Last July, a 27-year-old Democratic National Committee staffer named Seth Rich was shot and killed while walking home in Washington D.C. His murder remains tragically unsolved, which is part of the reason it’s spawned a few insidious conspiracy theories, alleging that Rich was targeted by Hillary Clinton-paid thugs because he was behind the leaked emails that plagued her presidential campaign in 2016.
The theory was spawned on alt-right message boards that fueled many of last year’s worst elements, but has slowly crawled its way out of that sludge pile and attached itself to more established sources like Sean Hannity and Newt Gingrich.
The Washington Post has a solid breakdown of how this piece of fake news with no basis in reality morphed into something more dangerous. It’s a bit complicated, but it all starts with Fox 5, a local news channel in D.C., and a so-called scoop they got from a legal commentator named Rod Wheeler. He appeared on the channel to confirm that Rich might have leaked Clinton emails to Wikileaks, and that made him the target of an assassination.
“You have information that could link Seth Rich to WikiLeaks?” asked Fox 5 reporter Marina Marraco.
“Absolutely. Yeah. That’s confirmed,” said Wheeler, identified by Fox 5 as the Rich family’s investigator. He went on to say that someone—maybe the FBI, maybe the D.C. police—had confiscated Rich’s laptop, which would be pretty explosive.
There was just one problem. Well, there were a lot of problems. First of all, Wheeler isn’t the Rich family’s investigator. He’d been hired by a Texas businessman who had no personal connection to Rich whatsoever. Second, Wheeler didn’t actually have any information linking Rich to Wikileaks. He insisted Fox 5 had just told him to say he did. The Rich family also refuted Wheeler’s claim that Seth’s laptop had been confiscated, taking the wind out of the only real bombshell in the report. Wheeler ended up recanting his report almost entirely.
That should have been the end of the conspiracy theory but, of course, these things have a way of sticking around like cancer on social media. Facebook has actually done a lot of work to defang the spread of fake news on its platform, so these days, you’re more likely to find fake news on other sites. And it was on Twitter that the Seth Rich conspiracy really gained traction, with hashtags like #HisNameWasSethRich picking up thousands of retweets.
As the Post pointed out, the conspiracy theory doesn’t even make any sense. The leaked emails were almost entirely boring, with the one exception being that DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz seemed salty about Bernie Sanders’ refusal to drop out of the race. That was irresponsible of Wasserman Schultz and it cost her a high-profile job, but it’s far from the sort of earth-rattling scandal that would lead a young DNC staffer to reach out to Wikileaks; much less for his bosses to have him assassinated.
But none of that has stopped the theory from being spread by people who should know better. Sean Hannity has devoted time on several episodes of his Fox News show to the story and has been tweeting about it consistently. Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich have both referenced it as absolute fact as well, even though there’s no evidence whatsoever to support it. Perhaps more surprisingly, plenty of people on the far left have also swallowed the conspiracy theory, since it’s attractive to a certain brand of Bernie Sanders supporter who is convinced Hillary Clinton went to inconceivable lengths to triumph in the primary.
And all this overshadows an overwhelming tragedy: the loss of a young man’s life, and the family who is still missing him, but have been denied—in the words of their spokesman—”a chance to mourn.” His family deserves better than being used as a meme for political opportunists, and so does his memory.