On Wednesday night, NBC News reported that disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein, who is currently awaiting trial on charges of sex trafficking and sex trafficking conspiracy, was found injured and semi-conscious in his cell with two abrasions on his neck. While initial details were sketchy, sources at Metropolitan Correctional Center, the prison where Epstein was being held, suggested to NBC News that the injury was possibly the result of a failed suicide attempt, though investigators have not yet ruled out that another inmate may have assaulted him.
Yet on social media, one explanation alone dominated the conversation: the Clintons did it. On Thursday morning, #ClintonBodyCount was one of the top trending topics on Twitter, with many speculating that Epstein’s injuries were the result of an attempt on his life that was orchestrated by his former friends. A list circulating on social media of supposed Clinton “victims,” or people who had purportedly had some connection to Bill and/or Hillary Clinton who had died by suicide. A Daily Beast story published that morning reporting that Epstein had visited the White House a number of times in the early 1990s only added fuel to the fire.
Another rumor that spread on Twitter focused on former Westchester County police officer Nicholas Tartaglione, another MCC inmate convicted of having killed four men involved in a drug trafficking ring, who reportedly was brought in for questioning regarding Epstein’s injuries. According to the Rockland/Westchester Journal News, Tartaglione was found with a contraband mobile phone in his cell, leading many armchair sleuths to speculate as to why he had a phone and whether he had any involvement with the incident resulting in Epstein’s injuries; yet Tartaglione’s cell phone was discovered by guards on July 3rd, not on July 23rd, as many on social media have claimed. (Through his attorney, Tartaglione has denied any involvement.)
To be clear, there is absolutely zero evidence supporting any of these theories. Bill Clinton has not been accused of any sexual impropriety in relation to Epstein, and following Epstein’s arrest, he has distanced himself from the disgraced financier, releasing a statement saying he knew nothing of the allegations against him, and had not seen Epstein in over a decade. Yet as of Thursday afternoon, though by press time the #ClintonBodyCount hashtag no longer appeared to be trending, it had more than 87,000 tweets regurgitating the idea that the Clintons were responsible for not just the incident involving Epstein, but countless other “mysterious” deaths over the past few decades. And in the context of an ongoing conversation about how social media platforms are not doing enough to curb the spread of conspiracy theories and fake news — and that Twitter specifically has been accused of playing a particularly egregious role in spreading misinformation— this is not a particularly good look for the platform.
Told ya all to put him somewhere safe.
His little black book is going to make Heidi Fleiss book look like a Bible.
ALL, ALL those names want him dead.
But most of all he will become part of the #ClintonBodyCount https://t.co/eGIab1ZA4h
— cmconcepts (@cmconcepts) July 25, 2019
The idea that the Clintons are covertly murdering their enemies has been circulating in far-right circles for decades, predating many of the more popular conspiracy theories centering on the left-wing establishment. As investigative journalist Brandy Zadrozy tweeted, it was started in the early 1990s by Linda Thompson, an Indianapolis-based GOP activist emboldened by the swirl of conspiracy theories surrounding the Waco, Texas, disaster. She began circulating a list of 26 names of those supposedly killed by the Clintons, all of whom died under “other than natural circumstances,” many with only the most tenuous connection to the family itself. The list caught the attention of uber-conservative California Representative William Dannemeyer, who called for a hearing investigating the matter. (For what it’s worth, Dannemeyer was notoriously nuts, and was known for railing against “militant homosexuality” and demanding that HIV-positive people be forcibly quarantined; he died earlier this month at the age of 89.)
Since then, many so-called “mysterious” deaths have been linked to the Clintons, from the 1987 murder of two teenage boys who were found stabbed to death in Little Rock, Arkansas, to former White House counsel Vince Foster, perhaps the most famous alleged victim of the Clintons, who was found dead in his car in 1993 of a gunshot wound to the head. (Investigations into Foster’s death concluded that his death was indeed a suicide.)
As perhaps the most recognizable and widely reviled face of the leftist establishment, the Clintons are an easy target for far-right conspiracy theories, says Gordon Pennycock, assistant professor of behavior science at the Hill/Levine Schools of Business at the University of Regina, who studies the psychology behind people promoting fake news on social media. By virtue of the Clintons’ longevity in the political machine, they’ve also forged enough political contacts (including Epstein, who flew Bill Clinton on his jet for a handful of speaking engagements in the early 2000s) that there’s “easy opportunity for people to make connections that aren’t there,” he tells Rolling Stone — and of course, making connections that aren’t there is the basis of any good conspiracy theory.
It’s also not surprising that Epstein in particular would make for particularly good grist for the conspiracy theory mill. As a well-connected billionaire accused of sexually abusing dozens of young girls, Epstein embodies a narrative that has long appealed to right-wing conspiracy theorists: A seemingly infallible figure, bolstered by money, fame, and power, is brought to their knees by allegations of child sexual abuse, arguably the most evil thing a person could ever be accused of doing. (This is the same narrative that has spurred the propagation of QAnon, a conspiracy theory based on the idea that Hillary Clinton and other Democratic operatives are heavily involved in a child sex trafficking ring.) The fact that Epstein is Jewish (and thus, according to many far-right conspiracy theorists, inherently embedded in global Zionist banking conspiracies) is arguably icing on the cake.
