One of the 2016 campaign’s weirdest and most argued-over subplots — Republican nominee Donald Trump’s affection for Russian president Vladimir Putin, and Russia’s apparent attempts to meddle with U.S. elections — took another fascinating turn yesterday, at an event in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. “This just came out a little while ago — I have to tell you this,” Trump told the enthusiastic crowd, holding a piece of paper which he indicated contained the words of Sidney Blumenthal, the longtime adviser to the Clintons who is the subject of countless right-wing conspiracy theories. Trump began reading the words directly: “The attack was almost certainly preventable. Clinton was in charge of the State Department and had failed to protect the United States personnel at an american consulate in Libya. If the GOP wants to raise that as a talking point against her, it is legitimate.”
“In other words,” said Trump, “he’s now admitting they could have done something about Benghazi. This just came out a little while ago.” He flicked the paper away, and the crowd erupted in outrage.
As it turns out, those words never came from Blumenthal. Rather, as reporter Kurt Eichenwald explained in a story published on Newsweek’s website last night that has exploded since then, Trump was quoting Eichenwald. In a piece headlined “Dear Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, I Am Not Sidney Blumenthal,” Eichenwald explains that the Russian news outlet Sputnik, which, like RT, the Russian news network, is a subsidiary of the government-controlled Rossiya Segodnya news agency, had, sometime between the most recent WikiLeaks email dump from Clinton’s inner circle and Trump’s speech, published a story “breaking” news of the bombshell and sourcing it to WikiLeaks.
The problem is that while the email in question does appear to have come from Blumenthal, he was writing about — and quoting from — Eichenwald’s piece. Sputnik had taken Eichenwald’s brief aside — basically, Here are some fair claims the GOP can make about Clinton — ignored the fact that it was from a to-be-sure graf nestled in a much longer piece hammering at the GOP for the politicized Benghazi inquiry, and then put those seemingly anti-Clinton words in Blumenthal’s mouth. It was either an extremely sloppy translation job or a deliberate attempt to spark a false rumor about Blumenthal and Clinton — either way, soon the GOP nominee was spreading the same falsehood.
That a Russian news agency would be cavalier with facts isn’t surprising; nor, for that matter, is the idea that Trump would be similarly cavalier. But Eichenwald raises a natural, if leading, question over the event: “How did this happen? Who in the Trump campaign was feeding him falsehoods straight from the Kremlin?”
A bunch of people have picked up and run with this meme since then: The fact that Trump had access to such an obscure, Russia-originating rumor is evidence that, as many people have speculated, there’s an ongoing relationship between his campaign and the Russian intelligence forces hoping to tip the election toward a Putin-admiring authoritarian who is unlikely to curtail Russia’s ambitions. That’s a great story — but, alas, if you know how the internet works these days, Occam’s razor suggests a simpler explanation: Trump, or one of his aides, saw something on Twitter, and repeated it verbatim without bothering to check the sourcing.
BuzzFeed’s deputy news director, Jon Passantino, has an invaluable series of tweets on this in which he shows that the Blumenthal rumor had begun going viral before Sputnik published its story, and traces one of the major original nodes of the rumor to the Twitter account republic2016:
Passantino’s tweets tell us something we already knew: When insane new rumors about Clinton pop up, they spread quickly, and that spread is often helped along greatly by Russian media. Take two recent examples: For months, countless outlets — up to the New York Times — have reported that Assange had claimed he had in his possession an email that would lead to Hillary Clinton’s indictment. But when I tried to trace the source of the Assange quote often used to illustrate this claim, it turned out not to exist — it was usually attributed to an interview in which Assange never said anything of the sort. So how did it spread? Shortly after the rumor popped up RT helped spread it and it took off like wildfire, first through the gonzo-sphere and then, ultimately, up to the mainstream media as well.
Something similar happened last week: After an anonymous blogger cited anonymous State Department sources who said Clinton had expressed frustration that she couldn’t just murder Assange with a drone strike — sourcing-wise, this is about as credible as your 5-year-old cousin insisting he saw Bigfoot in his closet — RT helped spread that rumor, which also went viral. In both instances, the rumors have already spread far wider than any debunking will go. Hundreds of thousands, or millions, of people still believe that Assange is sitting on an email that will get Clinton locked up, and that she spoke seriously about taking him out with a drone.
None of this is particularly surprising to anyone who spends time online. This is the 2016-era internet economy, after all, in which websites hungry for attention are incentivized to publish rumors, which in turn manage to travel around the world before anyone can debunk them. What’s a little odd is that another odd, misreported rumor ended up on the lips of a major-party presidential candidate. But then again, this is a man who’s shown himself to be either singularly gullible or singularly dishonest, a voracious but shallow consumer of media, who has the attention span (and credulousness) of a Twitter mob.
An entire internet cottage-industry has sprung up around the fact-check-free dissemination and “wishcasting” — Dave Weigel’s great term — of anti-Clinton rumors, and the Trump campaign, always on the lookout for material, is certainly tied into these paranoid networks. There’s no way to prove that there isn’t a Russian disinformation pro in contact with Trump’s campaign. But the point is that Russia doesn’t need one: It just needs to help spread regular old internet trash, and that trash will get where it needs to go eventually.