by Lia Kantrowitz

Welcome back to Can't Handle the Truth, our Saturday column looking at the past seven days of fake news and hoaxes that have spread thanks to the internet.

Infowars and Brietbart got a lot of mileage this week out of a conspiracy theory. That's not exactly news. But this theory broke through to Fox News this week thanks to a confusing local TV news story. Now a very real murder has become a very big fake story.

If you aren't familiar with the story of Seth Rich, here goes: Last July, in the wee hours of the morning, Rich, a 27-year-old Democratic National Committee employee, was violently accosted near his Washington, DC home, beaten, and shot twice in the back. He later died in a hospital. Neighbors said the murder came during a rash of robberies. Oddly, nothing was taken from Rich.

The following month, with the murder still unsolved, Rich's family sought help from the public.

Over the next few months, Rich's death became fodder for a conspiracy theory that was mostly passed around on 4chan and Reddit's /r/the_donald. The story was that some high-ranking Democrat—likely Hillary Clinton—ordered Rich's death because he knew about a nefarious DNC voter fraud scheme, was going to testify about it, and was the source of the DNC emails that ended up on Wikileaks. (It is generally assumed that hackers backed by Russia broke into the DNC's emails, though Wikileaks founder Julian Assange insists that the Russian government didn't provide documents.)

By September, "Seth Rich" had gone from being the name of a murder victim to being a political prop. Rewards were offered by not just anti-Clinton factions but also one anti-Trump rich guy. Rich's parents gave a statement to Newsweek, saying, "It's unfortunate and hurtful that at the moment a murderer remains at large, there remains unfounded press speculation about the activities of our son that night," adding, "We should be focusing on the perpetrator at large."

I'm going to stop and tell you right here before we get too deep into this: like any good conspiracy theory, it sounds if not true, then at least plausible—at least if you believe that Democrats in general (and Clinton in particular) are evil. And hey, it could be true—just like it could be true that Benjamin Franklin choked four Parisian prostitutes to death (I defy you to prove me wrong). But there just isn't any evidence that Rich's murder was such a complex affair.

But that didn't stop the theory from making it all the way to Fox News this week.

Sean Hannity has clearly bought into the conspiracy hook, line, and sinker. On Tuesday, when most media outlets were covering new revelations about the investigation into the Trump campaign's supposed connections to Russia, Hannity was trumpting "explosive developments" in the Seth Rich case. He kept this up on Thursday as well. Here's what Hannity still felt his viewers needed to know as of Thursday:

  • "Suspiciously, 12 days after Seth Rich died, Wikileaks published the leaked emails from the DNC."
  • "Also, following Rich's death, Wikileaks offered a $20,000 reward, looking for information leading to the conviction of the person or persons responsible for this murder."
  • "Then in August of 2016, during an interview on Dutch TV, Julian Assange of Wikileaks implies, pretty strongly, that Seth Rich may have been a Wikileaks source."

This was all basic Reddit stuff. As for an "explosive development," all Fox ever had was... one private investigator who was frequent Fox News guest making a wild claim on Monday on a local Fox station that ostensibly proved that Rich was the DNC leaker. This PI, named Rod Wheeler, was asked by Fox if he had FBI connections who were in possession of information linking Rich to Wikileaks. Wheeler said that he "absolutely" did, adding, "and that's confirmed."

But Wheeler later clarified that all that wasn't true. "That story on [local news station] Fox 5 last night was inaccurate," he told Buzzfeed on Tuesday. Wheeler's supposed information about Rich's connection to Wikileaks had come from a conversation with a local TV reporter. In short, Wheeler was confused, or lying, or both, and it got out of control.

The local Fox affiliate that started this latest wave of speculation into Rich's death covered Wheeler's backtracking. But that didn't stop the conspiracy from spreading.

Amazingly, the Russian Embassy in the UK tweeted about the conspiracy on Friday. What's more, Hannity has just kept on harping on this point even after Wheeler's story unraveled. The Fox News website also still has its original story up, with no update about Wheeler's later backtracking.

The Rich family, for their part, don't seem all that interested in Wikileaks, Julian Assange, or Sean Hannity, but they do want Fox to apologize. On Wednesday, their spokesman said the family expects a full retraction of the debunked story, "or else we will be looking into other ways we can compel Fox 5 to do the right thing. At this point, everything is on the table."

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