Why Seth Rich's Murder Still Fuels Far-Right Conspiracy Theories a Year Later

A photo of former DNC staffer Seth Rich, whose death has sparked conspiracy theories from the far right, dressed in patriotic apparel. Twitter

Exactly one year ago, at 4:19 a.m. on July 10, 2016, officers of the Metropolitan Police Department responded to a shooting on the 2100 block of Flagler Place, in the Northwest section of Washington, D.C. At the scene, they found "an adult male victim conscious and breathing, and suffering from gunshot wounds," according to a subsequent MPD report. The 27-year-old man was taken to a local hospital, where he died.

His name was Seth Rich.

In the months since his murder, Rich has become an obsession of the far right, an unwilling martyr to a discredited cause. On social media sites like Reddit and news outlets like World Net Daily, it is all but an article of faith that Rich, who worked for the Democratic National Committee, was the source who gave DNC emails to WikiLeaks, for which he was slain, presumably, by Clinton operatives. If that were to be true—and it very clearly isn't—the faithful believe it would invalidate any accusations that Donald J. Trump's campaign colluded with Russia in tilting the election toward him.

The longevity of the Rich conspiracy theory points to the troubling extent to which segments of the Republican Party have been infected by conspiratorial thinking, whether about the Rich murder or the Trump presidency, the firing of FBI director James B. Comey or global warming. Facts land like pebbles against the armament of fervent conviction. The truth is out there, only it's not playing out on CNN or in the pages of The New York Times .

Appeals from Rich's grieving family have led the conspiracy theory's most prominent promulgator, Sean Hannity of Fox News, to declare that he would stop discussing "investigation" on his nightly show. Journalistic scruples, not to mention basic human decency, probably factored less in his decision than the widely reported displeasure of Fox News executives.

But the fixation over who killed Rich—the murder remains unsolved—persists, even without the nightly Fox News attentions. That may be a testament to the increasing irrelevance of Rupert Murdoch's network to digital natives for whom "news" may mean the Twitter feed of Jack Posobiec or the Medium posts of Mike Cernovich, two of the more popular figures on the alt right, both of whom are given to wild exaggerations and outright deceptions.

So while Fox News has gone quiet on Rich, the internet hasn't.

I posted this video about Seth Rich on July 25, 2016 -- shot it at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. pic.twitter.com/pRLWKHCgjn

— Lee Stranahan ⏳ (@stranahan) July 10, 2017

"Seth Rich is Russia," explained a woman named Kelly to World Net Daily (she didn't reveal her last name). Kelly, who tweets at @AmericanLuvSong, is organizing a vigil for Rich in Washington, D.C., later today. Like many of those "investigating" the Rich murder, she is confident of what happened and why, even if the facts don't support her version of events: "He was bringing forth information that would take down some really high-level people and possibly the Democratic Party and, for that, we can only surmise, he's no longer here."

Meanwhile, the Gateway Pundit, another alt-right site, claims that a "mysterious IT specialist, who goes by the name The Forensicator, published a detailed report that appears to disprove the theory that the DNC was hacked by Russia." In part, the claim is based on the conclusion that the high speed at which the emails were copied rules out the possibility of them having been transferred across the Atlantic to Russia.

And while the news cycle may seem brutally short, it can be curiously long on the Internet, where a suspicion accrues into a theory and then grows into a full-blown conspiracy theory.

DNC murder Seth Rich
Two flags mark the spot in Bloomingdale, a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in a once-blighted area, where DNC staffer Seth Rich was murdered. Jeff Stein/Newsweek

Late last month, The Profiling Project, an organization funded by Republican operative Jack M. Burkman and staffed by forensic psychology students at The George Washington University, published a report that stipulated the murder was committed "by a hired killer or serial murderer." The Profiling Project subsequently requested that the DNC turn over correspondences related to the investigation. The request was rebuffed, according to World Net Daily: "The DNC is not interested in propagating conspiracy theories about a beloved colleague," that response said.

It's worth noting how closely the DNC remains tethered to the Clintons, as it explains— in part—why the right is fixated on the murder of a junior DNC employee. The head of the DNC at the time of the Rich murder was Florida congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who had to resign from her post after the Wikileaks trove showed her to have plainly favored Clinton over her rival, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. The current DNC head, Thomas E. Perez, is also a Clinton associate who auditioned to serve as her vice president.

Hillary Clinton first described a "vast right-wing conspiracy" to depose her husband in 1998. It was smart analysis, and probably more true than many Democrats understood at the time. So why didn't she act accordingly? Since then, she and her husband have done everything imaginable to fuel such conspiracies, as if perversely wanting to prove the Republicans correct, all those years after Ken Starr went after Monica Lewinsky's infamous blue dress.

In the years after Bill left office, the Clintons seemed to court conspiracy the way August courts humidity: The Clinton Foundation, Hillary's paid speeches, Bill's involvement in Russian uranium deals, Huma Abedin and her sexting husband Anthony D. Weiner, Douglas J. Band and his vaguely unseemly Teneo Holdings consultancy, and, above all, the private email server in Westchester County.

Bill flew around on "Air Fuck One" while Hillary lectured Goldman Sachs on the new world order. They were either clueless or careless. Either way, they supplied the far right with enough plot lines to keep 4chan and Reddit busy for the next millennium.

Obviously, none of that excuses the ugliness of the Rich "investigations," which continue despite his family's heartfelt pleas. Most responsible are members of the media—Hannity, but not Hannity alone—who trotted out irresponsible claims, disguising them as truth-telling. That was a cynical decision, a ratings play. But on social media sites like 4chan and on The_Donald subreddit, there are plenty of people who have nothing to gain from their unflagging interest in the Rich murder. Their interest in the case is more intriguing, more worthy of consideration, because it is probably more genuine than that of someone on the lookout for his Nielsen numbers.

It is also more troubling. Only in a society lacking civic faith could so many people believe that a young man was murdered by his own employers for forwarding what turned out to be, in the end, embarrassing work emails. This is one of the several tragedies about the Rich murder, the way it has exposed a troubling profound mistrust of the mainstream media and political institutions. The right's conviction that anything reeking of officialdom is "fake news" has, paradoxically, made it susceptible to fake news of the kind of promulgated by Hannity.

At the same time, the obsession with exculpating Trump and placing the blame on the Democratic Party seems to have blinded many to the basic facts of this case, which should appeal to a humanity beyond party affiliation. A young man was walking home from bar on a summer night. Then something happened, an encounter whose details remain unknown. There were two shots. Seth Rich lay dying.

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