TOPICS > Nation

How a baseless conspiracy theory grew around Seth Rich’s murder

May 24, 2017 at 6:10 PM EDT
The story of Seth Rich's death, and the baseless conspiracy that grew from it, is a story of how fake news spreads. From websites and online forums like Reddit to primetime cable TV, people claimed he was the source of the DNC emails about the Clinton campaign that WikiLeaks released last summer, giving Trump supporters fuel to discredit the investigation into Russian meddling. John Yang reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: how an unsolved murder in the nation’s capital turned into a conspiracy theory, and then became a case study of how false news spreads. It underscores, once again, the problem of polarized politics and divided sources of information.

John Yang reports.

SEAN HANNITY, FOX News: To the extent of my ability, I am not going to stop trying to find the truth.

JOHN YANG: The story of Seth Rich’s death is a story of how fake news spreads from Web sites and online forums like Reddit to prime-time cable TV.

SEAN HANNITY: Another massive breaking news story, explosive developments in the mysterious murder of former DNC staffer Seth Rich.

JOHN YANG: Early one morning last July, 27-year-old Rich was found fatally shot near his Washington, D.C., home. Politics had drawn the Omaha native to the city, and he was working at the Democratic National Committee when he died.

The case is still unsolved. D.C. police theorize it was a botched robbery, the latest in a string of attacks in the neighborhood. As Rich’s family and friends mourned, he became the subject of a baseless conspiracy theory.

The claim was that he was the source of the DNC e-mails about the Hillary Clinton campaign that WikiLeaks released later that month.

MAN: A private investigator says there is evidence to show Rich was communicating with WikiLeaks.

JOHN YANG: Last week, FOX’s Washington station broadcast an interview with FOX News legal commentator Rod Wheeler.

QUESTION: Do you have sources in the FBI saying that there is information that…

ROD WHEELER, FOX News: For sure.

QUESTION: .. that could link Seth Rich to WikiLeaks?

ROD WHEELER: Absolutely. Yes. And that’s confirmed.

JOHN YANG: Two days later, Wheeler backtracked, saying his statements were a miscommunication, but not before Trump ally Sean Hannity devoted a portion of his FOX show to the story, giving Wheeler a much bigger platform for his unsubstantiated claims.

ROD WHEELER: With the totality of everything else that I found in this case, it’s very consistent for a person with my experience to begin to think, well, perhaps there were some e-mail communications between Seth and WikiLeaks.

JOHN YANG: For some conservative commentators, retractions and fact-checks have appeared to make little difference. Supporters of President Trump are trying to use the story to discredit the investigation into Russian meddling in the election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign.

Newt Gingrich on “FOX & Friends” this past Sunday:

NEWT GINGRICH, Former Speaker of the House: We have this very strange story now of this young man who worked for the Democratic National Committee who apparently was assassinated at 4:00 in the morning, having given WikiLeaks something like 23,000 — I’m sorry — 53,000 e-mails and 17,000 attachments. Nobody is investigating that.

JOHN YANG: There is no evidence for those claims.

Yesterday, the FOX News Web site retracted a story it had published on Rich’s death, saying, “It wasn’t initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require, and has since been removed.”

On his radio show yesterday, Hannity initially doubled down.

SEAN HANNITY: I am not or I retracted nothing.

Alexios Mantzarlis is at the Poynter Institute, a journalism school.

ALEXIOS MANTZARLIS, Poynter: Basic journalistic principles weren’t met. Right? The story was run without the source being properly vetted and without the D.C. police or the Rich family being consulted.

JOHN YANG: Today, Rich’s parents wrote in The Washington Post: “The amount of pain and anguish this has caused us is unbearable. With every conspiratorial flare-up, we are forced to relive Seth’s murder and a small piece of us dies as more of Seth’s memory is torn away from us.”

ALEXIOS MANTZARLIS: We have two grieving parents who would like to find out the truth about their murdered son, and what they’re getting instead is avalanche of conspiracy theories and politically motivated spin.

JOHN YANG: On his FOX show last night, Hannity said he’d had heartfelt talks with the Rich family.

SEAN HANNITY: Out of respect for the family’s wishes, for now, I am not discussing this matter at this time.

JOHN YANG: But then he spoke to his fans.

SEAN HANNITY: Please do not interpret what I’m saying tonight to mean anything. Don’t read into this. I promise you I am not doing — going to stop doing my job.

JOHN YANG: Analysts say it underscores the fragmented media world we live in.

ALEXIOS MANTZARLIS: The lesson here is that it is easy to find online and in this enormous wealth of information that there is around us all kinds of stuff, all kinds of conspiracies, all kinds of hoaxes.

If you are predisposed to think that something sketchy happened with the DNC and the leaks, then you are more likely to believe stories that aren’t necessarily true, and as this one. It has been roundly debunked.

JOHN YANG: But still a story that shows no signs of going away, at least in some circles.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m John Yang.