In the era of Trump, Big Tech, and the virulent spread of misinformation, it’s hard not to feel like we’re moving closer and closer toward a post-truth dystopia where facts have officially taken a backseat to incendiary or politically divisive theory. Last Saturday, however, arguably marked a turning point in the evolution of fake news, a moment when the mainstreaming of misinformation sprang from mere hypothetical to verifiable reality.
It all began in the early hours of Saturday morning, when news broke that Jeffrey Epstein, the financier-turned-convicted sex offender who was arrested last month on sex trafficking charges, had been found dead in his cell at Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC), a federal jail in New York City. Early reports from MCC indicated that he had died by suicide.
To those following the case, the timing of Epstein’s death, not to mention the circumstances surrounding it, was shocking, to say the least. A mere three weeks before his passing, Epstein had been rushed to the hospital following a reported suicide attempt, which led him to be placed on suicide watch and under close supervision by MCC guards. It was later reported that he was not on suicide watch at the time, for reasons that still remain unclear, a fact that sparked outrage and intense suspicion. Perhaps even more to the point, Epstein’s death came just a day after thousands of court documents from a previous lawsuit were released, thus implicating many famous and powerful men, including Prince Andrew, billionaire Glenn Dubin, and former Gov. Bill Richardson. (All three have denied any wrongdoing.)
Almost immediately, the social media misinformation machine went into overdrive. Among the usual suspects on the far-right, most conspiracy theories centered around the fact that former President Bill Clinton, a former Epstein crony, had ordered a hit on Epstein in prison, dredging up a decades-old conspiracy theory and causing terms like #ClintonBodyCount and #Arkanicide to trend. (President Trump later endorsed this theory by retweeting a post by conspiracy theorist Terrence K. Williams, which said, “#JefferyEpstein had information on Bill Clinton & now he’s dead.”) Many on the left followed suit, accusing Trump of having orchestrated a hit on Epstein in prison, resulting in the #TrumpBodyCount hashtag. One theory promoted by indie pop band Foster the People was that Epstein had faked his own death, tweeting New York Post photos of Epstein’s corpse and comparing them to photos taken of the financier while he was alive. “My guess is, Epstein’s on a private plane to somewhere in the middle east getting prepped for plastic surgery right now,” the account tweeted.
What was so surprising about these conspiracy theories was not that they existed; due to Epstein’s wealth and high-powered social network, the financier and his “little black book” had served as conspiracy theory fodder for years, with the Miami Herald‘s November 2018 investigation into the government’s mishandling of his 2007 sexual abuse conviction bringing it to the mainstream. What was different this weekend was who was promoting them. Public figures from Joe Scarborough to former Senator Claire McCaskill to Billions showrunner Brian Koppelman to Washington Post reporter Carol Leonnig, who questioned the suicide narrative by tweeting that sources had described him as “being in good spirits in recent days,” took their turn poking holes in the official narrative. Even economist Paul Krugman dabbled in some light conspiracy theorizing, tweeting, If we were living in a paranoid fantasy universe, I would be very suspicious about the Epstein suicide, even about whether it was really suicide. And you know what? The Epstein case itself shows that we *are* kind of living in a paranoid fantasy universe.”
If one spent enough time on social media, it’d be fairly easy to conclude that the belief that Epstein would rather take his own life than face his accusers in court was actually something of a fringe position. “It was a moment, really, of collective fictions being written,” Joan Donovan, director of the Technology and Social Change (TaSC) Research Project at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, tells Rolling Stone. “People were participating in this discourse and adding different pieces to these theories and all these unprovable assertions.” It was as if, a friend later told me, everyone who followed the deaths on social media was being radicalized at the same time, his death proving a testament to the power of bipartisanship in the most embarrassing possible way. “It’s like we’re all being Jeffpilled,” he said, a reference to “red-pilling,” or the term men on the far-right use to describe the process of their radicalization.
He reportedly tried to kill himself two weeks ago. And is allowed to finish the job now? Bullshit.
— Joe Scarborough (@JoeNBC) August 10, 2019
If we were living in a paranoid fantasy universe, I would be very suspicious about the Epstein suicide, even about whether it was really suicide. And you know what? The Epstein case itself shows that we *are* kind of living in a paranoid fantasy universe
— Paul Krugman (@paulkrugman) August 10, 2019
Something stinks to high heaven. How does someone on suicide watch hang himself with no intervention? Impossible. Unless…..
