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CNN Special Reports
After Truth: Disinformation And The Cost Of Fake News. Aired 10-11p ET
Aired August 29, 2020 - 22:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
CHADWICK BOSEMAN, ACTOR: Yes, this is -- it means a lot.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: May he rest in peace, and may his memory be a blessing.
BRIAN STELTER, CNN HOST: Hey, good evening. Welcome to a very special evening here on CNN. I'm Brian Stelter, the anchor of "RELIABLE SOURCES," but tonight I'm wearing a different hat.
Three years ago, I began working with filmmaker Andrew Rossi on the first feature length book on how misinformation, smears and hoaxes are hurting America. Rossi interviewed both the victims of fake news stories and the perpetrators of those stories. And he also went inside the newsrooms that are sorting fact from fiction.
Tonight this is your special look at "AFTER TRUTH: DISINFORMATION AND THE COST OF FAKE NEWS."
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As someone working in politics in D.C., what do you think about fake news?
JACK BURKMAN, POLITICAL OPERATIVE: I would use fake news as a weapon because it's out there. The Germans use chemical weapons, the British use chemical weapons, what are you going to do? It doesn't mean you like chemical weapons. It means you do what you have to do.
I've tried some fake news. I don't even remember. We've tried some things. Yes, there's terrible negative potential consequences, but so what? That's what I say. So what? What's the big deal?
We've always taken the position in this country, let it all come out, let the people judge. Despite the dangers.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But how can the people judge fake stories and lies? Or do you think we're in a post-truth moment?
BURKMAN: Oh, I don't know. I mean, what is truth? You study philosophy. There is no reality, there's only perception. So when you say, are we in a post-truth moment, most philosophers on all sides would tell you, there is never any such thing as truth to begin with. ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON, THE NEW YORK TIMES: There is this ecosystem
that's growing now, where people are actually confusing real and fake news, especially if they see it online. This post-truth culture that we're living in has real costs to the people who are victimized by those who come up with these theories and themes. People have suffered because of false news that's being spread online.
MOLLY MCKEW, DISINFORMATION EXPERT, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY: The summer of 2015 was really the first sign that there was something happening in our information space that we weren't paying enough attention to. There was a two-month long military exercise that was occurring in the American southwest. (INAUDIBLE) and this conspiracy emerged around it that President Obama was going to round up political dissidents and put them in camps in Texas.
TROY MICHALIK, OWNER, CROSSHAIRS GUN SHOP: Fake news. What do I think about it? A very old saying comes to mind. Don't believe none of what you hear and only half of what you see. I find myself there a lot. I don't know what's real and what's fake.
Here in Bastrop it's a very close-knit small rural community. Typical small-town America. Hometown value structure. In 2015, back during the Obama administration, there was a huge amount of concern about distrust of the national government. And once people found out that there was going to be a major military operation in Bastrop County, a lot of people were, you know, making puzzle pieces fit together.
LT. COL. MARK LASTORIA, U.S. ARMY SPOKESPERSON: We're going to be conducting a training exercise safely and courteously. We're not going to interfere with their privacy or their rights with this.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The Army says it's an eight-week training exercise in a realistic setting, but they're not saying much beyond that.
PAUL PAPE, BASTROP COUNTY JUDGE: We began to get inquiries from people, why are you allowing the military to come into Bastrop County? What's going to happen? And why are they coming here? And then all sorts of conspiracies were put together.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The truth is that it's an exercise for enacting martial law in this country.
ALEX JONES, FOUNDER, INFOWARS: This is conditioning for martial law and a takeover. And then I tune into another show. They're saying the same thing. I guess Alex Jones was right. There's been an awakening.
MICHALIK: We happen to be kind of the clearinghouse of a lot of conversations. People would come here, it's like the pub, to talk about it.
NINA ROACH, BASTROP RESIDENT: Somebody shares a story. Someone else commiserates and then everyone else jumps on the bandwagon. I think it has a lot to do with, you know, having a degree in Google. CALEB ROACH, BASTROP RESIDENT: Those vaccines cause autism. Masonic
lizard people running the world. Jade Helm, we want so hard to believe even in conspiracies that things actually exist that there is an underlying deal, that we have some knowledge that other people don't, and we want to believe all that. But it's -- sometimes it's just not true.
