On 10 October 2016, the Hillary Clinton shill site Daily News Bin published an article claiming that Newsweek magazine had uncovered “absolut[e] proof” WikiLeaks had published fabricated e-mails in their October 2016 “Podesta Emails” archive, maintaining that journalist Kurt Eichenwald had determined many of those documents were “phony”:
Even as Hillary Clinton pulls further ahead in the 2016 Presidential race, those who dislike her have been holding their breath that international hacker terrorist group WikiLeaks would make good on its promise to unearth dirt that would damage Clinton. After a month of hyping up the supposed documents, it finally released them to relatively little fanfare on Friday. And now we know why they were released in the Friday night garbage chute: many of them are phony, and the hackers were looking to avoid media scrutiny — but Newsweek has managed to prove their inauthenticity anyway.
Even as Donald Trump obsessed during the second debate about the supposed internal emails from Hillary Clinton’s friend Sidney Blumenthal which showed him “admitting” that she had failed as Secretary of State, Newsweek reporter Kurt Eichenwald was in the process of figuring out that the key email in question didn’t really come from Blumenthal. How did Eichenwald figure it out? He realized that the email attributed to Blumenthal was actually something that he himself had written … This represents absolutely [sic] proof that WikiLeaks is in fact leaking phony “Hillary Clinton emails” in an attempt to make her look bad. Or as Eichenwald puts it, “WikiLeaks is compromised.”
The article was based on a 10 October 2016 piece penned by Eichenwald which went viral and has since been significantly edited. Daily News Bin asserted that Eichenwald “proved” the inauthenticity of “Podesta Emails” in his article, but what his piece actually claimed was that the Russian news outlet Sputnik had (deliberately) misreported the content of a leaked e-mail, and that Donald Trump’s repetition of that misreporting
proved he was sourcing information fed to him by Russian propaganda outlets attempting to manipulate the 2016 election in Trumps’ favor.
What Eichenwald wrote was that a leaked e-mail showed that Clinton confidante Sidney Blumenthal had forwarded to Clinton campaign manager John Podesta a lengthy article he (i.e., Eichenwald) had written, but the Russian news outlet Sputnik misreported the nature of that e-mail and claimed that Blumenthal himself had penned the material he forwarded to Podesta:
An email from Blumenthal — a confidant of Hillary Clinton and a man, second only to George Soros, at the center of conservative conspiracy theories — turned up in the recent document dump by WikiLeaks.
The documents that WikiLeaks has unloaded recently have been emails out of the account of John Podesta, the chairman of Clinton’s election campaign. Almost as soon as the pilfered documents emerged, Sputnik was all over them and rapidly found (or probably already knew about before the WikiLeaks dump) a purportedly incriminating email from Blumenthal.
The Russians were quoting two sentences from a 10,000-word piece I wrote for Newsweek, which Blumenthal had emailed to Podesta. There was no mistaking that Blumenthal was citing Newsweek — the magazine’s name and citations for photographs appeared throughout the attached article. In fact, the email was 75 pages long when printed out. The sentences quoted by the Russians were on page 19, following 22 different mentions that the words came from Newsweek.
To understand the full importance of the false Blumenthal story — and how much Putin and his Kremlin cronies must have been dancing with delight — I have to quote the top few paragraphs:
In a major revelation from the second batch of WikiLeaks emails from Clinton Campaign Chairman John Podesta it was learned that Hillary’s top confidante Sidney Blumenthal believed that the investigation into Benghazi was legitimate because it was “preventable” and the result of State Department negligence.
In an email titled “The Truth” from Hillary’s top confidante Sidney Blumenthal, the adviser writing to undisclosed recipients said that “one important point that has been universally acknowledged by nine previous reports about Benghazi: The attack was almost certainly preventable” in what may turn out to be the big October surprise from the WikiLeaks release of emails from the account of Clinton Campaign Chair John Podesta.
In other words, Sputnik falsely made it sound as if a Hillary Clinton insider, rather than a Newsweek reporter, had opined that the attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi was preventable, and that it was legitimate for Congress to investigate Hillary Clinton’s role in the tragedy. Unfortunately, some of Eichenwald’s phrasing made it sound as though he were claiming that Russians had altered or fabricated the content of e-mails published by WikiLeaks, rather than that a Russian news outlet had simply (and perhaps deliberately) misrepresented what a real leaked e-mail actually contained:
But the Russians had faked it all, taking a real document released by WikiLeaks and altering it to create a bogus story — one that ultimately was picked up by Trump himself. Since Newsweek first broke the story online, some journalists have speculated that the misrepresentation of the email may have merely been an error by an overworked Russian news agency.
But the Russians had faked it all, taking a real document released by WikiLeaks and altering it to create a bogus story — one that ultimately was picked up by Trump himself.
Eichenwald explained at length that he believed the “altered document” purportedly used by Sputnik was part of a disinformation campaign being waged by Russia against Hillary Clinton. But what Eichenwald did not say any point in his article (or its updates) was that he suspected WikiLeaks of altering the documents they published, or of publishing fake documents.
Adding to the confusion was that Eichenwald’s account was itself not without potential error, particularly his claim that events proved the Trump campaign was picking up disinformation from Russian sources for the GOP candidate to use against Clinton. BuzzFeed‘s John Passantino was able to quickly point out some cracks in Eichenwald’s claims, primarily that Sputnik had not published their story until hours after a “viral tweet” containing the same information had been circulated among Trump supporters:
Re the Newsweek story, how do we know Trump was reading Sputnik story & not this viral tweet with thousands of RTs?https://t.co/Cq1lTj2PPO
— Jon Passantino (@passantino) October 11, 2016
Watch Trump read the fake email yourself, its identical to viral tweet that went out 4 hours before Sputnik pick up https://t.co/zIkUpx2Vsn
— Jon Passantino (@passantino) October 11, 2016
NYMag‘s Jesse Singal also pointed out that a likely scenario was that Trump had merely repeated then-popular Internet rumors without checking their provenance rather than being propagandized by Russia:
That a Russian news agency would be cavalier with facts isn’t surprising; nor, for that matter, is the idea that Trump would be similarly cavalier. But Eichenwald raises a natural, if leading, question over the event: “How did this happen? Who in the Trump campaign was feeding him falsehoods straight from the Kremlin?”
A bunch of people have picked up and run with this meme since then: The fact that Trump had access to such an obscure, Russia-originating rumor is evidence that, as many people have speculated, there’s an ongoing relationship between his campaign and the Russian intelligence forces hoping to tip the election toward a Putin-admiring authoritarian who is unlikely to curtail Russia’s ambitions. That’s a great story — but, alas, if you know how the internet works these days, Occam’s razor suggests a simpler explanation: Trump, or one of his aides, saw something on Twitter, and repeated it verbatim without bothering to check the sourcing.
BuzzFeed’s deputy news director, Jon Passantino, has an invaluable series of tweets on this in which he shows that the Blumenthal rumor had begun going viral before Sputnik published its story, and traces one of the major original nodes of the rumor to the Twitter account republic2016 … There’s no way to prove that there isn’t a Russian disinformation pro in contact with Trump’s campaign. But the point is that Russia doesn’t need one: It just needs to help spread regular old internet trash, and that trash will get where it needs to go eventually.
Daily News Bin‘s misrepresentation of Eichenwald’s (likely) misinterpretation of events functioned like an online version of the “telephone” game, generating a misunderstanding that Eichenwald had proved WikiLeaks published forged documents.