Hours after the death of Jeffrey Epstein, a financier at the center of a sex trafficking case, theories about his death took off on Twitter and Facebook, making their way quickly into mainstream news, a process that social media critics say is becoming all too common.
“We’ve always had conspiracy theories,” said Hany Farid, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “What is different is the speed and the reach and the fanning of those conspiracy theories in the wake of social media. Now, just about anyone can say just about anything.”
On Saturday, Epstein died in a federal prison in New York of an apparent suicide, just weeks after a suicide attempt and before he could stand trial.
The well-connected Epstein had friends across the political spectrum. Theories about how he died and who may have had a role – on both sides of the political aisle – began to spread on social media. Both #TrumpBodyCount and #ClintonBodyCount took hold.
In a selfie video posted on Twitter, the comedian Terrence K. Williams tied former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, also once friendly with Epstein, with Epstein’s death.
“He had information on the Clintons and the man ended up dead," Williams said in a video posted to Twitter.
Accompanying the tweet were hashtags #ClintonBodyCount and #ClintonCrimeFamily. Trump retweeted that message to his 63 million followers on Twitter.
Some of the Epstein theories started to “trend,” making top 10 lists of topics people were talking about.
“That really is drawing people’s attention to something that may not even be on their radar,” said Irina Raicu, director of the internet ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. “And if what is trending is a conspiracy theory, then social media companies just played a part in amplifying that and pulling people in.”
The process – from made-up thoughts broadcasted on social media to prominent people amplifying them to the media writing about them -- is a troubling sign, one observer said.
“We have to start thinking about putting sensible protections online, because we are seeing real-world consequences from what is happening on the social media platforms,” said Farid, of UC Berkeley.
What those protections might be remains to be seen. What’s certain is that with each high-profile incident, social media companies face more pressure.