DERRICK BROZE, YOUTUBER, THE CONSCIOUS RESISTANCE NETWORK: I will be headed to Bastrop, Texas, to report on the Jade Helm 15 military exercise. I don't trust the corporate media. I don't want somebody else to tell me what's going on. I want to go find out for myself.
In my view, Jade Helm was a psychological operation to gauge the response. Will the people, you know, be complacent when this exercise happens? Will they push back?
We're going to go inside. See, this is what the corporate media does. They stand across the street. And we go inside. OK.
I believe in personal responsibility. If somebody reads an article and they go crazy because of that, because whatever issues they got going on, like, I don't know how I can be held responsible for that.
PAPE: There are many who make some pretty wild claims. And social media is the devil. So in my interest in open government and in transparency, I said, well, let's just have a town hall meeting and explain this to everybody. Colonel Lastoria came and we asked him to explain to everyone who was interested what exactly the operation was going to entail.
LASTORIA: Jade Helm is simply just a challenging eight-week training exercise for unconventional warfare. And it's an exercise that will be conducted throughout Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Oklahoma.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Would the Commissioner's Court consider reversing their invitation to these guys? And would the court will be offended if I told the colonel that I didn't believe a single word that he just said?
(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)
MICHALIK: Hysteria is a little strong of a word, but there were pockets of hysteria.
PAPE: Does the housing of these troops in any part of the Jade Helm 15 military training exercise have anything to do with recent Walmart closings anywhere near us?
LASTORIA: No. Again, everybody wants it to be something that it's not.
ROSS RAMSEY, EXECUTIVE EDITOR AND CO-FOUNDER, TEXAS TRIBUNE: You have people that were otherwise normal people in the Jade Helm thing believing that there was an underground network of tunnels that connected all the Walmarts in Texas.
These are giant facilities that can house people so people started speculating that, OK, these Walmarts are getting ready to be turned into concentration camps, detention centers, what have you.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Today Governor Greg Abbott is choosing to assign the Texas State Guard to monitor the operation.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Commander Abbott states his reasoning is, quote, "to address concerns of Texas citizens and to ensure that Texas communities remain safe."
RAMSEY: You get a part of the citizenry worked up and the governor reacted to it in a way that looked like the state government was taking this seriously.
MCKEW: The relatively quick jump of that information from conspiracy blogs to town hall meetings to the governor's office I think was of great concern certainly to military and to our intelligence services. Recently Michael Hayden, the former CIA and NSA director, talked about this, very clearly linking the disinformation campaign around Jade Helm to Russian information activities targeting the United States.
MICHAEL HAYDEN, FORMER CIA DIRECTOR: Russian bots, Russian trolls combining with the American alt-right media convinced a nontrivial portion of the Texas population that it was an attempt by the Obama administration to round up political opponents.
PAPE: It's interesting to me that someone would tie what went on here in Bastrop County to this worldwide concern about Russian interference and American politics. But you know what, it's a small world.
GOV. GREG ABBOTT (R), TEXAS: In Texas, we don't compare our economy to other states. We compare our economy to other countries. The Texas economy is larger than Canada, it's larger than Australia, and get this, the Texas economy is even larger than the economy of Russia. That makes me more powerful than Putin.
MCKEW: That was a test. And what all of it showed was, we're in a weaponized information environment.
BROZE: So we're at the point now I don't think people can distinguish fact from truth any more or people are starting to make their own truth. And honestly, I'm OK with that.
CRAIG SILVERMAN, BUZZFEED: I have about eight different daily digests that come into my inbox every morning from different Facebook pages and other things that we've started tracking over time. I'd scan hyper partisan stuff from people who tend to propagate misinformation. It's basically just like starting your morning bathing in internet garbage is pretty much the deal.
I have been looking at false stories since 2014. There are a handful of journalists and researchers who were interested in this stuff. But it wasn't what was the main focus of the world. And in the span of a few months, that completely changed at the end of 2016 with Trump's victory.
What we found was the core key time before election day, that fake stories got way more engagement than the real news stories about the election. And as soon as everybody, journalists, politicians, researchers started scratching the surface, they're like, holy crap, this is -- look at what's here.
And then right after the election, we had Pizzagate. Somebody walking into a D.C. pizzeria with a rifle and firing it off, and realizing that that was a result of this person consuming conspiracies and misinformation, I think that freaked a lot of people out.
JAMES ALEFANTIS, OWNER, COMET PING PONG: My restaurant, I try to be like, everyone's invited. Just have a good time. Play ping-pong, eat some great food. The families and kids are the people who like it the most because it's like fun. They can run around.
