Yesterday we went through the map and off the looking glass for a tour of the convoluted information pathway used to create a rooted in conspiracy theories, largely evidence and fact free rebuttal intended to proactively protect the President as a result of the recent arrest and indictment of Jeffrey Epstein. This followed our expedition into the dank meme infested murky waters at the beginning of July regarding Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks and behavior during the congressional delegation visit to tour detention facilities for undocumented migrants and asylum seekers on the southern border. This morning, Yahoo News Michael Isikoff broke the news, ahead of a podcast dedicated to the topic, that it was Russia’s foreign intelligence service, the SVR, that created the conspiracy theory that Seth Rich was murdered on orders of Secretary Clinton* in retribution for stealing the DNC emails and leaking them.
What is not surprising in Isikoff’s reporting is the information pathway for this disinformation campaign to influence American public opinion by muddying the waters around Russia’s undeclared hybrid war and active measures campaign against the US and to negatively influence American attitudes towards Secretary Clinton. (emphasis mine)
In the summer of 2016, Russian intelligence agents secretly planted a fake report claiming that Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich was gunned down by a squad of assassins working for Hillary Clinton, giving rise to a notorious conspiracy theory that captivated conservative activists and was later promoted from inside President Trump’s White House, a Yahoo News investigation has found.
Russia’s foreign intelligence service, known as the SVR, first circulated a phony “bulletin” — disguised to read as a real intelligence report —about the alleged murder of the former DNC staffer on July 13, 2016, according to the U.S. federal prosecutor who was in charge of the Rich case. That was just three days after Rich, 27, was killed in what police believed was a botched robbery while walking home to his group house in the Bloomingdale neighborhood of Washington, D.C., about 30 blocks north of the Capitol.
Yet in a graphic example of how fake news infects the internet, those precise details popped up the same day on an obscure website, whatdoesitmean.com, that is a frequent vehicle for Russian propaganda. The website’s article, which attributed its claims to “Russian intelligence,” was the first known instance of Rich’s murder being publicly linked to a political conspiracy.
The Russian effort to exploit Rich’s tragic death didn’t stop with the fake SVR bulletin. Over the course of the next two and a half years, the Russian government-owned media organizations RT and Sputnik repeatedly played up stories that baselessly alleged that Rich, a relatively junior-level staffer, was the source of Democratic Party emails that had been leaked to WikiLeaks.It was an idea first floated by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who on Aug. 9, 2016, announced a $20,000 reward for information about Rich’s murder, saying — somewhat cryptically — that “our sources take risks.”
At the same time, online trolls working in St. Petersburg, Russia, for the Internet Research Agency (IRA) — the same shadowy outfit that conducted the Russian social media operation during the 2016 election — aggressively boosted the conspiracy theories. IRA-created fake accounts, masquerading as those of American citizens or political groups, tweeted and retweeted more than 2,000 times about Rich, helping to keep the bogus claims about his death in the social media bloodstream, according to an analysis of a database of Russia troll accounts by Yahoo News.
So where did the information flow once it was created, injected into the information domain, and then amplified and reamplified? Through the usual suspects of extreme right conspiracists, the alt-right and other white supremacists, the far fringe of the conservative social media and digital news media ecosystem, surrogates of the President. And from there to Fox News, conservative talk radio, and political commentary and then the mainstream news media jumped on it because it was news that Sean Hannity was hammering this insane conspiracy theory over and over, night after night. (emphasis mine)
The “Conspiracyland” podcast traces the spread of the conspiracy theories about Rich. From their origins as a Russian disinformation plant, the bogus theories about his murder emerged as a persistent theme on alt-right websites and then were fanned by right-wing conspiracy entrepreneurs such as Alex Jones of Infowars and Matt Couch, the founder of an Arkansas-based group called America First Media, which bills itself as “the leading investigative team in America in the Seth Rich murder.”
Along the way, the idea that Rich was murdered in retaliation for leaking DNC emails to WikiLeaks was championed by multiple allies of Trump, including Roger Stone. The same day Assange falsely hinted that Rich may have been his source for DNC emails, Stone tweeted a picture of Rich, calling the late DNC staffer in a tweet “another dead body in the Clinton’s wake.” He then added: “Coincidence? I think not.”
Within months, the Rich conspiracy story was also being quietly promoted inside Trump’s White House. Questions about whether the White House pushed the conspiracy theories about Rich have been raised periodically over the last two and a half years — and were consistently denied by White House officials. But the Yahoo News investigation uncovered new evidence that the false claim that Rich was the victim of a political assassination was advanced by one of the White House’s most senior officials at the time.
