How Russia’s state organs cover the conspiracy theory
On May 15, Fox 5 News ran an ‘exclusive’ story that rejuvenated conspiracy theorists in the United States. Their scoop was a quickly debunked rumor alleging Seth Rich, who was killed in July last year, was a Wikileaks source for the leaked DNC e-mails, rather than Russian hackers.
The story has since been debunked by fact-checkers who found no evidence to back up any of the claims made by Fox 5, and later shared on the Fox News network; on May 23, the network retracted it. Nevertheless, Kremlin-linked media in Russian gave considerable coverage to the story, arguing that it “proved” that Russia had not interfered in the US election.
The investigator whose “findings” ignited the latest conspiracy theory, Rod Wheeler, stepped back from his claims in an interview to Buzzfeed on May 17, saying “that story on Fox 5 last night was inaccurate.” Later that day, Wheeler was interviewed by Fox News again and said “I don’t know for sure, I don’t know as a matter of fact if the emails went out to the Wikileaks or anybody else. But it sure appears that way.”
Ultimately, on May 23, Fox News formally retracted the story, admitting it was “not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny.”
The story was popular in Kremlin-funded media, who widely portrayed it as proving that Russia could not have been involved in the hacking of the DNC emails in 2016.
In the words of an editorial published by one of the Kremlin-funded websites, “the information cuts the very foundation of America’s anti-Russia hysteria.”
The first story on the matter was published by state-funded portal ria.ru, which alleged that Seth Rich had transferred 44,000 e-mails to Wikileaks in the run-up to his murder. In the same article, it also noted that Russia had denied hacking and releasing the DNC e-mails.
State-controlled Channel One also wrote about the “revelations,” suggesting that Seth Rich, not Russian hackers, had leaked the DNC’s e-mails to Wikileaks.
Vesti.ru — a state-owned news outlet — published an article alleging Seth Rich was murdered for leaking to Wikileaks on May 17. On the same day, state-run TV station TVC.ru ran an article arguing that the story cleared Russia of any involvement in the DNC hacking.
NTV, a Russian TV channel partially owned by the Kremlin, also published an article with a revealing headline: “Leaks from the murder case of a Democratic party employee in the US put an end to the ‘Russian hacker’ version.”
Just two days later, the Russian Embassy in the UK published a tweet on the issue (archived on May 22):
— Russian Embassy, UK (@RussianEmbassy) May 19, 2017
The fact that the Russian embassy involved itself in a debunked story is noteworthy in itself, but it also shows a lack of regard to the truth and above all, to Seth Rich’s family, who requested the retraction of the Fox story and sent a cease and desist letter to the investigator behind the latest conspiracy theory.
More recently, on May 21, Channel One published another story on the issue saying the latest “news” confirms that Russia did not hack the DNC.
Internationally, Russia’s state-funded media supported the story’s spread in the US. RT published four stories mentioning Seth Rich between May 16 and May 21.
Once the story was retracted on May 23, RT published an updated version of the article with a mention of retraction in the headline: “Fox News retracts claim that murdered DNC staffer Seth Rich was in contact with WikiLeaks.” The article was further updated late on May 24 with the headline, “Seth Rich WikiLeaks ‘conspiracy’: Fox News forced into dramatic climbdown.”
Unlike RT, Sputnik had not written about the retraction by 20:00 UTC on May 24, despite having earlier hosted a podcast devoted to the story, promising to “talk about the new information regarding DNC staffer Seth Rich’s murder, who exactly are the anonymous sources the US media is relying on daily, and if the CIA and FBI were the main culprits of last fall’s DNC email leaks.”
Instead, on May 24, it published a story with the headline, “Who was Seth Rich?”, asking, “Have all the angles to this story been fully explored? It is really just as simple as it seems? That a man was fed up with corruption, leading to his murder?” The word “retraction” was not mentioned anywhere in the article; nor were the wishes of Rich’s family.
Once Fox News retracted its story and apologized for its inaccuracies, the DFRLab found no mention of the retraction in Russian state-funded media with the exception of RT. The only site that reported the retraction in Russian was Rambler.ru, which is not linked to the Kremlin.
This suggests that Russian state-controlled media is exploiting the latest conspiracy theory surrounding the death of Seth Rich to deflect attention from the claims, and evidence, of Russia’s role in the DNC hacking.
For more in-depth analysis from our regional experts follow the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center.