KEITH ALEXANDER, WASHINGTON POST: Comet Ping Pong is a fixture here in Washington. Everyone knows this restaurant. People come from other parts of Washington to have pizza here.
BRYCE REH, MANAGER, COMET PING PONG: We do have some politically connected people that come in here, and that is just something that happens, I mean, I have CNN news anchors who have been eating here for years. But what Comet is about is this is a safe space for people to come in and be themselves.
DANIEL SAPERSTEIN, EMPLOYEE, COMET PING PONG: We host shows for local bands, queer bands. I think that one of the nice things about Comet is that there's space here for queer folks to be part of the identity of the restaurant.
ALEFANTIS: I have this party for the 10-year anniversary. Everyone was invited and we had the attorney general of the United States, and like Congress people, and my kids, and the musicians and artists. And that was in the end of October 2016.
I looked at it at moment and I just thought, wow, like, we've really created something here. Like this place is special. And then quickly after that we were slammed with this year plus-long endless conspiracy theory.
OLIVER DARCY, CNN: John Podesta, who's Hilary Clinton campaign chairman, his e-mails are hacked and they get uploaded online. And a lot of conspiracy theorists start crawling to them, and based on these e-mails they spin off this crazy conspiracy theory about Comet Ping Pong.
WILL SOMMER, THE DAILY BEAST: People on pro-Trump forums start going through John Podesta's e-mails and they see these references to pizza. Now these are pretty innocuous references. Do we need to get pizza for the campaign volunteers? That kind of stuff.
And perhaps the first example we'd ever seen of the creation of Pizzagate is on a Reddit post. Someone saying I think we need to be looking at these clues for all these pizza stuff. And really from there that's where it took off.
DARCY: So inside the e-mails, they connect a lot of things. CP, cheese pizza, people dissect it. They think maybe it stands for child pornography.
SOMMER: Various people on Reddit, sites like 4chan become convinced that pizza is slang for essentially children to rent. And so then they see the exchanges with James Alefantis and John Podesta.
ALEFANTIS: I had e-mails with Podesta about hosting a pizza party fundraiser, cookout at someone's house.
SOMMER: And so people become convinced that Comet Ping Pong is like this child rape dungeon in the basement.
MCKEW: This was supported by George Soros and John Podesta and Hillary Clinton. And like everybody was somehow connected to this child sex trafficking at a pizza parlor that you could dial up and say the right food words and get your order of children.
SOMMER: It's just days before the election and so tensions are high. It certainly looked like Hillary Clinton is going to win. And so Trump people are very feverish, and this was just blowing up. So I said gees, all these people are just going so wild about it, I wonder if anything's happening at Comet. So I called them up.
ALEFANTIS: I got a call from a guy named Will Sommer and he at the time was working at the Washington City paper, and asked me if I had read about this or know about this online conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton and I were human trafficking from Comet Ping Pong. And I was like, I don't know what you're talking about and I made a comment like everyone is really up about this election and passions are high, and I'm sure it will go away in a couple of days.
The election happens. And then actually what happens is the day subsequent to the election, these online attacks started escalating and increasing in volume. We started to get messages on sort of like our Yelp page for the restaurant, reviews that were really weird and weird Facebook things. I had put pictures of my godchildren on Instagram. Now obviously I would know better than to put anything anywhere. But these images were stolen from my Instagram, taken and put up as some kind of evidence of nefarious activities going on.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I just want you to ask yourself, why does this guy, I think he looks like he's in his late 30s, why is this coming on middle age guy have a photo of a random kid drinking milk.
SILVERMAN: Pizzagate like so many conspiracy theories it starts to echo on 4chan.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON, AUTHOR, CYBERWAR: There are spaces that drive more extreme content. I would say 4chan is like a bathroom (INAUDIBLE). Think of the rest stop on the interstate highway. 4chan is a dirty restroom. There's no toilet paper in the toilet. The sink has not been cleaned in months. And think about the kinds of things you saw on bathroom walls there.
SOMMER: It builds on the internet. Then it starts getting picked up by various right-wing pundits. You know, Alex Jones starts promoting it all the time.
JONES: Pizzagate is real. The question is how real is it, what -- something's going on, something's being covered up. It needs to be investigated. You just call it.
SOMMER: InfoWars becomes the Pizzagate network for it.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The menu from Comet Ping Pong, notice the symbol of the ping-pong paddles and its clever resemblance to the FBI documents' symbol for child love.