What’s an entirely different question, however, is how hashtags like #ClintonBodyCount end up trending on social media, thus becoming highly visible to people who may not otherwise have been exposed to the theory in the first place. What makes this particular trend terrifying is the fact that, contrary to some speculation on Twitter that it was driven largely by bots, its spread appears to have been largely organic, says Joan Donovan, PhD, director of technology and social change at Harvard Kennedy’s Shorenstein Center, who points out there didn’t appear to be a significant amount of bot activity associated with it. The fact that it gained so much traction in such a short amount of time is testament to the lifespan of a trending topic and the feedback loop it creates, with the fact that it’s trending causing it to trend even more. “It goes to show there are people participating in it because it’s trending — not because it’s something they believe in, but because they want to participate in the conversation,” she says.
Pennycook’s research confirms this. He says that the majority of the people who share popular conspiracy theories aren’t even what could be categorized as “true” believers, and their decision to promote such content likely rests on little more than “intuition and gut feeling,” he says. “This is why social media propagates these things: you don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to propagate conspiracy theories. All you have to do is read the link and retweet it.”
As for why Twitter would not remove the hashtag from its list of trending topics, a large part of the issue is that Twitter’s guidelines do not expressly prohibit conspiracy theories or misinformation from trending. The guidelines for trending topics state that Twitter may “consider the newsworthiness of the content, or if it is in the public interest when evaluating potential violations”; the fact that the Clintons are public figures means the #ClintonBodyCount hashtag may have fallen into this category.
While fake news is an issue for most large tech platforms, it seems to be a particularly difficult issue for Twitter. One 2018 study, for instance, found that fake news spread much more easily on Twitter than other social media platforms, with hoax stories spreading six times faster than real news stories. While the researchers initially attributed this discrepancy to bots, they found that even when bots were taken out of the equation, human users were much faster to share fake news than they were legitimately sourced stories. Further, while CEO Jack Dorsey has voiced his support for preventing the spread of fake news on the platform, he’s been extremely circumspect about how he plans to do so. Last year, he admitted to CNN that the company had “not figured [the issue of curbing fake news] out,” Dorsey said, “but I do think it would be dangerous for a company like ours… to be arbiters of truth.” He later walked back on these comments somewhat, saying in a town hall that the company had an obligation to prevent the spread of fake news that was “intending to mislead” others, but he failed to elaborate on exactly how the company planned to discern the intent of those sharing misinformation.
Part of Twitter’s reluctance to curb such misinformation, says Pennycook, stems from the platform’s fear of being accused of political bias or censorship, an accusation that was previously leveled against the platform when it banned far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. (Trump has also directly engaged in this debate, accusing the platform of silencing right-wing voices.) “They frame it as a free speech issue, but really what it is is, they don’t want to alienate individuals who use the platform,” Pennycook says.
While conspiracy theories like Pizzagate and the Clinton body count list sound silly on their face, the truth is that social media platforms’ insistence on ducking accusations of bias or refusing to be “arbiters of truth” has yielded some immediate and harmful consequences: One 2016 survey found that nearly 50% of Trump voters believed in “Pizzagate,” the conspiracy theory suggesting that Hillary Clinton was involved with a child sex trafficking ring based out of a Washington, D.C. pizzeria; while a 2019 survey found that nearly 28% of Americans believe that vaccines are unsafe, a false belief that has largely been propagated by social media and has arguably contributed to the recent spread of measles outbreaks throughout the country. “Twitter should and does have a responsibility to monitor what hashtags do trend and to ensure when they are pointing users to what is trending on their platform, they should try to vet or moderate the content,” says Donovan.
Fix your fucking trash app @Jack
— Kno (@Kno) July 25, 2019
Went to water my plants this morning after a few days of extreme heat, and discovered that my beloved succulent had wilted and died.
— Jules Suzdaltsev (@jules_su) July 25, 2019
In a statement to Rolling Stone, a Twitter spokesperson said only that “trends are determined by velocity, not volume,” or how rapidly a topic tends to move through various networks. This is ostensibly intended to curb trending topics being dominated by stories in the news cycle, as well as bots flooding the trending topics list. But it’s unclear the degree to which Twitter employs human moderators to prevent fake news from trending. Donovan sums up the issue: “We have people talking to people talking to algorithms talking to people…and the algorithm doesn’t have any contextual decision-making power to say, ‘Maybe this is a bad idea.'”
In terms of steps that Twitter could take to curb the spread of misinformation, “if they aren’t already doing human review of trending topics, they should start,” Donovan says. According to a 2018 report from the Knight Foundation, asking users to pass an occasional captcha test could go a long way toward eliminating the scourge of bots; Pennycook also suggests that “social media companies can use user ratings of news source trustworthiness to inform their algorithm,” essentially crowdsourcing the process of determining which sources are reliable and which ones are not. And to be fair, Twitter has taken small steps toward trying to remedy the issue by purging bots and banning a handful of prominent conspiracy theorists like Jacob Wohl, who was kicked off the platform in February for operating multiple fake accounts.
But the spread of #ClintonBodyCount, as well as the viral #QBaby hashtag last week, clearly indicates that it’s falling radically short. Even if, as Pennycook notes, the vast majority of those who promote inaccurate or misleading hoaxes do not actually buy into the ideas they’re spreading, that doesn’t stop them from being shared, nor does it stop the platforms from boosting them. And when more people are exposed to inaccurate ideas, there’s a higher risk of them actually believing them — because why wouldn’t you believe something that’s repeated by a wide range of sources, over and over and over again?