AN INTERNET conspiracy theory over the murder of a young former Democratic National Convention staffer in the US has once again reached fever pitch.
Seth Rich was shot in the back and killed walking home in an up-market Washington neighbourhood in July last year.
The death has largely gone unexplained, with Washington police suggesting it was the result of a botched robbery. But in the aftermath of the killing, conspiracy theorists claimed the 27-year-old staffer was responsible for leaking a trove of 20,000 emails stolen from the DNC servers to WikiLeaks.
The stolen materials contained explosive details of collusion between the Hillary Clinton camp and the DNC to undermine the Bernie Sanders campaign in the lead-up to the 2016 US presidential election.
This week, both Fox News and a Fox affiliate in Washington, WTTG-TV, published and aired reports which cited information attributed to a private investigator named Rod Wheeler, who claimed he had uncovered evidence showing Mr Rich had been in contact with WikiLeaks before his death.
WikiLeaks - which is now seen by many US Democrats as a vehicle for Russian intelligence - retweeted stories containing the latest claims, which many interpreted as confirmation. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange last year appeared to suggest Mr Rich was the leaker.
US authorities have accused Russian operatives of being the source of the leaks.
The Fox News story was also shared by the Russian Embassy in the UK on Twitter, receiving thousands of shares. But the report has since been proven to be inaccurate. Mr Wheeler said he had no information to that effect, and an FBI spokesman told the media that, contrary to the report, it had not conducted a forensic analysis of Mr Rich's laptop that showed he had been in contact WikiLeaks.
A spokesman for the Rich Family, Brad Bauman, lashed out at those who continue to promote the story, which includes prominent Fox News anchor Sean Hannity.
"Anyone who continues to push this fake news story after it was so thoroughly debunked is proving to the world they have a transparent political agenda or are a sociopath," he told CNN. "It either case, they should be taken off the air because they are either blind to the damage they are doing to a murder victims family or don't care, showing a profound lack of judgment and common decency."
On Sunday, speculation that the young DNC staffer was involved in the leaks was promoted by internet millionaire and the embattled founder of Megaupload, Kim Dotcom. Mr Dotcom tweeted that Mr Rich was the leaker and that he himself was also involved, promising to issue a statement after meeting with his lawyers this week.
I'm meeting my legal team on Monday. I will issue a statement about #SethRich on Tuesday. Please be patient. This needs to be done properly.— Kim Dotcom (@KimDotcom) May 20, 2017
Social media has been full of people promoting the notion of a cover-up.
Why hasn't the DNC (or any Democrat) offered a cash reward to help find Seth Rich's killer?— Mike Cernovich (@Cernovich) May 20, 2017
Things got weirder still after internet sleuths uncovered what appeared to be Mr Rich's social media accounts, including his Reddit username, "MeGrimlock4" and Twitter handle, "@panda4progress".
His online persona revealed Mr Rich was a huge supporter of Sanders, which conspiracy theorists hold up as evidence of his motive to leak the e-mails which showed the DNC colluded to prevent Sanders from gaining the party nomination.
In a strange development, users discovered a tweet by former DNC director of data science Andrew Therriault, which appeared to posthumously mock Mr Rich, referring to him as an "embarrassment".
On 27 April, quoting a tweet which read, "TIL: A group of Pandas is called an 'Embarrassment' #pandafacts", Mr Therriault tweeted: "cc: @panda4progress". The tweet has since been deleted.
Not long after, Reddit appeared to alter posts made by Mr Rich - a big no-no from the perspective of the site's users - to remove a comment in which he shared his e-mail address, linking him to the account.
Reddit has a strict policy against sharing personal information, but a previous case in which Reddit chief executive Steve Huffman manually altered user's comments drew ire from users and forced a public apology.
At the time, even former CEO Ellen Pao weighed in, saying she "would have immediately fired anyone" who did what Mr Huffman did. News.com.au contacted Reddit to ask about the alleged changes made to Mr Rich's comment history.
Meanwhile, The Washington Post has published multiple reports this weekend describing claims of a cover-up over the murder of Seth Rich as fake news.
"The re-emergence of the conspiracy theory this week, which did not lack for real news, revealed plenty about the fake news ecosystem ... in the Trump era," the paper wrote. "It also happened to cause untold pain for the Rich family, which has sent a cease-and-desist letter to the so-called private investigator who led this dive back into the fever swamp."
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