ALEFANTIS: There were so many different entry points for this specific attack. I'm trafficking or abusing these children is one. The other was that I or Hillary Clinton or the Podestas were killing and selling these children to retain our immense wealth. There were some that this idea that because I'm gay, I obviously must be molesting children or something, which is a historical perspective on gayness.
SAPERSTEIN: So many of the calls we've received, people saying, why do you like raping children and being like I know you're all gay. And that one is necessarily related to the other.
MOLLY LEVINSON, SPOKESPERSON, COMET PING PONG: A lot of what fuels misinformation and what we call fake news is hate. It is essentially some group of people either misunderstanding or having some sort of violent feelings about another group of people. And in the case of Comet, those who decided to target James found a little bit of hate and malice in the piece of Comet that is welcoming to the LGBTQ community.
SAPERSTEIN: More and more we started receiving phone calls that ran the gambit of being just prank calls I almost say where people were like, can I get some kind of special pizza, some ridiculous name. Something that meant to them, something about pedophilia was code words. To just straight up death threats. People saying, I'm going to kill you or we know what you're doing, we're going to stop it. You're all going to die.
ALEFANTIS: We know where you live, we are coming to the restaurant, we're coming to get you. You know, you need to kill yourself. There was a specific one where someone said I'm going to come to your restaurant with a machine gun, and kill everyone inside, and like cut your guts out and watch you die on the floor. I was like, this is scary.
REH: What I was doing every single night, I was going online and checking Reddit, checking 4chan. Reddit had a new sub-Reddit that had been started specifically for Pizzagate. It went from within a week zero followers to 22,000 people who were subscribed to it. 1,500 of which were active at any given point growing and growing and growing and growing. And even if they only spent five minutes a day trying to destroy my life, 22,000 people have more five minutes a day than I have 24 hours in my day.
JACK POSOBEC, ALT-RIGHT CONSPIRACY THEORIST: There it is. There it is, guys. So we're going to go in and we're going to infiltrate Comet pizza.
REH: We got a phone call from someone who said, hey, I just want to let you know that I'm a friend of yours, and a guy named Jack Posobec is in there filming you right now.
POSOBEC: I turned it off.
REH: I understand that to you this is maybe like a game, but considering that I myself and my staff received death threats.
POSOBEC: It's not a game, it's not anything --
REH: You keep reading these things that people at Reddit --
POSOBEC: I can't control what somebody posts on the internet.
REH: I read several posts on Reddit that said, I've had enough of this. If I don't post back here in three hours, it's because I've been killed. I'm grabbing my shotgun and going into Comet.
ALEFANTIS: We were in real deep fear, like serious fear. This stress was so violent that I sort of like knew something would happen.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Like I've always told you, we have a duty to protect people who can't protect themselves, to do for people who can't do for themselves.
SOMMER: So it culminates with Edgar Maddison Welch driving out from North Carolina. He's one of the people who's been consuming all this stuff and he's become convinced that there really is a child rape dungeon in the basement of Comet Ping Pong.
ALEXANDER: He wanted to come up here and save these children. He's a father himself. He had two young daughters.
WILLIAMSON: He was a classic InfoWars listener and follower.
JONES: You know, people have been looking into. I may just take off a week and just only research this and actually go to where these places are and stuff. In fact I'm looking at getting on a plane. I can't just say something and not see it for myself. They go to these pizza places, there's like satanic art everywhere.
WILLIAMSON: Part of the pitch is, get out there and help us unearth the truth. It turns people into a type of vigilante in which they're out there seeking what they think is justice. In the case of Pizzagate, a guy puts children in danger because he thinks he's rescuing children.
ALEFANTIS: We had this restaurant filled with families eating, Sunday afternoon, and Edgar Maddison Welch walks in this front door with a loaded AR-15 assault rifle. Fully exposed, also with like a hand gun and a knife it turned out, and like walks through this restaurant. My young staff who had been under online attack, they immediately see him, call the police and go like table to table telling each table that they need to go, like leave the building.
And so each table, the customers are like, oh, no, we're fine. Like we're here to support you. It's OK. Like we'll just keep eating or whatever. And these kids are like, no, you don't understand there's a guy here with a gun. So they evacuate the building.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This isn't a joke, get out of the block.
ALEFANTIS: Police have shut down the streets and riot SWAT teams are closing the building and the streets, and leaves this gunman alone to search the restaurant or do whatever he's going to do.
