'Conspiracyland' Debunks Theories About Murder Of DNC Staffer Seth Rich

Aug 8, 2019
Originally published on August 16, 2019 9:00 am

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When a young staffer for the Democratic National Committee was murdered in Washington, D.C., in 2016, it appeared to be a street robbery gone wrong. But the death of Seth Rich became the subject of wild conspiracy theories, some planted by Russian intelligence operatives and promoted by allies of President Trump and covered on Fox News. The theories assert that Seth Rich was the person who gave DNC emails to WikiLeaks, which were then released to damage Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.

Isikoff hosts a new six-episode podcast called "Conspiracyland" that debunks the Seth Rich conspiracy theories and explores the motivation and methods of those who promoted them. Michael Isikoff is chief investigative correspondent for Yahoo News and the author with David Corn of the book "Russian Roulette: The Inside Story Of Putin's War On America And The Election Of Donald Trump." Michael Isikoff spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Well, Michael Isikoff, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Great to be with you.

DAVIES: Let's begin. Just remind us who Seth Rich was and what we know about his death.

ISIKOFF: Seth Rich was a 27-year-old man from Omaha, Neb., who was working at the Democratic National Committee in 2016, working in the Voter Protection Division. And he was at his favorite bar hangout in Washington late on the evening of July 9, 2016, was walking home to his neighborhood, the Bloomingdale neighborhood, about 30 blocks north of the Capitol, and was shot and killed in what police quickly concluded was most likely a botched robbery.

There had been a series of armed robberies in the neighborhood where Seth was killed in the weeks before his death, seven in the six weeks running up to that, had been an issue in the neighborhood. Neighbors had been complaining about the lack of police presence during this time.

And within a few days of his death, a conspiracy theory started to pop up on obscure websites and Internet chatrooms suggesting somehow that his death was related to his job at the Democratic National Committee. And one of the original proponents of this was one Roger Stone, who a few weeks after Seth Rich's death, tweeted a picture of him describing him as another dead body in the Clintons' wake.

DAVIES: I want to get into these conspiracy theories as they unfolded. But first, I mean, you know, one of the things that inspired conjecture initially was the fact that the police thought it was a botched robbery, and yet his wallet, cellphone, other valuables were not taken. What did detectives make of that?

ISIKOFF: Correct. That was what gave a little bit of traction to the conspiracy theory. Why was nothing taken? And we talked to police officers, prosecutors, people who have handled and seen this sort of thing before. And what they say is that this - what happened with him is consistent with something that happens often when the victim of a crime resists.

And what we do know is that Seth Rich did resist when two assailants accosted him about 4:19 a.m. on Sunday morning July 10. He had bruises on his face. He had bruises on his knuckles indicating that he had put up a fight. And what the police concluded here was that this was most likely a case of, when he resisted, his assailants panicked, shot him and fled without taking the wallet and other items that he had on him.

DAVIES: Right, which is not uncommon in these circumstances. You know, he was shot in the back twice.

ISIKOFF: Correct.

DAVIES: If this were a contract killing, do detectives think that's what we would have seen?

ISIKOFF: This had none of the hallmarks of a contract kill. If, in fact, this was - the assailants were there to assassinate Seth Rich, for one thing, they would have shot him in the head, not in the body. He was still alive, and he was left when the assailant fled. He stayed alive for about an hour and a half. He was taken to the hospital and died later that morning.

So one of the people we interview in "Conspiracyland" is Deborah Sines, who was the assistant U.S. attorney in charge of the investigation to Seth Rich's death. She was a veteran homicide prosecutor in Washington. She'd done a lot of contract killings - prosecuted them, put the perpetrators in prison. And she said this was not a case at all of a contract kill. Homicide 101 - when it's a targeted killing, it's almost always a head shot, and they don't leave you alive.

DAVIES: All right. So those are the basic facts. And there were no arrests, still no arrest. It's an unsolved crime. This was July 2016. Remind us what was going on in the country at that time that would give some an interest, a motive to push conspiratorial theories about this.

