IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Evidence-free conspiracy theories about the Obamas’ chef get a boost on X, formerly known as Twitter

Some posts on Elon Musk’s X app tried to cast doubt on the police version of Tafari Campbell’s death. Despite no evidence, they got millions of views.
Tafari Campbell in a video about The White House beer recipe in 2012.
Tafari Campbell in a video about the White House beer recipe in 2012.The White House

The social media platform X, newly renamed from Twitter, is hosting wild conspiracy theories without evidence claiming that there was foul play in the death of the Obamas’ personal chef on a Martha’s Vineyard pond.

The platform has pulled back many of the rules it once had around misinformation under owner Elon Musk, who acquired Twitter last year while vowing to make speech as free as possible

The Massachusetts State Police called the death of Tafari Campbell, 45, an accident after divers recovered his body Monday from Edgartown Great Pond, about 100 feet from shore. Former President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, who own a house there, were not home, police said in a statement. 

Right-wing figures cast doubt without evidence on the police statement and found a home for their views on the website X, the new name for Twitter after Musk rebranded it Sunday. A post in which Ian Miles Cheong, an online pundit, asked followers what they thought “really happened” got 5.6 million views on X. 

A post from the X account @libsoftiktok noted that the pond is 8 feet deep where Campbell was found and that he had posted swimming videos on Instagram — facts other people said in replies indicated he was killed. That post had more than 14.5 million views. 

The influential right-wing account @catturd2, with 1.8 million followers on X, said he did not believe anything the government or the media said about the death. 

“I won’t believe a word of it,” @catturd2 wrote. “Why would they start telling the truth now?” 

A post from the X account @dom_lucre that got 3.8 million views suggested without evidence that Campbell’s death was somehow related to the potential indictment this week of former President Donald Trump on new charges. 

The four accounts did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday. Representatives for X also did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the spread of the conspiracy theories. 

Massachusetts police said Campbell was paddleboarding when he died. They said a second paddleboarder was on the pond with him and saw him go under the water after he briefly struggled to stay on the surface. Police responded at 7:46 p.m. Sunday, they said. They did not release a suspected cause of death for Campbell or say what factors might have contributed to his death. 

Campbell was a chef in the White House before he went to work for the Obamas when they left in 2017. The Obamas mourned him in a statement Tuesday as a “beloved part of our family.”

State police did not immediately respond to a request for copies of any written incident reports. 

Posts with conspiracy theories were visible Tuesday with some searching on other social media platforms, such as TikTok, Facebook, Instagram and Reddit, but the conspiracy theories were getting much less traction and viewership on those platforms, most likely because they take harder lines on misinformation than X does. 

Musk, the billionaire who runs the automaker Tesla and the rocket company SpaceX, softened Twitter’s rules about misinformation after he bought the company last year for $44 billion. He also gave priority in Twitter’s algorithm-driven feeds to posts from paying subscribers, allowing them to boost their reach, and he reinstated the accounts of some people banned by previous management. 

Taken together, the changes appear to have made it easier to spread hoaxes and conspiracies on the site now known as X, according to nonprofit fact-checkers and academic researchers. Recently, Musk has vocally supported conservative causes and ideas, frequently engaging with posts mocking LGBTQ people and sometimes amplifying misinformation.

Conservative activists have a long history of suggesting without evidence that liberals kill their own. In 2020, Fox News reached a settlement with the parents of Democratic staffer Seth Rich over its baseless reporting that fellow Democrats might have been involved in Rich’s death. A similar baseless conspiracy theory about Vince Foster, a Clinton White House lawyer who died by suicide in 1993, was still circulating on Facebook 25 years after his death. 

In a search of Facebook for the phrase “Obama’s chef,” the top result Tuesday was a post baselessly suggesting foul play because Campbell “saw something he wasn’t supposed to.” The second result was a video of right-wing pundit Jack Posobiec reading the news aloud, with comments (by others, not Posobiec) on the video implying a crime had occurred. The seventh result was someone asking about Campbell, “What did he know?” Facebook says its search results are ranked on a variety of factors, including an individual user’s activity and platformwide activity. 

Despite how highly those posts ranked in a search, they appeared to have few views and reshares — reflecting Facebook’s strategy of reducing the spread of problematic content that does not break an explicit rule of the site. 

Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, had no immediate comment Tuesday. The company recently launched a competitor to X called Threads, which has the same content policy as Instagram. Threads does not yet have a content search function or other possible windows into how misinformation is spreading there. 

Some online conspiracy theorists tried to draw a connection between Campbell’s death and the drowning death of another former White House chef, Walter Scheib, in New Mexico in 2015. Scheib had worked for former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Medical examiners ruled his death an accident, and there is no evidence to connect his death with Campbell’s. 

About 4,000 people drown in the U.S. every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While children are at the highest risk, anyone can drown, according to the agency. Factors that can make drowning more likely are not wearing life jackets, drinking alcohol and taking certain drugs and medications, the CDC says. 

Edgartown Great Pond is a saltwater pond on the south shore of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, separated from the Atlantic Ocean by a barrier island. Several organizations work to conserve the area, according to the Great Pond Foundation, which does restoration work and science projects there.