REH: The first thing that he did was immediately walk toward the backroom, I'm not sure what he thought he was going to find back here. But I think that he thought that this was the place where Hillary Clinton would be or he was going to walk back there and find John Podesta or George Soros or someone. Pulling things off of the wall, trying to pry apart the stage. Flipping ping-pong tables over.
He was trying to break anything that he thought was obscuring his view. When he came over here to the only locked door in the entire restaurant, which is our employee closet, he shot through the door, which is a pretty dirty, but innocuous employee closet. Houses our coats.
ALEXANDER: Realized there were no children being held here. Came out of the restaurant, came up with his hands up to a sea of police.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hands. Hands.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We got him.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hands up.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We got a white male subject --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hands up, hands up.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- coming out of the location. Hands in the air.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Don't nobody move. Don't nobody move. Stay where you are.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Bring him toward you.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I got a knife --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Keep going, keep coming to my voice. Do not turn around. Stop, stop. Get down on your knees. Get on the ground. Throw it on the ground.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sir, do you work there?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, sir.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Who's in the location right now?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Nobody is.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What were you doing in the location?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Making sure there's nothing's there.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Making sure there's nothing there.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Pedophile ring.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A what?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Pedophile ring.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Pizzagate. He's talking about Pizzagate.
ALEXANDER: This could have been a lot worse. Someone could have gotten shot, anything could have happened here, so no one -- this was something bad, even some of the most seasoned crime reporters had never seen before, that someone came in armed for battle. Came in on a suicide mission. Either knowing he was going to go to jail or might end up dead. But was willing to do that based off of fake erroneous news stories.
SILVERMAN: Today the term fake news has become totally weaponized and misused to the point that I think it's kind of meaningless.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Don't be rude.
JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Mr. President-elect, can you give us a question? You're attacking us.
TRUMP: Don't be rude.
ACOSTA: Can you give us a question?
TRUMP: Don't be rude.
ACOSTA: Can you give us a question?
TRUMP: I'm not going to give you a question.
ACOSTA: Can you state categorically --
TRUMP: You are fake news.
ACOSTA: Sir --
TRUMP: Go ahead.
SILVERMAN: Where we are at right now is fake news has most effectively become what Donald Trump has defined it as, which is media that's critical of him.
TRUMP: If you want the fake news media to finally investigate --
PATRICK SVITEK, TEXAS TRIBUNE: When he talks about fake news, that is one of the biggest applause lines that he gets at these rallies. Usually at that point that's when the whole crowd turns to the media pen and boos.
As a journalist, obviously it's disappointing to see that kind of vitriol directed at the press.
TRUMP: Don't worry. I don't like them either. OK?
(CROWD CHANTING "CNN SUCKS")
JOHN CAMPBELL, TRUMP SUPPORTER: CNN is in the dumper. It's become synonymous with fake news. Nobody believes it any more. We expect politicians to be fast and loose with the truth depending on the day. We know that -- it's a car salesman. We expect journalists, newsmen to tell the truth.
That's what -- this one supports the facts. No, I didn't vote for Obama. Give me one thing he did to help me as a Texan heterosexual married man. Did he cut lower my taxes? Nope. Did he increase my freedoms? Nope. Did he help my wife, blonde haired, and blue-eyed kid going to college? Nope.
Donald Trump is trying to stop my culture down here from changing. Look around. His style of populism is working. We're going to give him the benefit of the doubt. Why? Because he's given us results. But you all don't report that. The is the public enemy.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let me show you what I really like about tonight. This sums it up. That's money well spent right there. Because it's fake news, they don't report the truth. Truth is reality. We're going to start living right, report the truth, that's all we ask for. Thank you.
JEROME CORSI, POLITICAL OPERATIVE AND AUTHOR: I think fake news has become a very politicized term that is being used to sensor conservatives. Evidently, because it's published in the "New York Times" you believe it. If you do that, you're believing either government propaganda or mainstream media determined truth and just because the "New York Times" published it doesn't mean it's true. SOMMER: Jerome Corsi is this longtime Republican operative and really
one of the modern creators of this internet and media fueled smear campaign in the 2004 election. He co-wrote this book about John Kerry's behavior on the swift boat, promoting the idea that John Kerry who was this Vietnam war hero was actually like this big coward, you know, promoting this really baseless claim. So now to swift boat someone since 2004 means to create a lie and propagated in the idea that is going to torpedo them and Jerome Corsi was the creator of that.
