The top story on pro-Trump media last week was a conspiracy about a murdered Democratic National Committee staffer and his alleged connection to WikiLeaks.
In July, a few days before the WikiLeaks release of thousands of DNC emails, staffer Seth Rich was killed in what police says was an attempted robbery. Far-right conspiracy theorists have claimed Rich was the leaker, and his killing was ordered by the Clintons in retaliation.
For the last week, the story has dominated far-right media — even as it's dismissed, debunked, and ignored by the mainstream, and despite a series of bombshells regarding the potential ties between Donald Trump and Russia. To better understand how the pro-Trump media keeps a conspiracy theory alive in the face of overwhelming evidence against it, it's instructive to look at one of its most popular blogs, the Gateway Pundit.
The Gateway Pundit is a pro-Trump site run out of St. Louis, Missouri, by longtime blogger Jim Hoft. The site reaches a wide audience — Hoft claimed that during the 2016 campaign, it was pulling down over 1 million unique views a day. The site has a reporter who regularly attends White House press briefings. Outside of its readership, Gateway Pundit is maybe best known for reporting on and pushing sensationalized claims and rumors that get picked up on bigger sites like the Drudge Report. Some of its greatest hits: that Hillary Clinton was having seizures during the campaign, that Obama's birth certificate was a forgery, and that illegal voting cost Trump the popular vote.
Hoft and Gateway Pundit have been instrumental in championing the Seth Rich–WikiLeaks conspiracy. On Hoft's Twitter feed alone, which has over 73,000 followers, Hoft has kept up a steady clip of Seth Rich tweets since a DC local Fox station broke the story.
Here's a sampling of Hoft's tweets from May 16 — the day after the Fox 5 Seth Rich story broke:
Hoft and Gateway Pundit are far from the only pro-Trump outlets to push the Rich story, but Gateway Pundit stands out as a prime example of how the pro-Trump media can not only champion a conspiracy but also continue to feed itself and whip up more outrage and intrigue. Here's the playbook:
1) Repetition, Repetition, Repetition
In the last week, Gateway Pundit published 15 stories about the Rich murder and WikiLeaks conspiracy — some of which are almost exact copies of each other.
For example, here are two Gateway Pundit stories from last Monday and Tuesday.
They have two different headlines:
"BREAKING: Seth Rich Family Detective Tells FOX 5 DC THERE IS EVIDENCE Seth was “Emailing” Wikileaks …UPDATED WITH REPORT"
"IT WASN’T RUSSIA! FOX NEWS REPORTS SETH RICH LEAKED 44,000 DNC EMAILS TO WIKILEAKS – THEN HE WAS MURDERED"
But the body of the two posts are completely identical until the last few paragraphs:
The repetition serves two purposes. First, it allows Hoft and Gateway Pundit to quickly churn out new posts without having to spend time rewriting new copy. And second, it cements the narrative with its audience. There is maybe only a tweet's worth of new information in the second post, but each article is framed as a huge new revelation, ensuring that the audience feels the story is constantly moving and developing, despite the fact that little has changed. The reader, trying to get to the new information, has to read to the bottom. And, in doing so, reabsorbs the Rich narrative again and again.
2) Incendiary Headlines
Gateway Pundit uses headlines to increase the stakes of each story. Often, they describe how the reader is supposed to feel about the story (example: "ABSOLUTELY SICKENING!") or what they should take away from the piece (example: "IT WASN'T RUSSIA!").
They draw the reader in, and undoubtedly play well on social media, but, much like the constant repetition, they also add to the sense that the Rich conspiracy is rapidly moving forward and that the minor updates are actually shocking revelations. Basically: They add false gravity to a story that's largely stagnant.
3) A Closed-Loop Reporting Structure
Here's a story Gateway Pundit ran on Sunday:
There was no "bombshell": The post was a writeup of an appearance Newt Gingrich made on Fox and Friends on Sunday morning. Though the headline suggests Gingrich put forth proof that the "DNC operative was behind Wikileaks DNC email release," he did no such thing. He merely acknowledged that the Rich story was "very strange" and repeated rumors pushed by Gateway Pundit.
As with the above examples, the body copy of the Gingrich story was nearly identical to the other Gateway Pundit stories about Rich. In this case, the only difference is the inclusion of the Gingrich video at the end, alongside a short transcription of his interview.
Though the transcript clearly shows there's no bombshell from Gingrich, the information is included so far down in the post that Gingrich's quote is almost beside the point. The incendiary headline, which reinforces the rumor Gateway Pundit has been pushing for a week, cements the narrative and Gingrich's name attaches extra credibility to the conspiracy theory.
To recap: First, Gateway Pundit promotes rumors. Then, a politician repeats those rumors. Finally, Gateway Pundit uses politician's sound bite as proof rumors are true.
4) Flimsy Evidence
Perhaps the best example of Gateway Pundit's manufactured controversy came on Sunday night, when the site reported "'Complete Panic' at Highest Levels of DNC."
The post hinges on an anonymous 4chan thread from an individual claiming to "work in D.C." The post claims that "the Seth Rich case has scared the shit out of certain high ranking current and former Democratic Party officials," and goes on to say the DNC "is near open panic." The post's headline doesn't take into account that the 4chan user in question is completely unverifiable or that 4chan is a notorious breeding ground for trolls and misinformation.
Later that evening, Sean Hannity tweeted about the Rich conspiracy using almost the exact same language as the 4chan post:
While it's hard to know how Hannity came upon the 4chan post, it's possible he stumbled upon this tweet (which Gateway Pundit notes was the first public tweet of the 4chan post):
In other words: Hannity, drawing on information likely gleaned from an anonymous 4chan post, claimed that "complete panic" had set in at the DNC. And Gateway Pundit — with no verification — reported this as fact.
In isolation, each one of these examples may seem extreme. But taken together, they present a formidable misinformation campaign that's highly effective at pushing and cementing a narrative among devoted readers. Gateway Pundit may not have started the Rich conspiracy, but thanks to its constant promotion, it's helping to keep it in the news.