Richard Nixon’s media henchman, Roger Ailes, the founder of the FOX News Channel, died this week. May the abomination he created, “FAUX News,” be buried along with him. Dante had to create a new ring of the Inferno on the arrival of Ailes in Hell to sit at the right hand of Satan, who now has a new PR man.
We’ve discussed this phenomenon before. The conservative media entertainment complex is an ancillary to Russian ‘active measures’ propaganda.
The latest example is the right-wing noise machine’s ginning up a “fake news” conspiracy theory about the suicide of Seth Rich last year. This is something the right-wing noise machine has done before with the Vince Foster conspiracy theory, long before the Russian’s current dezinformatsiya “fake news” cyber war against the U.S. In rumors around a DNC staffer’s death, a whiff of a Clinton-era conspiracy theory:
[A]fter multiple inquiries by police, FBI agents, Republicans, Democrats and two special prosecutors had all debunked the still-persistent falsehood that the Clintons had Vince Foster killed to protect themselves from what he knew.
The latest vessel for Vince Foster paranoia is the story of Seth Rich, a Democratic National Committee staffer who was found shot to death last year, while Hillary Clinton was campaigning for president.
As with Foster, local authorities have tried to dispel rumors that politics played a role in Rich’s death. In this case, D.C. police believe he died in a random robbery attempt.
Relatives have also begged rumormongers to lay off. On Tuesday, a family spokesman decried a Fox News report suggesting Rich was involved in leaking Democratic Party documents before his death.
Dave Weigel of the Washington Post explains, The Seth Rich conspiracy shows how fake news still works:
Nearly one year later, Rich’s death remains one of America’s thousands of unsolved murders — and the focus of endless conspiracy theories, spread this past week by Fox News, alt-right social media, a local D.C. news station and the Russian embassy in Britain. The reemergence of the conspiracy theory this week, which did not lack for real news, revealed plenty about the fake news ecosystem (or to use BuzzFeed’s useful phrase, “the upside-down media”) in the Trump era. It also happened to cause untold pain for the Rich family, which has sent a cease-and-desist letter to the so-called private investigator who led this dive back into the fever swamp.
Here’s what we learned.
TV news can be an easy mark. This iteration of the Seth Rich story started when the District’s own Fox 5 ran a Monday night “exclusive,” citing one source — a Fox News legal commentator, Rod Wheeler — for a “big break in the investigation.” Reporter Marina Marraco reported that “conspiracy theories” could “be proven right,” as Wheeler was saying what had been rumored since last year: Rich might have leaked DNC emails to WikiLeaks, making him the target of an assassination.
“You have information that could link Seth Rich to WikiLeaks?” asked Marraco.
“Absolutely. Yeah. That’s confirmed,” said Wheeler, who Fox 5 identified as the Rich family’s investigator.
Within 24 hours, reporters at NBC News, CNN and The Washington Post had debunked the story. First, Rich’s family quickly corrected the idea that Wheeler was on their payroll; he was hired by Ed Butowsky, a Texas businessman who had grown interested in the case. Next, Wheeler told CNN he hadn’t actually obtained information linking Rich to WikiLeaks — Fox 5, he insisted, had told him to say so.
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In retrospect, it seems natural for the fake story to resurface via a small TV station. But what caused it to surface at all?
Fake news has weakened on Facebook, but its bots still own Twitter. With very little fanfare, likely a result of the backlash it got from conservatives after Gawker revealed its editorial policy for newsfeeds, Facebook has seriously cracked down on the ability of conspiracy and clickbait sites to make stories trend.
There’s been no similar crackdown on Twitter, where conspiracy theorists can still coordinate, start trends, and benefit when bots chime in. That happened this week, in a big way. The theory that Rich must have been killed by nefarious forces at the Democratic National Committee, as punishment for his betrayal to WikiLeaks, has bubbled long enough to have several memes ready for the latest eruption. Even before the Fox5 segment, the #SethRich and #HisNameWasSethRich hashtag were active; the latest “break” in the story came when Robbin Young, a former model who calls herself a “Bond Girl” on the strength of a small role in “For Your Eyes Only,” published unverified messages that she claimed showed the hacker Guccifer 2.0 crediting Rich for the leak.
The hashtag took off in the wake of the Fox5 report. A familiar swirl of conservative media — the Drudge Report, Breitbart — ran people-are-saying updates on how Rich’s name was trending. It was that attention, ironically, that caused Wheeler to be debunked. And it was debunked so quickly that adherents of the theory didn’t realize that the new “break” made no sense. Wasn’t Guccifer the pass-through for the hacked emails? Why would Rich be contacting WikiLeaks?