Cut to 2008-2009, Jerome Corsi is probably the most prominent face of the birther conspiracy theory, so the idea that Barack Obama was born in Kenya. It's like all of the giant conspiracy theories of the past decade or two, Jerome Corsi has jumped on. And either he created them or he really got into pushing them.
CORSI: And what's nice about this is just with a laptop computer and a very simple camera, it gives the average person an opportunity to establish a voice and to be heard.
JASON GOODMAN, YOUTUBE, CROWDSOURCE THE TRUTH: I didn't look at CNN and say, I want to do that. I didn't go to FOX News and say, here's my resume, I want to put on a suit and after Tucker Carlson I want to sit there and read my news. I didn't say that. I didn't go to the "New York Times" and say, I want to write stories for you. I looked at all those things and I said you guys are all (EXPLETIVE DELETED) up.
Whatever it is that you think is journalism, I think is (EXPLETIVE DELETED) up. So this is how I'm going to do it. Wake up, everyone. If you are forwarding articles from "Newsweek," from the "New York Times," you have become a zombie propagandist.
I find it intriguing that even investigating it, questioning it, becoming a forensic examiner of evidence, you get ridiculed. You're a conspiracy theorist.
YOCHAI BENKLER, BERKMAN KLEIN CENTER, HARVARD UNIVERSITY: You can disagree on all sorts of interpretations about a particular subject. But not when there's falsehoods. When we studied false news and disinformation, what we see repeatedly is things that in theory could be just interpretation. Get made up of discreet bits of narrative that are distinctly false.
It's very clear of what you have here is a propagandist effort to try to achieve a result. So, for example, the Seth Rich case.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, NPR: Seth Rich is a young guy. He's working for the Democratic National Committee, and he's killed in July of 2016. Police in Washington have said it appears to have been a botched armed robbery, but they don't know for sure what happened.
ALEXANDER: There are a lot of robberies in this neighborhood around that time. People were speculating, well, what kind of a robbery was it, his wallet was stolen, his watch was still there. But when a gun goes off, that's going to draw attention. So they're not going to stick around and try to get those valuables, they're going to take off, and that's what happened in this case.
AARON RICH, SETH'S BROTHER: Very early on, he wanted to do stuff that was involved in trying to make things better. There's 6 1/2 years between us, 100 percent, he was very much, you know, the annoying little brother. Then as we got older, we got a lot closer just when we both got to the same spot in life. He had problems, he'd talk to me. If I had problem I'd talk to him. I mean, we were each other's best friends and always there for each other.
He was the person that I knew I could always count on and he was that not just to me, but also his friends. His over-the-top sense of humor. If you were having a bad day, no matter what, if it became his mission to have a bad day, just give in now.
I come back early from vacation, and we've been playing phone tag since I got back. Obviously, that is something that I realized I would regret. The next morning, my mom called me, I remember her telling me that he had been shot and killed late in the night. I remember, you know, collapsing on the floor hard at the time. Just in sheer disbelief.
MIKE GOTTLIEB, ATTORNEY'S FOR AARON RICH: In the political environment that existed in the summer of 2016, having a DNC staffer that was murdered, to a certain group of people, just could not have been a coincidence.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Somebody hacked into the DNC computer and WikiLeaks just recently published a bunch of these e-mails and there are a number of e-mails in which senior officials of the Democratic National Committee can be seen conspiring against Bernie Sanders.
FOLKENFLIK: Seth Rich's murder follows the leak of e-mails from the Democratic Party. And his death very quickly is linked to the leak. The idea is that Seth Rich himself was somehow in contact with WikiLeaks, objected to Hillary Clinton's assertion of control of the Democratic Party. He was outraged and released these e-mails. And Hillary Clinton somehow had Seth Rich murdered.
I want to be clear, this is baseless, but certainly Julian Assange of WikiLeaks had stoked that speculation.
JULIAN ASSANGE, WIKILEAKS FOUNDER: Whistleblowers go significant efforts to get us material, and often very significant reasons. As a 27-year-old worked for the DNC was shot in the back, murdered.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: That was just a robbery, I believe, wasn't it?
ASSANGE: No, there's no finding --
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Was he one of your sources, then?
