Just hours after the high-profile financier Jeffrey Epstein was found dead on Saturday, unsubstantiated theories about his death began to gain traction online.
Epstein, who was set to stand trial on sex trafficking and conspiracy charges, killed himself in his jail cell in New York. He was accused of running a “vast network” of underage girls for sex, and pleaded not guilty to the charges last month.
The 66-year-old was known to court famous friends and acquaintances. President Donald Trump, former President Bill Clinton, and the UK’s Prince Andrew all had ties to him. Some of his powerful associates have been embroiled in the allegations against him, which has only served to fuel the conspiracy theories and misinformation.
Many rumours have centred on what politicians may have known about Epstein’s alleged crimes and whether some may have wanted him dead. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest this was the case. And yet, the hashtag #EpsteinMurder trended worldwide on Saturday.
Joke images and memes – suggesting everything from a faked suicide to an orchestrated hit-job – were shared thousands of times throughout the day. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were rife with unfounded theories about what may have happened to the financier.
This wild speculation was not confined to a fringe minority – far from it. Politicians and high-profile journalists also stoked rampant speculation at a time when little information was publicly available. MSNBC host Joe Scarborough tweeted:
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said it was “way too convenient” that Epstein could no longer incriminate others.
“What a lot of us want to know is, what did he know?” he told reporters. “How many other millionaires and billionaires were part of the illegal activities that he was engaged in?”
Questions like these alluded, without evidence, to a malevolent conspiracy and fed the feverish speculation on social media.
Further rumours centred on how a man who was found semi-conscious and with injuries to his neck just weeks earlier was able to take his own life. Initial reports said Epstein was placed on suicide watch after that incident in July, which led many people to ask how he could have died while being so closely monitored.
“What does the word watch mean in the phrase suicide watch?” tweeted President Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giulani. “Who was watching?” He then said it was “inconceivable” Epstein could have taken his own life under those circumstances.
But prison officials later said Epstein had actually been taken off suicide watch prior to his death. Conspiracy theories then began to focus on why this decision was made, rather than how he was able to take his own life.
The speculation, as was the case throughout Saturday, appeared to shift and change with the few concrete details that were released.
Perhaps the most far-fetched conspiracy theories were pegged to the hashtags #ClintonBodyCount and #TrumpBodyCount, which both trended on Twitter over the weekend.
The first was primarily used by conservatives to suggest that former “first couple” Bill and Hillary Clinton were linked to Epstein’s death. The latter, perhaps predictably, was used by liberals who speculated that Mr Trump was somehow involved. Neither side had any evidence to work with.
The baseless theory of the Clinton’s involvement harks back to a long-running conspiracy that originated in the 1990s and claims the couple secretly kill their enemies. This was roundly and methodically debunked at the time by the fact-checking website Snopes.
“There is no evidence whatsoever to suggest an outside person ordered Epstein’s death, and certainly no evidence whatsoever that Bill Clinton was that person,” Dylan Matthews wrote in Vox this week.
“[Mr Clinton] knows nothing about the terrible crimes Jeffrey Epstein pleaded guilty to in Florida some years ago, or those with which he has been recently charged in New York,” his spokesman, Angel Ureña, said.
But Mr Trump was quick to pour fuel on the flames. He shared a tweet from Terrence Williams, a comedian and Trump supporter, that alleged Epstein “had information on Bill Clinton & now he’s dead”. There is no evidence to support this, but the tweet has since been shared more than 55,000 times.
Other theories and tidbits of misinformation have been easier to disprove.
For example, a photo that appeared to show Mr Trump kissing the head of his daughter, Ivanka, while standing next to Epstein has been exposed as a fake. “The 1993 photograph… has been manipulated to include Epstein,” the Associated Press reported last month.
Similarly, after Epstein’s arrest on 6 July, some social media users shared a false claim that prosecutors had struck a secret plea deal with the financier under the administration of President Barack Obama in order to protect his fellow Democrat Mr Clinton. That theory resurfaced on Saturday.
But the deal, which allowed Epstein to plead guilty to lesser charges, was actually finalised before Mr Obama took office under the administration of President George W, Bush. Labour Secretary Alex Acosta resigned over his role in the deal last month.
Meanwhile, some politicians and journalists have urged people to exercise caution given the sheer quantity of misinformation online.
“The immediate rush to spread conspiracy theories about someone on the ‘other side’ of [the] partisan divide illustrates why our society is so vulnerable to foreign disinformation,” tweeted Republican Senator Marco Rubio.
CNN presenter Jim Sciutto, reflecting on his time working in the Middle East, said: “Remember this is about… partisan politics. When I was [there]… folks didn’t trust authorities so assumed a plot behind every event.”