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For a solid month in early 2017, Fox News, and host Sean Hannity in particular, obsessively covered the death of Seth Rich, a young staffer for the Democratic National Committee. There was a strong chance, according to Hannity, that Rich was the person behind the massive leak of DNC e-mails during the 2016 presidential election, and if that’s true, then isn’t it very suspicious that he was killed on the street shortly thereafter. During one of his nightly broadcasts, Hannity called it "the single biggest fraud, lies, perpetrated on the American people by the media and the Democrats in our history."
This version of the story of Rich’s death, the version that strongly implies that Hillary Clinton had a hand in the revenge killing of a DNC staffer, is unfounded. In fact, Fox was forced to retract their reporting on it, and Rich’s family even sued Fox, claiming that reporter Malia Zimmerman and Ed Butowsky, a frequent Fox News guest, intentionally fabricated the story to make Rich seem like the person responsible for the leaked e-mails.
That seemed to be the end of it. But the Rich case turns out to be much more deliberate than that. In an extensive new piece out on Tuesday, Yahoo News reports that the story actually originated as part of a Russian disinformation campaign. Per Yahoo News:
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.
From there the story started popping up on small blogs, citing Russian intelligence. Over the next two and a half years, the Russian government–owned media organizations RT and Sputnik ran multiple stories suggesting that Rich had provided leaked DNC e-mails to WikiLeaks.
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.
Those efforts to keep the conspiracy theory about Rich’s murder alive online were exceedingly successful, so much so that it eventually bubbled up to Fox News. Deborah Sines, a former U.S. attorney who was in charge of the Rich case until her recent retirement, told Yahoo News that she believes the story was an attempt by Russian intelligence to divert blame for the DNC hack somewhere else, since they were suspected of orchestrating it almost immediately. For Fox News pundits like Hannity—who covered Rich’s death on his radio show long after backing off of it on TV—it had the added benefit of maligning one of their favorite punching bags, the Clintons.
For the network’s part, Fox News claimed that the original story it ran on Rich "was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting." The network then announced an internal investigation to find out how it was vetted in the first place. The results of that investigation have never been made public, but a source told Yahoo News that Fox executives were never able to confirm the identity of an anonymous "federal investigator" who was a primary source for the story. The executives eventually "came to have doubts that the person was in fact who he claimed to be or whether the person actually existed." As a general rule, it’s important that the source for a story actually exist.
Originally Appeared on GQ