ASSANGE: We don't comment on who our sources are.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Then why make the suggestion? SOMMER: Julian Assange (INAUDIBLE) because it means he's not kind of a
patsy for the Russian government, it means, you know, there was this brave whistleblower who gave him the stuff.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Julian Assange was the catalyst, and then online Websites and message boards like 4chan or Reddit, even Twitter, it blew up.
JONES: This Seth Rich thing is really suspicious now.
ROGER STONE, TRUMP ASSOCIATE, CONSERVATIVE POLITICAL CONSULTANT: This was an assassination. This kid was murdered for political reasons.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think they want to do damage control with the DNC and the Clinton crime unit.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is exactly the sort of killing you would expect from the Clintons.
JOE ROGAN, PODCAST HOST: The guy that's (EXPLETIVE DELETED) murdered after he leaked information to WikiLeaks.
SCOTT SHANE, THE NEW YORK TIMES: There have been stories in which activists in the United States joined forces with the Russians to push the same stories. And, you know, the Seth Rich story is probably the leading example of that. They were both eager to deny that the Russians were behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee.
BURKMAN: Seth had access to a lot of the IT. I mean, he had the access. He had a lot of stuff. The question is, we don't know what he did with it. Frankly, we don't know if Seth was a good guy or a bad guy. We don't know if he was a leaker. We think he was a leaker. We just don't know. There's so many unanswered questions.
SOMMER: Jack Burkman is one of the premiere hucksters who's latched on to tragedy.
BURKMAN: I want to show you, here's the office over here. This is it. This is the nerve center, man. Come down here. This is the doggy's room.
Fake news is a weapon. And we've even tried to use fake news. Fake news is a good way to drive a story. You know, you put up a site instead of New York 1 or New York 2, and people believe it and they reprint it. And it gets reprinted. It can be an effective tool in driving a story. You know? People use it. It's become a tool of war. It's like World War I and it's chemical weapons. People are using them, so you use them. You know? That might be the analogy.
SOMMER: Jack Burkman who's a Washington lobbyist, he sends out some legendary press releases in Washington. The reporters are always saying, you know, did you see the latest Jack Burkman press release? Because they're so absurd. And attach himself to other dubious causes including trying to get gay players from the NFL. BURKMAN: There are four theories, one is what the police say, down in
the streets, street thugs. B, the Russians did it. C, Hillary Clinton and the Democrats did it. D is kind of everything else. We're conducting our own investigation.
SOMMER: He's doing all these crazy things, like he's doing a re- enactment of the murder. He teams up with some undergrad students at George Washington University. And they come up with the idea that the most obvious explanation for Seth Rich's death is that a hit squad kills him. I mean, it's absurd.
RICH: Yes, the dead DNC staff who can't defend himself. It's a good opportunity to make statements and, you know, try to use that.
BENKLER: And when we run sentence analysis of the media, you really see how Seth Rich pops up as an interference pattern on the right, when everybody else is talking Russia and impeachment.
CORSI: DNC leaks came from the inside, it wasn't hackers from the outside at all.
GOODMAN: And of course Julian Assange has specifically denied receiving any information from the Russians?
CORSI: This whole Russian collusion narrative which is -- I think, quite a foolish narrative, that the e-mails were stolen by Russia from the DNC. These are premises that have not been validated, yet the left runs with them as if they were gospel truth.
JAMIESON: We know that by January, you had the entire intelligence community on board, saying that it was the Russians. You know that the Mueller indictments have very specifically indicted both Russians responsible for the trolls and Russians responsible for the hacking.
And when people say, well, we don't absolutely know with certainty. What do they want? Do they want to be in St. Petersburg watching every Russian troll, engaging in every act? And there are levels of truth that no reasonable person would ask for. It was the Russians.
FOLKENFLIK: The speculation that you saw online was given fuel by gateway pundit, InfoWars, Alex Jones. But you also see it pop up on FOX News.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Back with a FOX News alert. A brand new bombshell in the murder of that guy right there, a DNC staffer. An investigator now says Seth Rich was in contact with WikiLeaks.
BENKLER: FOX News on the Web site publishes a story that there's new evidence that Seth Rich was in fact the source of the leaks. And what you see is the whole network from the local affiliates in D.C. through the main cable channel mobilized around this story.
SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS HOST: Newly discovered evidence shows that the 27-year-old former DNC employee was in fact communicating with WikiLeaks.
BENKLER: And we can really trace how a rumor that starts on Reddit ultimately makes its way to Hannity, and you can just literally follow from the first to the last this propaganda pipeline.
