The death of financier Jeffrey Epstein laid bare social media’s ability to legitimise baseless smears and conspiracy theories, writes Martyn McLaughlin.
The death of the disgraced financier and accused child sex trafficker, Jeffrey Epstein, has confirmed several uncomfortable truths about our increasingly distorted media ecosystem and the way it grants synonymity between genuine scandals and wild-eyed conspiracy theories.
It ought to go without saying that those suffering the most in the wake of Epstein’s suicide are his many alleged victims. Simply speaking out against a man of immense wealth and status constituted an act of remarkable courage. They did so in the knowledge that a decade previously, the 66-year-old struck a lenient plea deal with prosecutors over sexual abuse charges.
That the US justice system failed for a second time by facilitating the circumstances that allowed Epstein to take his own life – an act which robs the survivors of their right to seek justice – is an unconscionable travesty that invites several rudimentary lines of questioning.
Why was a pre-trial detainee who was discovered only a fortnight previously semi-conscious in his cell with neck injuries allowed to go unmonitored for several hours? Given the red flag of the previous incident, why was Epstein only subjected to round-the-clock monitoring and psychological evaluations for a week?
Urgent answers are required to these questions. Yet, if the disinformation and fevered conjecture swirling around in recent days is any guide, there will be no closure. Not this year. Not the next. Not ever.
The circumstances surrounding Epstein’s death feels like the quintessential story of our age. Here was a man accused of sex trafficking children as young as 14, and whose gilded social circle encompassed politicians of all hues as well as royalty and celebrities. His arrest, and the subsequent slew of allegations which emerged the day before his death, lifted the curtain on the nexus of power, money, and privilege.
Now, with no criminal prosecution, nor any guarantee that those who may have joined Epstein, abetted him, enabled him, and ultimately protected him will face their own reckoning, all we have to see beyond that initial cursory glimpse is that which we choose to.
Nowhere has this been more evident than on a social media infrastructure so fundamentally broken and contemptuously stewarded that its networks exert influence on the very way crimes are committed, as chillingly demonstrated by the livestreamed performative slaughter of the Christchurch terror attacks.
If that dark day offered a stark insight into Big Tech’s complicity in platforming atrocities in all their bloody instantaneity, Epstein’s death offered the most chilling example yet of its ability to propagate and legitimise conspiratorial utterances mere minutes after the event.
Twitter in particular played host to a toxic epidemic of competing conspiracy theories, all played out under the guise of hashtags, memes, GIFs, and unsubstantiated reports.
Even on Monday afternoon, two days after Epstein’s death, the hashtag #EpsteinSuicideCoverUp was trending in the UK, joining other viral terms including #ClintonBodyCount, #ClintonCrimeFamily, and #TrumpBodyCount – all expressions of weaponised partisanship.
President Donald Trump, who has come under close scrutiny over his ties to Epstein, saw fit to join the fray, retweeting others who employed several of these hashtags to link Bill Clinton to the death. While that ought to come as no real surprise, given Mr Trump’s inexhaustible efforts to use social media to disrupt established media narratives, the anger over his retweet risks obscuring the ruinous effect such remarks exert when they gain prominence.
These hashtags were, for a considerable period of time, trending on Twitter, meaning that millions of users logging on to its site or opening its app were confronted with a ready-made news list to catch up on a breaking global story.
How much value you attribute to such trending topics is subjective, but regardless of arbitrariness, it constitutes a ranking. Given 49 per cent of adults in the UK use social media to consume news, the potential reach and impact of coverage curated by, and populated with, baseless rumours is deeply vexing.
Twitter helpfully says the algorithms which determine trends are intended to “promote healthy discussions”, which is fine in theory, but a little harder in practice when the topic is paedophilic cabals.
Traditional publishers and broadcasters bear a degree of blame in all this, too. In the absence of news, outlandish theories circulating on Twitter fill the vacuum and sustain the feedback loop, even if the focus of the coverage is to debunk the very theories it references. This in turn sparks further controversy and accusations of media censorship and suppression, claims which are especially absurd in the Epstein case given it was the Miami Herald’s painstaking investigative reporting which paved the way for his arrest.
But this is how the hamster wheel keeps spinning ever faster. The question of how we get off it is altogether more fraught.
A good place to begin would be to recognise the danger of conflating conspiracists with controversialists, acknowledge that groundless invective is not representative of public opinion, and focus on the search for the truth.
It may be an outmoded concept these days, but it is worth fighting for.