You can see the partisan appeal. If you don’t want to believe American intelligence assessments that the Russians were behind the breach — supposedly to help the electoral prospects of President Trump — and if you don’t like all the news about the investigations into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, well, there’s an alternative fact set to grab onto: Mr. Rich did it and paid for it with his life.
The problem, of course, is that there’s no real evidence for the notion.
The police in Washington have theorized that a thief may have killed Mr. Rich in a botched robbery attempt.
The Rich story has been kicking around since July, but flared anew last week, when FoxNews.com and the Fox affiliate in Washington, WTTG, quoted an investigator working with the Rich family as saying that Mr. Rich had been in contact with WikiLeaks before his death.
But when questioned by Oliver Darcy of CNN, the investigator acknowledged that, in fact, he had no evidence to suggest any such thing, and that he was only repeating what the FoxNews.com reporter who interviewed him about the case had told him. (Ed Butowsky, a Dallas businessman who criticized Hillary Clinton last year, acknowledged to CNN that he helped connect the investigator with the Rich family after initially denying it to NBC.)
Still, the story lived on as a meme flowing through conservative media, which seemed to relish the chance to change the subject from the torrent of news spilling forth last week on the president’s Russia troubles.
After calls from Mr. Rich’s family to retract its article, FoxNews.com did so on Tuesday, saying in a statement that it had not gone through “the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting.” It removed the article from its site.
But if you thought that would chasten people pushing the story and lead them to drop it, think again.
Tuesday afternoon Sean Hannity, who had been perpetrating the Rich conspiracy theory on his nightly Fox News show, said on his radio program, “I am not Fox.com or FoxNews.com. I retracted nothing.”
Something — like a reminder that he is under lucrative contract — must have changed in the hours that followed because Mr. Hannity said on his prime-time show on Fox that he would not be “discussing the matter at this time” out of “respect for the family’s wishes.” Astute listeners picked up on two other words in his statement: “For now.”
Like water, conspiracy theories find their own level. So, where Fox News issued its retraction, The International Business Times put up a Facebook post that carried the headline, “BREAKING: Kim Dotcom claims he has evidence that proves murdered DNC staffer Seth Rich was involved in the WikiLeaks hack.”
The article explained that Kim Dotcom is “a New Zealand hacker” — wanted in the United States on racketeering charges, which he denies — and the sum total of the report was that he was making a “claim.” It didn’t include anything about what the details might be, though the hacker said he would be happy to share those with investigators.
The unspecified claim was also picked up by the Gateway Pundit (now credentialed by the White House) and the conspiracy site InfoWars, whose Washington bureau chief, Jerome Corsi, has a long history of spreading corrosive conspiracies. You might know him from his first big breakout hit, “Unfit for Command,” the book of which he was a co-author that formed the basis of the false attack against Senator John Kerry’s Vietnam War record during the 2004 presidential campaign. Millennials may be more familiar with his more recent, anti-Obama “work,” like “Where’s the Birth Certificate?” (“Right here,” Mr. Obama had answered.)
Those were books, and by today’s standards, they may as well have been stone tablets. Actually, as The Financial Times recently noted, the false reportage dates to at least the propaganda war between Mark Antony and Octavian — fought in the century before the birth of Christ, communicated through coins. Coins became the printed page, which became the political advertisement, which became the cable “news” segment, the blog post, the Twitter message and the Facebook post.
So what is new is the speed of the internet and the especially fertile soil of our angry political divide.
Take heart, there are optimists. Brad Bauman, a spokesman for the Rich family (who is open about his work as a liberal political consultant), said in an interview that the developments of this week, capped by Fox News’s retraction, “should not just serve as a cautionary tale but it should also serve as a message that in the end, truth does prevail. But we need to be vigilant.”
And Alan C. Miller, the founder of the News Literacy Project, which teaches middle- and high-school students how to “sort fact from fiction in the digital age,” said the developments of the last year had spurred many more converts to the cause he began pursuing nearly 10 years ago.
“All the viral rumors, conspiracy theories and hoaxes were a wake-up call for at least some people, and certainly some institutions that are now moving to address this, including news organizations, social media organizations and educational institutions,” he told me.
But no matter what the media ecosystem does to stop uncorroborated conspiracies and false information, they will continue to live on as long as there are people eager to spread it and viewers and readers eager to believe it. All the algorithms in the world can’t stop that.