We see the Russians. We see the alt-right activists. We see the commercial click bait sites, and then you have at the very top a set of propagandists whose commercial interest and political interest are aligned to go out, look for all these stories and bring them to the mainstream of the FOX News.
HANNITY: If it was true that Seth Rich gave WikiLeaks the DNC e-mails, wouldn't that blow the whole Russia collusion narrative that the media has been pushing out of the water?
ADAM GOLDMAN, THE NEW YORK TIMES: I mean, FOX does some good reporting. There are good, honorable reporters that do good reporting. But Sean Hannity is essentially a consultant for the president.
HANNITY: By the way, all those people in the back are fake news.
GOLDMAN: Spewing the president's views to his huge audience on FOX, and this is like hook, line and sinker. If Sean Hannity says it, then it must be true.
DAVID LAZER, NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY: And of course, FOX News is in the attention business. And so there is this fake news laundering that is occurring.
MERYL CONANT GOVERNSKI, LAWYER FOR AARON RICH: To date there has been no news evidence that has come out that would justify the original story in the first place, let alone this constant resurgence.
RICH: It's not just words and you're not just pushing something. Like you are having real effects on real people. It's hard enough to process the thought of a family member being murdered, it very quickly went to, you know, that I took money from WikiLeaks, that I am cooperating with a hostile foreign intelligence service. Where is this even coming from, being directly accused of being involved in any of this? Just turns our world completely upside down, that was already turned upside down from the rest of the conspiracies.
I still have not been able to sit there and really properly grieve the fact that he's not there. The number of times I want to pick up my phone and describe this absolute ridiculous situation that's building on, the person I would call would be my brother.
FOLKENFLIK: After extraordinary backlash from journalists and especially from the Rich family, FOX withdrew its story. They said, it didn't meet our standard. What they didn't do is apologize. You had a family who had been told their son had essentially committed a crime. An assertion for which they had no proof and no evidence. Sean Hannity not only hasn't apologized to the Rich family, but he hasn't disavowed it. HANNITY: Out of respect for the family's wishes for now, I am not
discussing this matter at this time.
RICH: I have no clue why they won't say it, pushing out false statements and not being willing to accept that they were false after being proven numerous, numerous times false. It doesn't make sense to me.
BENKLER: Now, the real question is, who is to blame? Are we going to say, oh, look, Reddit did this or are we going to say, oh, look, Hannity did this? When people started looking around, what happened, the answer always fell on what's new. And what's new with the technology.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg will testify in front of a joint hearing of the Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees today. Senators will demand answers from Zuckerberg about Facebook's failure to protect millions of users' private information.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: They've actually added extra seats to this hearing room to accommodate all the senators who are going to be questioning Zuckerberg today. 44 of them. Zuckerberg is going to be in the hot seat for hours.
SILVERMAN: If you think about Facebook specifically, there's more than two billion people around the world that log into it every month. There has never been anything like Facebook in the history of humanity. There are ads there. There's news there. Your personal life, your friends.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If he were to honestly say that he would no longer be selling any data and if he would own up to it then I --
KARA SWISHER, RECODE: They've done better than anyone else on the planet by sucking in every piece of information about you and what you do and what you think, and it's sort of like a digital fence. They've gotten everyone to paint the fence, you know, with your data and they benefit from it.
BENKLER: It's designed to actually give so much information about us individually so that Facebook can turn around and sell insight into what kind of communications will best manipulate me to do what someone else wants to do.
MARK ZUCKERBERG, FACEBOOK FOUNDER AND CEO: As Facebook has grown, people everywhere have gotten a powerful new tool for staying connected to the people they love, for making their voices heard and for building communities and businesses. But it's clear now that we didn't do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm as well. And that goes for fake news, for foreign interference in elections and hate speech, as well as developers and data privacy. We didn't take a broad enough view of our responsibility and that was a big mistake. And it was my mistake and I'm sorry.
SWISHER: There is a lot of things that have been going on at Facebook for a long time. People have covered it a long time. And a lot around privacy violations, sort of sketchy use of data. Always pushing the envelope, growth, growth, growth.
SEN. JOHN THUNE (R-SD): We're here because of what you, Mr. Zuckerberg, have described as a brief of trust. A quiz app used by approximately 300,000 people led to information about 87 million Facebook users being obtained by the company Cambridge Analytica.
SOROUSH VOSOUGHI, DARTMOUTH COLLEGE: So how is that possible?