The news that disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein was injured in his Manhattan jail cell has revived a decades-old conspiracy theory that baselessly links Hillary Clinton to a number of “suspicious” deaths.
Epstein, who is facing a possible 45 years if convicted on sex-trafficking and conspiracy charges, was reportedly found Wednesday semiconscious in his New York City jail cell with marks around his neck. Sources close to the investigation told NBC News that the injuries may have come from another inmate or been self-inflicted, and Epstein is now on suicide watch.
The news was sensational grist for conspiracy theorists and far-right pundits, who leapt to Twitter to suggest that Esptein’s injuries might somehow be linked to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The theory, known as the “Clinton Body Count,” was soon trending on Twitter, with the corresponding #ClintonBodyCount hashtag attached to more than 70,000 tweets by Thursday afternoon.
Big tech companies have been grappling with their part in the spread of conspiracy theories surrounding politicians, health information and mass violence. Facebook has balked at reigning in the theories spread in groups and on pages, citing a slippery slope of becoming arbiters of truth, while YouTube announced this year it would stop the spread of conspiracies on its platform by tweaking its algorithm to recommend less content that could misinform users.
Some users on Twitter criticized the platform for including the Clinton conspiracy hashtag in its Trending sidebar this morning when it only had a few hundred tweets, mostly from a well-known conspiracy news account.
“Trends are determined by velocity, not volume,” a Twitter spokesperson said in an emailed response to questions about what responsibility it has to keep conspiracy theories off its trending list.
The conspiracy theory related to Clinton first emerged in 1993, through a newsletter published by a former attorney in Indianapolis, Linda Thompson. In her letter, titled, “COINCIDENCE OR THE KISS OF DEATH?” Thompson posited that scores of people close to Bill and Hillary Clinton had died under “mysterious circumstances.” Thompson’s list included Vince Foster, a longtime aide whose apparent suicide would spark conspiracies that led to breathless and baseless reports in far-right publications and documentaries. A subsequent special counsel investigation found that Foster’s death had been self-inflicted, caused by personal collapse, not any Clinton machine.
Despite those official findings, while other Clinton related-conspiracies around scandals such as Troopergate and Whitewater died, the Clinton body count has remained a favorite of conspiracy consumers and in the age of Trump and social media, ignited new versions of the allegations.
“This conspiracy just sort of hung around,” said Joe Uscinski, a University of Miami associate professor and author of the book, “American Conspiracy Theories.” “Mainly because the Clintons have been in power for so long and because she's the most recent face of the Democratic Party. She's a good boogeyman for Republicans to use now still.”
The current focus on the theory has to do “with the small but persistent number of people who believe in QAnon,” Uscinski said, describing the current elaborate and ludicrous theory that alleges President Donald Trump is fighting a war against the “deep state,” a group of elites enmeshed with a satanic child sex trafficking ring led by Hillary Clinton.
Indeed, the rehashed Hillary Clinton conspiracy helped launch the QAnon movement, according to Travis View, a writer and host for the podcast QAnon Anonymous, which tracks the convoluted conspiracy and documents its main players.
View said the person or people posting as “Q” linked the unsolved murder of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich to Hillary Clinton in 2017 during its first week posting on 4chan, the fringe online forum where “Q” first posted messages for his followers.
“Q also absurdly implied that Hillary Clinton was somehow responsible for the tragic plane crash that killed JFK Jr. in 1999,” View said. “A minority sect of QAnon followers believe that Clinton merely tried and failed to kill JFK Jr, and he is still alive today.”
But Epstein’s involvement complicates QAnon’s Trump-positive message. Both Trump and former President Bill Clinton have been tied to Epstein. Bill Clinton flew on Epstein’s plane and invited him to events at the White House. Trump also flew on Epstein’s plane, attended parties at the financier’s New York home, and partied with Epstein at his Palm Beach club, Mar-a-Lago.
For now, the 25-year-old newsletter’s allegations look to be the prevailing narrative for the conspiracy-minded.
“Part of it's just practical,” Uscinski said. “Conspiracy theorists have to put the blame somewhere. I imagine once the Democrats pick a nominee, a lot of these conspiracies will travel to that person.”
CORRECTION (Aug. 11, 2019, 11:35 a.m.): A previous version of this article misstated one aspect of the relationship between Bill Clinton and Jeffrey Epstein. A spokesman for Clinton has denied that Clinton ever visited Epstein’s private island. The reference has been removed from the article.