The most effective conspiracy theories target both the left and alt-right.
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The Rich conspiracy thrived not just because fringe conservatives liked the idea of a break in the “Clinton body count” theory, but that the idea that someone would murder a leaker to cover up a conspiracy against Bernie Sanders would justify so much angst. Briefly, before Wheeler recanted his story, the Young Turks network’s “Jimmy Dore Show” chewed over the revelation that Rich was in contact with WikiLeaks.
And a largely frivolous lawsuit against the DNC — announced in July, and playing out in a Florida court now — has been aggressively covered by the Russian propaganda network RT. (Among the finer points of the lawsuit is that it seeks damages against the DNC for allowing itself to be hacked.) Dore’s show has backed away from the story since Wednesday. RT, unsurprisingly, has not.
Axios makes my earlier point, Conservative media, Russians push same conspiracy:
This week a conspiracy theory tying the death of a young DNC staffer to Wikileaks spread through conservative media. The story ignited outrage from the victim’s parents and the public. Then today:
Why it matters: The President tries to distance himself from the idea that his campaign colluded with Russia, but conservative media that helped elect him (and who go to great lengths to defend him) is pushing the same false narratives as the Russian government.
Fox coverage: The victim’s family is particularly upset with Fox News after the network discussed the topic during nearly every hour of its primetime coverage Tuesday night — even though NBC debunked the theory hours before around 5 p.m.
Between the lines: The sloppy reporting was used to pivot from coverage of a report that could be potentially damaging to Trump and his administration.
How it unfolded, per CNN’s Oliver Darcy
- The network claimed on air that they got the information — that the DNC staffer was in touch with Wikileaks prior to his death — from a private investigator named Rod Wheeler.
- But, Wheeler later told CNN he didn’t have any evidence and that he actually heard the report from Fox.
- Online Fox cited a “federal source” who said the FBI found emails linked to Wikileaks on the staffer’s computer, but a law enforcement official told CNN that the FBI never had possession of of his laptop.
- The family is now demanding a retraction and apology from Fox and a local affiliate who also aired the false story about the unresolved murder case.
Back to Dave Weigel’s report:
Debunking a story still doesn’t end it. Sean Hannity, who’s now a sort of elder statesman in Fox News’s prime time lineup, devoted parts of three episodes this week to the Rich story. The first of these episodes ended in a wreck, with Wheeler giving his last public interview to date, recanting much of his story about Rich and babbling about how a credible source told him a story consistent with, perhaps, Rich having emailed WikiLeaks.
Rush Limbaugh, who discussed the story this week, was just as ready to roll over the facts. After playing a clip of the debunked Wheeler story, in which the investigator claimed that authorities were preventing him from probing the Rich-WikiLeaks connection, Limbaugh claimed that the hacked emails had also been locked up. “Nobody has seen the 44,000 emails! They’re on this guy’s laptop.” But everyone who’s wanted to has seen those emails — they have been on WikiLeaks’s servers since last year.
The absolute faith that there will one day be proof of this conspiracy theory — proof that Democrats carried out a political murder to punish a leak that had already happened — is impervious to reality. It’s bound to attract opportunists. On Saturday, Hannity perked up when he saw the accused copyright violator Kim Dotcom, who is facing extradition, claiming — out of nowhere — that he would break the story wide open.
So: Dotcom, who is facing extradition from New Zealand to America, and who has personally blamed Barack Obama for his legal trouble, claims in May 2017 that he knew crucial details about a political murder from July 2016. Why would he have sat on that during a hotly contested election, one that looked until the last minute to be queuing up Obama’s chosen successor?
None of it makes sense. That means we’re never going to stop hearing about it.
The conservative media entertainment complex that Roger Ailes and his like-minded cohorts built over the years is a fever swamp of conspiracy theories and “fake news.” The worldview of unending grievance was the cornerstone upon which Ailes erected the Fox News Channel. The dark source of Roger Ailes’s power.
It created the perfect breeding ground for Russia’s dezinformatsiya and active measures propaganda cyber war on the U.S. The conservative media entertainment complex is an all too willing and complicit fellow taveler in propaganda.
And yes, there are those on the left who are easily duped by these “fake news” conspiracy theories as well (just read some of the comments posted on this blog). As Dave Weigel pointed out, “The most effective conspiracy theories target both the left and alt-right.”