The first week of August was a rough one for Donald Trump's campaign; by coincidence, it was also a busy one for Trump supporters, who see a media coverup protecting Hillary Clinton. Over the weekend, the Trump campaign released a Web ad that mocked Clinton's admission that she "short-circuited" by giving a misleading answer about the investigation into her emails.
"She took a short-circuit in the brain," Trump said at a Saturday night rally. "She's got problems. Honestly, I don't think she's all there."
At the same time, the Drudge Report, WorldNetDaily and a small army of would-be Twitter sleuths tried to build the case that the Democratic nominee for president has serious health issues and only they had noticed. Clinton's age and health had been subject to parody by some conservative media, but the new speculation was completely serious.
None of the evidence, often shared (or sent to reporters) with the hashtag #HillarysHealth, held up. In every case, a Clinton moment that had been captured by the media was reinterpreted and wrenched out of context. The highest-profile #HillarysHealth discovery came at the American Mirror, an obscure conservative news site with what it packaged as a scoop — "SHOCK PHOTO" — but had been aggregated from Twitter.
"The questionable health condition of Hillary Clinton should be a major issue of the 2016 campaign," wrote the site's editor, Kyle Olson. "The latest evidence comes in the form of Clinton being helped up a set of stairs by multiple individuals outside what appears to be a home. The photos, published by Reuters and Getty, show the 68-year-old candidate with aides holding her arms as she ascends the stairs."
Olson shared two photos of Clinton, shot from behind, being helped as she unsteadily ascended the stairs. He left out the context: The photos were from February. As CNN's Brian Stelter first noticed, Getty Images had published the photos during Clinton's South Carolina primary campaign. The photo agency noted, in its caption, that Clinton had been steadied after slipping on the stairs.
But the American Mirror's version of the story went viral, with help from the Drudge Report. The photos led that site for most of Sunday. As of Monday morning, the original post had been shared more than 20,000 times on Facebook.
Asked why he did not note the timing of the photo in his story, Olson explained that "Hillary Clinton's health is an ongoing issue during the campaign" and that any issues could be resolved if she released her full medical records. (Like previous candidates for president, she has so far released a letter from her physician, which says that she had a concussion in 2012 and has hypothyroidism now.)
"She should be transparent and inform Americans about her health status," Olson said. "As for the timing of the photos and my writing about them, as Hillary Clinton said, 'What different, at this point, does it make?' The broader point is that she appears to have issues and Americans deserve to know about them."
Indeed, for other websites critical of Clinton, the "stairs" photo was just one part of a #HillarysHealth mosaic. It gave WorldNetDaily a hook to resurrect "a July 21 video posted on YouTube [which] shows Clinton’s head suddenly turning and shaking vigorously for several seconds." That video, titled "Hillary Clinton has seizure/convulsions - tries to play it off making fun of seizures," was also robbed of its context. Two clips of Clinton bobbing her head had been looped and slowed down, as ominous music and voice-overs played behind them — a combination that helped the clip score 1.4 million views.
The clip wasn't from July 21, and (as the scrum of media should have indicated) it wasn't rescued from pro-Clinton censors. It was from June 10, when Clinton, fresh off a series of wins that effectively locked up the Democratic nomination, held a few events ahead of the District of Columbia's primary. Beat reporters followed Clinton to a coffee shop in the Shaw neighborhood; CNN's Dan Merica, to her left, asked her about the breaking news of President Obama's official endorsement. Then, to her right, the Associated Press's Lisa Lerer asked a question about Elizabeth Warren, whom Clinton had met with as vice presidential speculation swirled.
The reporters, who had covered Clinton for a year, interpreted her exaggerated head-bobbing as a joke at how she'd been suddenly surrounded — and as a successful attempt at ending the scrum. It did not occur to them that it would become seen as evidence of a "seizure," as people suffering from seizures do not typically laugh and continue to hold cups of coffee.
In WorldNetDaily's coverage, the evidence that Clinton's bobble-head moment resembled a seizure is that bloggers said it did. At InfoWars, the conspiracy news site founded by Alex Jones, the investor Martin Shkreli explained that Clinton was revealing a "cardinal symptom of Parkinson’s disease."
Even when Clinton remained controlled, steady and unsmiling, #HillarysHealth sleuths were ready. Mike Cernovich, a self-help author best known as the attorney for a central figure in the "Gamergate" saga, seized on the speculation about Clinton to ask if Clinton traveled with a private doctor. "Remember when you thought famous people like Michael Jackson and Elvis had good medical care?" he asked. "What’s Clinton on?"
Cernovich's speculation started with an incident from last week, when Clinton was campaigning in Las Vegas. Mid-speech, she paused and narrowed her eyes to look at protesters. Secret Service Assistant Special Agent in Charge Todd Madison rushed to her side, telling her that the situation was under control, and that she could keep talking.
As was widely reported, Clinton was reacting to a commotion from four animal rights activists. According to Melina Mara, a Washington Post photographer who was shooting at the event, first the activists hoisted their signs; then, one pushed a female protester over the barrier. As Clinton looked on, the protester stumbled and was being hauled back.
To some Clinton fans, it seemed like she had remained steely while a threat was taken care of — a contrast with the way Trump had handled himself when a protester tried to rush him during the primaries.
To Cernovich, it was clear that Clinton was "completely frozen" and "lost control of her executive functions/pre-frontal cortex." She actually riffed on the protesters, telling them to protest Donald Trump's sons, who are proud hunters.
But in a follow-up post, Cernovich speculated that Madison was not in fact a Secret Service agent, but a medical professional who must be around her at all times. In his comments on Twitter and at InfoWars, Shkreli speculated that Madison was holding "an Apokyn pen, used to treat Parkinson’s," in a photo that revealed something in his right hand.
"The media is completely covering up this story," wrote Cernovich. "We will continue to investigate it aggressively. By the way, my journalism is entirely self-funded."