Seth Rich Conspiracy Conspiracies

Melissa Ryan
4 min readAug 1, 2017

A lawsuit alleges that the White House and Fox News are part of a conspiracy to push a debunked conspiracy theory. Here’s what you need to know.

The story of Seth Rich Truthers gets even more bizarre. NPR’s David Folkenflik broke a huge story this morning. Rod Wheeler, who was himself pushing Seth Rich conspiracies on Fox News and DC local news (via a Fox affiliate), is now suing the network.

Via NPR’s Morning Edition:

Wheeler alleges Fox News and the Trump supporter intended to deflect public attention from growing concern about the administration’s ties to the Russian government. His suit charges that a Fox News reporter created quotations out of thin air and attributed them to him to propel her story.

Here’s where things get weird. Wheeler accuses Fox News and his former patron, Ed Butowsky of conspiring with the White House to push the Seth Rich conspiracy. Wheeler provides some interesting receipts as evidence to back up his claim.

The following account reflects the verbatim quotes provided from the texts, emails, voicemails and recorded conversations cited in Wheeler’s lawsuit, except as otherwise noted.

According to the lawsuit, Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer meets at the White House with Wheeler and Butowsky to review the Rich story a month before Fox News ran the piece.

On May 14, about 36 hours before Fox News’ story appears, Butowsky leaves a voicemail for Wheeler, saying, “We have the full, uh, attention of the White House on this. And tomorrow, let’s close this deal, whatever we’ve got to do.”

Butowsky also texts Wheeler: “Not to add any more pressure but the president just read the article. He wants the article out immediately. It’s now all up to you.”

Spicer now confirms meeting with the two but denies claims about the president.

Given that Rod Wheeler went on local and national TV to push a debunked conspiracy theory, why should we trust what he says in the lawsuit? The evidence he presents is noteworthy but hardly a smoking gun. As I watched the story spread online this morning I was a bit taken aback at how quickly Twitter accepted Wheeler’s claims as true.

I’m not ready to accept Wheeler’s story presented as is just yet. What I will say is that Wheeler’s version of events does fit into the broader narrative about how Trump and the frog squad manipulate the media. It’s a believable version of events even if the narrator isn’t particularly reliable.

Here’s why:

  • As Charlie Warzel wrote in Buzzfeed, one of the pro-Trump media’s phases of dealing with negative press is to change the news cycle with a distracting story. Seth Rich conspiracy theories have been a staple of the right’s pivot strategy for awhile now. Wheeler’s TV appearances happened as the White House was dealing with a particularly harmful batch of stories on possible Russian collusion.
  • We know that Trump and the GOP communicate regularly with the Frog Squad. There’s nothing wrong with communicating with your base of supporters, in fact it’s generally good politics to do so. But the level of influence is like nothing I’ve ever seen in politics before. The most egregious example of this is the anti-Clinton legislation that a GOP staffer crowdsourced from /r/The_Donald.
  • Seth Rich was trending on Twitter all morning. This has happened before but for once it wasn’t driven by the Frog Squad. In fact as Twitter was working itself into a collective tizzy this morning The_Donald, the biggest gathering place of the Seth Rich Truthers, was oddly silent for over an hour. A few people posted new threads about the story but no defense or counter message ever took off. #MAGA Twitter has been similarly inactive today. The Frog Squad’s interest in Seth Rich comes and goes in waves, and those waves generally coincide with the rest of the media focusing on a story that makes President Trump look bad.
  • Despite the right wing media’s obsession with Seth Rich, the number of genuine Seth Rich Truthers is actually quite small. I attended the DC “vigil” organized by Seth Rich Truthers on the anniversary of his murder and there were less than 30 people at the event’s peak. Bot activity on both The_Donald and Twitter artificially inflate Seth Rich content to make it look like a bigger phenomenon than it actually is.

I’ve been following the right’s obsession with Seth Rich for months now, and it’s a fascinating topic, with a lengthy timeline. It touches on all things Frog: Trump, Russia, the so-called alt-right, Sean Hannity, you name it. The right, in their callousness, have completely disregarded Seth Rich the person (not to mention his grieving family) and built an extensive mythology around Seth Rich’s life and his murder wholly unattached from reality. Given how the Trump Administration operates, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Rob Wheeler’s allegations turn out to be completely true.

Want to learn more about how the extreme right uses conspiracy theories to manipulate media narrative? Good news, my upcoming speaker series includes a call on this exact topic!

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Melissa Ryan

Politics + technology. Author of Ctrl Alt Right Delete newsletter. Subscribe here: Coffee drinker. Kentucky basketball fan.