On Saturday morning at 6:30 local time, disgraced American financier Jeffrey Epstein was found dead in his jail cell in New York, where he was being held without bail. Last month he pleaded not guilty to sex trafficking and conspiracy charges. He faced up to 45 years in prison if found guilty.
Epstein’s death came a day after a number of court documents were unsealed, providing further information about his alleged crimes.
Despite the fact that shortly after he was jailed in July, Epstein had been found in his cell with injuries to his neck, and had subsequently been placed on suicide watch by prison authorities, it was revealed late Saturday that he was not on suicide watch at the time of his death. The FBI and U.S. Department of Justice have launched investigations to determine why he was taken off suicide watch.
Manufacturing the news
The announcement of Epstein’s death hit the news at about 9:15 a.m. local time (2:15 p.m. in the UK), and almost immediately, conspiracy theories began to build online, particularly on Twitter. In particular, the hashtags #EpsteinSuicide and #ClintonBodyCount began trending within 30 minutes.
By the end of the day, #ClintonBodyCount had become viral, and had been retweeted by Donald Trump.
While this might have seemed like an organic event, a symptom of intense public interest in Epstein’s untimely death, the fact that these two hashtags rapidly dominated discussion around Epstein’s death was by no means accidental.
Those hashtags were pumped out by accounts which have been flagged as “trollbots”—highly automated accounts which are controlled by humans, but which exhibit repetitive, persistent tweeting behaviour more like that of an AI, or bot.
Bot? Trollbot? What’s the difference?
While bots use Twitter’s API (Application Programming Interface) to churn out retweets of a core group of tweets, they are automated and unable to interact in a realistically human way with other Twitter users.
Trollbot accounts solve this problem, as they are run by humans…humans who spend hour upon hour tweeting, retweeting, and liking certain keywords and hashtags, with the aim of getting them to “trend” on Twitter. Trollbots operate from “troll farms”, often located in countries like Russia.
Both bots and trollbots played a key role in initiating and amplifying the Pizzagate hoax, according to a November 2017 article published in Rolling Stone.
In the article, Jeff Nimmo, a fellow at the National Council’s Digital Forensic research lab, used a shepherding analogy to explain how certain accounts work with trollbots and bots to push their messages:
“A message that someone or some organization wants to ‘trend’ is typically sent out by ‘shepherd’ accounts,” he says, which often have large followings and are controlled by humans. The shepherds’ messages are amplified by ‘sheepdog’ [trollbot] accounts, which are also run by humans but can be default-set “to boost the signal and harass critics.” At times, the shepherds personally steer conversations, but they also deploy automation, using a kind of Twitter cruise control to retweet particular keywords and hashtags. Together, Nimmo says, the shepherds and sheepdogs guide a herd of bots, which “mindlessly repost content in the digital equivalent of sheep rushing in the same direction and bleating loudly.”
This is exactly what happened on Saturday.
Using an app called BotSentinel, we were able to watch in real time as trollbot accounts retweeted the #EpsteinSuicide and #ClintonBodyCount hashtags. The app’s developer, Christopher Bouzy, sounded the alarm:
Within two hours of the announcement of Epstein’s death, the hashtags had begun to trend on Twitter; 24 hours later, they had topped the charts. Here we see the top hashtags tweeted by trollbots, one day apart:
The #ClintonBodyCount hashtag references a long-standing conspiracy theory which claims that the Clintons are behind the murders of a number of people. This theory was a driving force behind conspiracy theories concerning the 2016 death of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich, and it’s also played a role in the QAnon mythology, which alleges in part that Trump is about to arrest/has arrested Hillary Clinton.
Just to be clear, Jeffrey Epstein was known for courting a wide circle of famous and influential people, including Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, and Prince Andrew. Given the high-profile nature of his case, and the people with whom Epstein has been involved over the years, it’s hardly surprising that rumours might begin to surface about who stood to lose—or gain—from his death.
Nor does it come as a shock that a competing hashtag, #TrumpBodyCount, emerged and began to trend within a few hours of the #ClintonBodyCount one, as supporters and detractors of the Clintons and Donald Trump battled for the attention of the conspiracy-minded.
Curiously, some trollbots began retweeting both hashtags at once:
This is not unusual: analysts who examined the role of Russian bots and trollbots in the last U.S. election pointed out that they would often appear to embrace both sides of an argument. The goal, it seemed, was not necessarily to win an argument, but rather to create division, cement polarisation, and sow confusion.
Enter the Tweeter-in-Chief
By Saturday evening, the battle had reached epic proportions.
Terrence K. Williams, described by NBC News as a conservative commentator and comedian, was one Twitter user who embraced the #ClintonBodyCount side.
In a tweet that included a video in which he alleged that Bill and Hillary Clinton were responsible for Epstein’s death, Williams wrote, “Died of a SUICIDE on 24/7 SUICIDE WATCH? Yeah right! How does that happen #JefferyEpstein had information on Bill Clinton & now he’s dead. I see #TrumpBodyCount trending but we know who did this!”
Williams, who has more than 500,000 followers, was already a key amplifier of the “Bill and Hillary done it” message.
However, his tweet attained national prominence when Donald Trump retweeted it late Saturday. In doing so, Trump was pouring petrol on an already massive dumpster fire, feeding the conspiracy theories which were already spinning out of control.
Within minutes, trollbots had seized upon the Tweeter-in-Chief’s retweet, and were amplifying it even further. At the same time, they were tweeting attacks on Bill Clinton.
Bouzy used a data visualisation programme to illustrate the scope of the trollbots’ activity:
Yesterday, Republican Florida Senator Marco Rubio posted a tweet in which he blamed “Putin bots and trolls” for pushing hashtags on both sides:
@RT_com (formerly Russia Today) begged to differ, of course. And certainly, while Russian bots and trollbots were implicated in the 2016 U.S. election, and have been cited by Canada’s federal cybersecurity centre as a potential threat to the upcoming federal election this year, not all bots and trollbots come from Russia. Countries such as China, Turkey, Israel, Vietnam, India, and the Ukraine have also been implicated.
At this point, the “bodycount” hashtags continue to spread on Twitter, in part due to the early activities of bots and trollbots, but now largely under their own steam, as real Twitter users pick them up and pass them along.
Having hit critical mass early, then been tweeted by Williams and retweeted by Trump, the #ClintonBodyCount tag will doubtless continue to inspire more and more conspiracy theories in the days and weeks to come.