“Huge story … he was a Bernie guy … it was a contract kill, obviously,” then-White House chief strategist Steve Bannon texted to a CBS “60 Minutes” producer about Rich on March 17, 2017, according to some of Bannon’s text messages that were reviewed by Yahoo News. (Bannon did not respond to requests for comment.)
The conspiracy claims reached their zenith in May 2017 — the same week as Mueller’s appointment as special counsel in the Russia probe — when Fox News’ website posted a sensational story claiming that an FBI forensic report had discovered evidence on Rich’s laptop that he had been in communication with WikiLeaks prior to his death. Sean Hannity, the network’s primetime star, treated the account as major news on his nightly broadcast, calling it “explosive” and proclaiming it “might expose the single biggest fraud, lies, perpetrated on the American people by the media and the Democrats in our history.”
Among Hannity’s guests that week who echoed his version of events was conservative lawyer Jay Sekulow. Although neither he nor Hannity mentioned it, Sekulow had just been hired as one of Trump’s lead lawyers in the Russia investigation. “It sure doesn’t look like a robbery,” said Sekulow on Hannity’s show on May 18, 2017, during a segment devoted to the Rich case. “There’s one thing this thing undercuts is this whole Russia argument, [which] is such subterfuge,” he added.
In fact, the Fox story was a “complete fabrication,” said Sines, who consulted with the FBI about the Fox News claims. There was “no connection between Seth and WikiLeaks. And there was no evidence on his work computer of him downloading and disseminating things from the DNC.”
We’ve got the following pathway: Russia’s SVR creates the conspiracy theory, it then dumps it through a cutout website where it’s picked up by far right conspiracist and alt-right social media, specifically twitter. RT and Sputnik, which are Russian state controlled news media intended to propogandize Americans and non-Russian audiences in Europe, then reports on it. And Julian Assange promotes it, which further obscured both the GRU’s hacking of these emails and his role as a Russian intelligence asset in disseminating them. From there the conspiracy theory is amplified by the Russian intelligence service adjacent Internet Research Agency bankrolled by “Putin’s Chef” and Wagner Group owner Yevgeny Proghozin. The IRA trolls and bots keep the conspiracy alive where it is picked up by Alex Jones and from there it makes its way to Hannity and Fox News, after a quick detour through Roger Stone, who has a show on Alex Jones’ InfoWars. Once with Hannity it is picked up and reported on as news by the mainstream media and then weaponized in the President’s defense by his new, though not disclosed at the time, defense attorney Jay Sekulow.
What we’re getting, bit by bit, is a network map of the information networks being used to influence Americans. While some of the nodes and links within the information networks may vary a bit from influence operation to influence operation, overall it is the same network that is being weaponized. And a lot of the people in it are Americans targeting other Americans. Sometimes for political gain. Sometimes for profit. Sometimes for the Lulz. And sometimes for all of those reasons.
Nine days ago it was to smear Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez as a tool for distracting from the real issue: that the US is detaining undocumented migrants, asylum seekers, and children separated from their parents in concentration camps. Yesterday it was to create a reasonable sounding, but almost completely fact free prebuttal regarding the President’s longstanding personal friendship with Jeffrey Epstein in light of Epstein’s recent arrest and indictment for sexually trafficking minors. Today we are given a tour of the information network that created and spread the conspiracy theory that Secretary Clinton had Seth Rich murdered as punishment for him stealing the DNC emails. These three examples will not be the only disinformation campaigns that will be revealed. Nor will they be the only ones to leverage this information ecosystem to influence Americans. And they will not all be produced, aided, and abetted by Russia. Other state and non-state actors, including Americans, will continue to weaponize information to influence Americans and America for their own purposes. Until or unless the US government, or failing that, the Democratic candidates and their campaigns, create a viable and effective counter-influence strategy and deploy it operationally, all Americans are at risk from this information warfare.
* As can be seen in the Roger Stone quote in Isikoff’s report, it was easy to weaponize the Seth Rich conspiracy because Republicans and conservatives have been explicitly stating and implicitly implying that Secretary Clinton has been running a 40 plus year operation to murder anyone who crosses the Clintons. According to this larger conspiracy theory, that was pushed into the American information ecosystem during the investigation of Vince Foster’s suicide by Congressman Burton (R-IN) and his lead congressional investigator David Bossie, who went on to be one of the President’s deputy campaign managers, Secretary Clinton killed Foster as she had killed others who had gotten in the way of her or President Clinton’s political, social, and/or economic ambitions. If this conspiracy theory was accurate, WHICH IT IS NOT!!!!!, Secretary Clinton would be the most prolific female serial killer in history. WHICH SHE ISN’T!!!!