The family of Seth Rich, the 27-year-old Democratic National Committee staffer who was murdered in Washington, D.C. last summer, suffered for more than a year as they watched Rich’s death become the subject of a right-wing conspiracy theory that bubbled up to the highest echelons of Fox News. After a strongly worded op-ed this week in The Washington Post by Seth's parents, Mary and Joel Rich, the network finally retracted its reporting.
The situation echoes another tragedy that became highly politicized: the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, which a small but obsessive corner of the internet believes never happened at all.
Leonard Pozner, whose 6-year-old son Noah was murdered in the shooting, has spoken out against the fake, paranoia-driven reports that he and other parents were hired crisis actors, or that the tragedy was staged by Democrats to advance a pro-gun control agenda. In 2013, he sent an email to Infowars host Alex Jones, who peddled the conspiracy theory on his show. “I feel that your type of show created these hateful people,” Pozner wrote. In response, a Jones employee told Pozner that Alex would speak with him only after they determined that he was “the real Lenny Pozner.”
Pozner also started a support group for Sandy Hook parents to push back on conspiracy theories and made himself available to the media. His overtures were met with harassment and death threats from the so-called “truthers.”
“...Conspiracies on that magnitude will never go away.”
The firestorm over Seth Rich reached a flashpoint last week. Fox News host Sean Hannity had been hammering the idea that Rich was killed for leaking DNC emails, presenting it as an alternative theory to the widely acknowledged belief that Russia hacked the DNC during the campaign in an effort to help Donald Trump win the election. Investigators have found no evidence to support that theory — and national security agencies have said that Russia was behind the DNC hack — but that didn’t stop Hannity and Newt Gingrich, on Sunday, from repeating it on air and the tech entrepreneur Kim Dotcom from apparently attempting to hack into Rich’s email sometime last week.
After increasing pressure from the Rich family and other media outlets, Fox News on Wednesday retracted its reporting on Rich and Hannity said he would stop discussing the story “for now,” but pledged to keep digging.
What should a grieving family do when conspiracy theorists seize on their personal tragedies for political gain? Leonard Pozner praised the Rich family for pushing back, but also told The Outline that their lives — public and private — would never be the same.
“Anyone who is unlucky enough to have their life altered this way will have to surrender to the reality that conspiracies on that magnitude will never go away,” Pozner said.
Conspiracy theories aren't new. Alternative hypotheses about JFK’s murder have persisted for decades, as have doubts about the moon landing, whether aliens landed in Roswell, and Elvis's death. But today’s hyper-politicized internet culture allows particularly vicious strains of such baseless stories to disseminate.
“Now if a particular event becomes politicized, that’s when it generates more steam,” Pozner said. “In my experience, the Sandy Hook shooting became politicized because of the American debate on gun control. This story, I think, is pushed by the right against anything on Hillary Clinton.”
Pozner said that speaking out as a community is one of the only ways to fight back against, or even cope with, this cruel form of harassment.
“Freedom of speech carries with it the responsibility of countering speech, or countering hate speech,” Pozner said. “You have to, because that is the whole premise. That’s why we’re given free speech, so we can counter things that we think are unjust or wrong.”