The complicated origin of the Seth Rich conspiracy theory

On Tuesday, Fox News retracted a story making the case that Seth Rich, a former DNC staffer who was shot and killed in a botched robbery nearly a year ago, was responsible for leaking DNC data to Wikileaks, and was killed as a result.

The conspiracy theory has been floating around certain corners of the internet for months, dating back to well before the election. But it’s gained new traction in recent days thanks to some high-profile conservatives, chief among them Sean Hannity and others within the Fox News universe. Even as his own network distances themselves from the story, Hannity, Geraldo Rivera and others continue to sow doubt and suggest—with no evidence—that Democrats are guilty of murder.

But if Fox News hosts are the ones responsible for bringing the conspiracy to a larger audience, their broadcasts are propped up on the sloppy, ceaseless, and often fabricated work of certain corners of the far-left internet as much as anyone on the far-right. The same online community that continued to prop up Bernie Sanders’ primary campaign long after it was mathematically over; the same one that continues to insist the administration’s ties to Russia are overblown; as much as Sean Hannity, these are the people who continue to give the Seth Rich conspiracy life.

Consider Caitlin Johnstone. A self-proclaimed rogue journalist, she has built a small, cultish following by both masquerading as a cyber-sleuth committed to getting to the bottom of this, and attacking anyone who calmly tries to point out that no, The Deep State™ isn’t responsible for covering up a political assassination.


Take one post from last weekend wherein she raises the alarm over some fishy edits posthumously made to Reddit posts from a username belonging to Seth Rich. In her story, which she opens by promising not to “accuse anyone of anything,” she accuses nameless conspirators of covering up a series of curiously timed posts that — in her estimation — proves Seth Rich was an avowed Bernie Sanders supporter, which in turn suggests he must have been the source of the DNC leaks. Did you follow that? When commenters correctly pointed out that her ironclad “evidence”—a separate Reddit account with the username pandas4bernie which stopped posting roughly around the same time Rich did, and oh by the way Rich also liked pandas—was hilariously spurious, Johnstone doubled down, suggesting with a straight face that there were no other plausible explanations.

You’ll be shocked to learn that the owners of Pandas4Bernie stepped forward days later to insist that they in fact were responsible for the reddit account, that Seth Rich had no connection to them whatsoever, and that posts made to suggest otherwise were likely the result of people hacking into Rich’s accounts—his Reddit passwords were leaked last week, and conspiracy theorists like Kim Dotcom have reportedly tried to hack into his email account to plant incriminating information.

To her credit, Johnstone retracted her story, affixing a disclaimer to the top of the page (though curiously, she also edited out all mention of her panda theory from her original post, leaving nary a trace of her investigative handiwork).

Johnstone is hardly alone in these pursuits. Through crowdfunding sites like Patreon, dozens of freelance left-wing “journalists” — some just earnest skeptics with access to a broadband connection, others whose bylines have appeared in national publications — have taken it upon themselves to downplay or discredit reports of Russian interference in the 2016 election. They have formed an unholy and uneasy alliance with their right-wing counterparts, and liberals would be well-served to ignore or condemn them both in equal measures.


For the fringe left, the motivation is to cast out the remnants of the corporatized Clinton wing of the Democratic party. Accepting that Russia interfered in the 2016 election undermines their argument that Democrats lost in 2016 because of a lousy, faux-liberal platform. For the far right, the problem is essentially the same: Russian influence suggests that maybe it’s not their platform of xenophobia, misogyny, and bigotry that won Donald Trump the White House after all.

Liberals and progressives have a tendency to call out the far-right for their sympathetic views towards Russia and their embrace of conspiracy theories, but there’s less attention paid to those on their left who do the same. That’s at least partially by design: unlike the right, there isn’t the same kind of pipeline leading from the drudgery that festers on left-wing message boards to the mouths of cable news hosts in the same way there is between Infowars and Sean Hannity. The left’s incipient firebrands have a much harder time finding an audience outside their own echo chamber.

At least, for now. We’ve seen for years right-wing conspiracies wind their way through the series of tubes and into the mouths of Republican lawmakers, like the one who insisted President Obama is a Muslim or the one who cast his lot with anti-vaxxers. More recently though, Democrats have gotten tangled up in their own brand of fake news, like Massachusetts Rep. Ed Markey, who cited a bogus report from faux-liberal hysteric Louise Mensch on the House floor in an effort to tar Donald Trump. The Seth Rich conspiracy hasn’t yet been touched a by a sitting member of Congress, but we’ve come close: and it wasn’t a Republican who dipped his toe in, but a Democrat.

Tim Canova, a left-wing darling of the Bernie Sanders crowd who ran a close primary challenge for Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s seat in Florida, has been casting aspersions on the Seth Rich case for months, long before Sean Hannity began obsessing over it on a daily basis. In between social media posts decrying the Trump budget and calling for universal health care, Canova has been sharing the same conspiratorial Seth Rich theories as Johnstone and the far-right. Canova has already set up a committee to run again in 2018.