Epstein’s apparent suicide is, in many ways, the post-truth nightmare scenario. The sordid story contains almost all the hallmarks of stereotypical conspiratorial fodder: child sex-trafficking, powerful global political leaders, shadowy private jet flights, billionaires whose wealth cannot be explained. As a tale of corruption, it is so deeply intertwined with our current cultural and political rot that it feels, at times, almost too on-the-nose. The Epstein saga provides ammunition for everyone, leading one researcher to refer to Saturday’s news as the “Disinformation World Cup.”
At the heart of Saturday’s fiasco is Twitter, which has come to largely program the political conversation and much of the press. Twitter is magnetic during massive breaking stories; news junkies flock to it for up-to-the-second information. But early on, there’s often a vast discrepancy between the attention that is directed at the platform and the available information about the developing story. That gap is filled by speculation and, via its worst users, rumor-mongering and conspiracy theories.
On Saturday, Twitter’s trending algorithms hoovered up the worst of this detritus, curating, ranking and then placing it in the trending module on the right side of its website. Despite being a highly arbitrary and mostly “worthless metric,” trending topics on Twitter are often interpreted as a vague signal of the importance of a given subject.
There’s a decent chance that President Trump was using Twitter’s trending module when he retweeted a conspiratorial tweet tying the Clintons to Epstein’s death. At the time of Mr. Trump’s retweet, “Clintons” was the third trending topic in the United States. The specific tweet amplified by the president to his more than 60 million followers was prominently featured in the “Clintons” trending topic. And as Ashley Feinberg at Slate pointed out in June, the president appears to have a history of using trending to find and interact with tweets.
On Saturday afternoon, computational propaganda researcher Renée DiResta noted that the media’s close relationship with Twitter creates an incentive for propagandists and partisans to artificially inflate given hashtags. Almost as soon as #ClintonBodyCount began trending on Saturday, journalists took note and began lamenting the spread of this conspiracy theory — effectively turning it into a news story, and further amplifying the trend. “Any wayward tweet … can be elevated to an opinion worth paying attention to,” Ms. DiResta wrote. “If you make it trend, you make it true.” [Continue reading…]