— Claire McCaskill (@clairecmc) August 10, 2019
Though we know very little about the circumstances surrounding Epstein’s death, it’s undoubtedly true that the official narrative, as it stands now, poses a lot of unanswered questions. Reports that Epstein was no longer on suicide watch, and that he was not being closely monitored by guards every 30 minutes as is standard procedure, points to gross incompetence at best, as does the news that his cellmate had been moved after he was taken off suicide watch, a significant deviation from prison protocol. “I was appalled, and indeed the whole department was, and frankly angry, to learn of the MCC’s failure to adequately secure this prisoner,” attorney general William Barr said on Monday regarding MCC’s handling of the situation. (MCC has not responded to requests for comment.)
In the absence of answers to these questions, there’s ample room for people to draw their own conclusions about what happened to Epstein, says Jennifer Grygiel, assistant professor of communication at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. “Conspiracy theories take off anytime there is mass consensus around something or the inability to disprove something easily,” they say. The lack of transparency surrounding federal penitentiary protocols, combined with the already-immense media interest in the case and the timing of Epstein’s death, created a perfect storm for conspiracy theorists of all stripes.
Twitter’s amplification of the numerous Epstein-related conspiracy theories, combined with the media’s amplification of Twitter’s amplification of the conspiracy theories, perfected the conditions for chaos and misinformation to thrive. In addition to #TrumpBodyCount and #ClintonBodyCount, #ClintonCrimeFamily, #Arkanicide, #EpsteinMurder, and even just #Clintons were trending at various times on Saturday. The fact that these hashtags were actively being featured in the platform’s trending topics module basically ensured that millions of users eager for more information on a breaking news story would be fed false, incendiary, and arguably politically damaging information. The fact that users are incentivized to engage with hashtags to boost their own content only served to further disseminate that information. (Twitter has previously said that it considers “the newsworthiness of the content, or if it is in the public interest” when evaluating whether to feature a trending topic — though as Saturday’s “Disinformation World Cup” proved, it often does whether the content is verifiably true or not.)
Of course, it’s not particularly novel to note that in the absence of traditional gatekeepers, social media creates the ideal conditions for misinformation to thrive; nor is it a new observation that the platforms play a large role in boosting it. What made the Epstein case unique, however, was the sheer amount of unfounded speculation from from people with massive platforms, on all sides of the political spectrum — and even, in some cases, from those who have traditionally (and correctly) taken Trump to task for propagating conspiracy theories of his own. Whether you agree that someone like, say, Joe Scarborough deserves the label of gatekeeper or arbiter of truth, the fact remains that he has it — and while dipping a toe in the pool of baseless speculation is not the same as pulling a Trump and cannonballing right in, it is highly dispiriting, to say the least, to see them swimming in the same waters.
It’s tough to overstate just how deleterious such rampant theorizing from high-profile sources is to the public conversation, says Donovan. While we can’t discount the role bots may have played in promoting hashtags like #ClintonBodyCount, “I personally think in moments like this, it doesn’t necessarily require that kind of wedge amplification for this to become a very destabilizing issue because of the types of people participating in the discourse,” she says. That applies doubly for journalists, even those who dabbled in conspiratorial rhetoric without directly engaging in it. “We’re in this trust crisis with journalism itself already. Contributing to conspiracy-making really tilts the scales further toward distrust of the media.”
Who knew today would be the Disinformation World Cup.
— Justin Hendrix (@justinhendrix) August 10, 2019
Platforms like Twitter are not perfect mirrors of the national discourse, in that they “distort and magnify” preexisting conversations that happen IRL, says Donovan. But it’s also increasingly impossible to ignore the impact social media has on our lived realities, and it would be naive to pretend the ill-informed, hyper-politically charged conversations we have on the internet are totally distinct from those we have in real life. And in scrolling through my Twitter feed on Saturday, I had the distinct feeling that what I was watching was not just the churn of yet another news cycle dominated by sensationalist hot takes (though there was that), or yet another opportunity to take the platforms to task for not providing enough oversight (though there was that too). To be honest, it felt much bigger than that. What I thought I was seeing was both the beginning and the end: the beginning of an Epstein conspiracy theory industrial complex used as a political rallying cry, as Conspiracy of Lies author Anna Merlan wrote, but also, more generally, the end of an information ecosystem that at least feints at asking questions before pretending to have the answers.
I ran this by Grygiel, expecting her to dismiss it offhand, but what she told me the rise of conspiracy theories actually might portend was more horrifying than what I’d thought. “Twenty years from now, people are going to get so much exposure from thoughts and ideas from a multitude of sources, so their perception of reality will be more amorphous,” they say. “It’s just too much content, too many sources for us to all have the same lived experience in reality.” Because conspiracy theories don’t just alter the way we view the news cycle. They fundamentally alter the way we process information, and in so doing, change the way we view the world ourselves.