It was inevitable that Jeffrey Epstein’s death would spur conspiracy theories. The circumstances surrounding his apparent suicide are murky and, particularly to those unfamiliar with the vagaries of the justice system, seem to be the sort of things that can easily be prevented. His track record of escaping severe punishment and his ties to powerful political actors ensured that reports of his demise would kick off rampant speculation about how and why his death occurred.
Government officials quickly launched formal requests for more information. Attorney General William P. Barr launched an investigation into Epstein’s death, saying that he was “appalled” it had happened. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) sent a fiery letter to Barr, similarly demanding answers.
One of the tweets President Trump shared with his 63 million followers included a video referencing a long-standing and long-debunked conspiracy theory spuriously linking Bill and Hillary Clinton to a range of various suicides and deaths. The video was recorded by a comedian named Terrence Williams who, one assumes, can claim no particular knowledge about Epstein's death or the conditions of his detention. Yet there was Trump, pushing the retweet button.
There are a number of ways in which this wasn’t a wise thing for Trump to do. For one thing, Trump had his own robust ties to Epstein; implying that a president leveraged his power to silence the accused seems like it would raise some more immediate questions about Trump himself. For another, elevating a random comedian’s misinformed conspiracy theory is generally not what we expect of presidents, especially while the head of the Justice Department is publicly demanding more information about what happened.
But no one is under any misapprehension about what Trump was doing. Hillary Clinton has long been a fixture of anger and dislike on the right, including and especially by Trump. Trump retweeted the comedian's video because it smeared Hillary Clinton. It was no more complicated than that.
Trump’s fans love this about him. Trump pledged a broad war against the “elites,” a term generally used to describe well-to-do, big-city liberals, and has embraced that fight as a primary priority of his administration. His rallies are consistently us-vs.-them, the irony of his being a well-to-do, big-city former liberal having long since washed away. His embrace of his base is itself a manifestation of that fight. His focus on goading his opponents in harsh and offensive terms is, as well.
There has been a spotty, often weird effort to get Twitter to shut down Trump’s account to halt the propagation of falsehoods and aggression that it often represents. (About a fifth of the false claims Trump has made as president came via Twitter.) Twitter, understandably, has been loath to do so.
To hear Trump and his allies talk about the social media company, though, Twitter is engaged in a surreptitious and wide-ranging conspiracy to muffle conservative voices. In that, they’re joined by Facebook, Google and YouTube, all of which have been accused of filtering out conservative users. The evidence of this is almost universally anecdotal: people claiming that certain posts were taken down or accounts being temporarily suspended. Donald Trump Jr., whose Instagram post that indirectly compared immigrants to zoo animals was removed, has been a champion of this effort. The White House has held meetings with social media companies and a summit featuring conservative social media voices and appears to be ready to propose that the Federal Communications Commission be given an oversight role over how the companies police content.
One of the recent claims central to the argument that these companies are targeting conservatives is a former Google employee who told Fox News that the company wants to shift its policies to prevent a political outcome similar to what was seen in 2016. That claim echoes an argument pushed by the conservative group Project Veritas, which took snippets of a secretly recorded interview with a Google executive as part of an effort to portray the company as wanting to prevent Trump from winning in 2020.
The executive who was interviewed by Veritas’ team, though, says the interview was taken out of context. Her assertions about the company improving from 2016, she wrote, were assertions about not letting the platform be manipulated as it was then by foreign actors and fake-news peddlers.
Over the past four years or so, we’ve seen repeated stories about how social media networks have been used to peddle false information, particularly about immigration and in support of far-right politics. The 2016 election threw a spotlight on a problem that had been burbling under the surface for a while. Russia’s effort to muddy social media conversations coupled with powerful economic incentives that rewarded making up shareable stories led to a miasma of misinformation that almost certainly aided Trump’s political effort.
A group of teenagers in Macedonia who’d operated a set of pro-Trump fake news sites told BuzzFeed in 2016 that non-Trump content simply didn’t perform as well. Trump’s politics embrace the idea that there are secret conspiracies and cabals — run by those elites — that work against the common man. Bizarre and extreme claims to that effect are simply amplifications of Trump’s standard rhetoric.
It’s not a coincidence that conservatives see changes made by these social media companies as unfairly targeting them. After the 2016 election there was a broad focus by the social media companies on making it harder for misinformation, abuse and political extremism to spread. Twitter, for its part, decided to reduce the prominence of those who had been accused of abusing the platform — leading to outcry from conservatives who picked out examples of their political allies being “shadow banned.”
The idea that social media companies would thought-police conservatives is itself a narrative that reinforces Trump’s us-vs.-them, liberals-vs.-real-Americans rhetoric. It’s easy to see how: To them, these rich California liberals who run Google are simply the newest face of the effort to keep working-class Republicans in check.
To some extent, critiques of the platforms, including from Trump, are likely insincere. While many conservatives truly believe that they are being systematically targeted for their views, some almost certainly understand that by claiming bias on the part of the social media companies they can get those companies to self-police in a way that benefits conservatives. One Twitter employee told Vice News that the overlap of right-wing politicians and extreme rhetoric made the latter hard to police because it would prompt an outcry from the former.
The Washington Post reported in June that Facebook and Twitter had met privately with members of the administration, with Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey expressing openness to their arguments. For the administration, it makes political sense to have Twitter be concerned about irritating conservatives when making decisions about what content to allow. For Dorsey, hearing these complaints makes business sense: Addressing the concerns of conservatives means keeping conservatives as customers.
The Republican Party is aware of its power in that regard.
Republican Party chairwoman Ronna McDaniel responded last week to the suspension of an account linked to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). The account had tweeted a video showing an apparent threat against McConnell, triggering Twitter’s checks against violent rhetoric. McDaniel frames it as somehow being about conservative politics — and uses the party’s campaign spending as leverage over the company to send a message about purported bias to the Republican base.
Again, the reason that Trump retweeted those allegations about Jeffrey Epstein was because he wanted to sow the idea that the Clintons are criminally culpable, not necessarily because he actually believes it. Misinformation is a political strategy of Trump’s to a significant extent, one that’s led him to be dishonest more than 12,000 times as president. Cracking down on misinformation on social media platforms means cracking down on a component of Trump’s political power. It means cracking down on Trump.
Which Trump, for obvious reasons, would rather not have happen.