In mid-May 2017, Fox News published a story (since retracted) pushing a conspiracy theory that Seth Rich, a 27-year-old Democratic National Committee staffer, had leaked tens of thousands of hacked e-mails to document dumping site WikiLeaks just before he was murdered.
Although the story was quickly debunked, the rumor that the murder was a coverup galloped across conservative media outlets. As of 25 May 2017, the story remains live at Breitbart.com and conspiracy theorists at web sites such as InfoWars and WND are still peddling it.
Contrary to the conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies, the Kremlin continues to deny that they, not Rich, were the ones who sent hackers to steal e-mails from the DNC then leaked them to WikiLeaks in an effort to sway the 2016 presidential election. But in a bolder turn than before, the Russian government officially weighed in on the latest round of disinformation to roil the American public:
— Russian Embassy, UK (@RussianEmbassy) May 19, 2017
Russia has a vested interest in distracting attention away from the investigation into whether members of President Donald Trump's campaign colluded with the Kremlin, and the Seth Rich story provided an opportunity to do so. Clint Watts, a former Federal Bureau of Investigation counterterrorism agent and fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute told us:
There are several facets to this — [Russian agents] want to push back on the idea, particularly among Trump supporters, that they hacked into the DNC. The way to do that is to put forward this Seth Rich scenario that the information didn't come form Russian hackers, it came from an [inside] leak.
It rallies Trump's base, which they have already influenced significantly over the last two years in the U.S. and foments conspiracy theories. And it mirrors what Trump says. Trump denies the findings of the intelligence agencies that Russia did hack into the DNC. [Russian agents] want that to go away as much as possible.
The fact the investigation has yielded such a high-profile scandal means that the election hack appears in that respect to have backfired, making it seem unlikely that Russian President Vladimir Putin will achieve any of his foreign policy ambitions vis-à-vis the United States. What remains unclear is whether they will pay a price for it.
When asked by Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Alabama) during a House Intelligence Committee hearing on 23 May 2017 whether the current U.S. administration was doing enough to punish Russia for its election interference, former Central Intelligence Agency director John Brennan said he didn't know what may be going on behind the scenes because he left the Agency with the outgoing Obama administration in January 2017. But Brennan did say the disinformation campaigns continue even though the election is over:
The Russians are watching very carefully right now what is going on in Washington, and they will try to exploit it for their own purposes and to see whether or not they can further seed partisan animosity here in Washington and try to roil the waters, the political waters here. So even though the election is over, I think Mr. Putin and Russian intelligence services are trying to actively exploit what is going on now in Washington to their benefit and to our detriment.
Andrew Weisburd, senior fellow at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University, was more blunt. "Until the West gets truly serious about inflicting pain on the Kremlin this will continue," he told us.
The Seth Rich controversy makes it clear the meddling isn't going away. Aside from the Russian embassy in London weighing in, the usual suspects fired up the Internet after the Fox story was published on 16 May 2017 and started promoting specious information about Rich's murder. Kremlin-funded outlets, including RT (formerly Russia Today) and Sputnik News, posted conspiratorial stories about the Rich murder for American audience consumption, while high-profile pundits like Sean Hannity and Newt Gingrich pushed them even after they had been debunked. The story was also shared across widely-read web sites like Breitbart.com and InfoWars and boosted by a hacker who uses the moniker Kim Dotcom. And as usual, it was all amplified on Twitter.
Watts told us:
You know it's successful, because you hear people in Congress considering the conspiracy or floating it themselves. That’s the gold standard of an influence operation, is when your target audience starts repeating the conspiracy.
These activities are known to intelligence experts as "active measures" — an old Russian tactic of using overt, semi-covert and covert tools to spread disinformation, gin up confusion, and exacerbate partisan divides to weaken their Western adversaries from the inside. "The Russians want fact and fiction to be blurred," Watts said.
Russian active measures or influence campaigns in the U.S. are not new, but they have kicked it into high gear in recent years. Watts said he began noticing this in 2014, with the spread of fake stories about an attack on an air base in Incirlik, Turkey (there was no attack). Now, they're enabled by the anonymity and volume offered by social media alongside the ability to force a topic into the mainstream with the "trending" capability offered by sites like Twitter and Facebook.
Where Americans used to get their news from mostly-reliable sources like newspapers and only a few news broadcasters that followed a set standard of ethics, balance, and vetting, they are now faced with an information void and an environment in which their friends and family — people they trust — are sharing bad information (or misinformation) on social media.
On this topic, John Brennan testified:
Mr. Putin and Russian intelligence services are determined to do what they can to influence in a very inappropriate and illegal way activities within Western democracies to undermine the Western-led liberal democratic order. They do that on a regular basis, they see Western democracies as a threat to them. And so that's why the cyber domain right now is a growing playground for Russian activities and they will use that and exploit it whatever way they can. So they've been involved in elections for many years including trying to influence the ones here in the United States with propaganda or whatever. But this cyber environment now provides new opportunities to collect, to collect and release, to influence, and they are increasingly adept at it.
Seth Rich was shot and killed on 10 July 2016 near his home in Washington, D.C. in what Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) investigators believe to have been a botched robbery, due to a string of similar crimes in his neighborhood at that time. In an e-mail, MPD confirmed that is still the suspected motive:
At this point in the investigation, it is believed that Seth Rich was the victim of an attempted robbery. MPD does not currently have evidence to suggest otherwise; should anyone be in possession of such evidence, they are urged to turn it over to the police.
There is no evidence to date that thousands of e-mails were found on Rich's computer linking him to WikiLeaks, or that he was killed as part of a conspiracy or coverup.