ISIKOFF: Well, look. It was the height of a presidential election in which one of the candidates was Hillary Clinton. There had been conspiracy theories about the Clintons going back to the 1990s, when Bill Clinton was president. Some of them arose out in the case of Vince Foster, a White House counsel - deputy White House counsel who committed suicide in a park in Northern Virginia in 1993. But this gave rise to the idea of mysterious deaths associated with the Clintons. And that had been kind of a conspiracy meme on the far-right for many years.

So the idea of here Seth Rich was killed, Was this another, as Roger Stone tweeted, another dead body in the Clintons' wake? But there was a lot more to the Seth Rich case that really propelled these conspiracy theories. Just not long after his death was the Democratic convention in Philadelphia in which WikiLeaks dumps more than 20,000 emails from inside the DNC.

Now, law enforcement, U.S. intelligence officials quickly concluded this was a case of Russian hackers - Russian government hackers who had hacked into the DNC and then gave those emails to WikiLeaks. But on August 9, Julian Assange throws a curveball into the mix when he gives an interview to a Dutch TV reporter.

DAVIES: Yeah. Why don't we listen to a bit of this? This is kind of a turning point in this. This is Julian Assange speaking to a Dutch TV reporter a couple of weeks after the Seth Rich murder.

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JULIAN ASSANGE: Whistleblowers go to significant efforts to get us material and often very significant risks. There was a 27-year-old, works for the DNC, who was shot in the back - murdered - just two weeks ago for unknown reasons as he was walking down the street in Washington. So...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: That was just a robbery I believe, wasn't it?

ASSANGE: No. There's no finding. So that's the sort of...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: What are you suggesting?

ASSANGE: I'm suggesting that our sources take risks, and they are - they become concerned to see things occurring like that.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: But was he one of your sources then? I mean...

ASSANGE: We don't comment on who our sources are.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: But why make the suggestion about a young guy being shot in the streets of Washington?

ASSANGE: Because we have to understand how high the stakes are in the United States and that our sources are - you know, our sources face serious risks. That's why they come to us, so we can protect their anonymity.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: But it's quite something to suggest a murder. That's basically what you're doing.

ASSANGE: Well, there are - others (ph) have suggested that we are investigating to understand what happened in that situation with Seth Rich. I think it is a concerning situation. There's not a conclusion yet. We wouldn't be willing to state a conclusion. But we are concerned about it.

DAVIES: So what's the impact of this curious statement?

ISIKOFF: This was enormous in propelling the conspiracy theories. As you notice, Assange doesn't quite say that Seth Rich was his source for the DNC emails. He's suggesting it. You can hear the pushback that the Dutch TV reporter, Eelco van Rosenthal, gives when Assange says this. And we interview Van Rosenthal, and he talks about how astounded he was when Assange dropped this bomb without providing any evidence to back it up. He even debated with his editors, do we even air this? I mean, what is he saying here?

Assange was covering his tracks. We now know when and where and from whom WikiLeaks got those DNC emails. It was an online persona of the Russian GRU, Russia's military intelligence arm, that provided the emails in an encrypted file to Wikileaks on July 14, 2016. Now, that is four days after Seth Rich had been killed so it would have been impossible, obviously, for Seth Rich to have provided the emails four days after his death.

But Assange was cleverly and quite cynically trying to throw people off from where he got the emails and pointing to this dead guy in Washington, D.C., who was killed in a botched robbery. This gave enormous fuel to the idea of that Seth Rich was the leaker of the DNC emails, and it really propelled the conspiracy theories to another level.

DAVIES: Right. And you'd have to say you can see why this would have been enormous - of enormous interest because Julian Assange certainly knows whether or not Seth Rich was his source. And if he is raising this whole thing in an interview, it's kind of hard to reach any other conclusion, either. He's, as you say, covering his tracks, or he's pointing people to the guy who actually did it.

ISIKOFF: Right. Except, as we make clear, there's absolutely (laughter) no evidence that Seth Rich was the guy who did it and overwhelming evidence that he could not have been the guy that did it. I should point out that in Robert Mueller's report, he does briefly address this and say - he points to Assange's comments hinting that Seth Rich was his source. And Mueller concludes that this was a false narrative that had been - was being perpetuated by Julian Assange for the purpose of throwing people off the track.

DAVIES: Michael Isikoff is chief investigative correspondent for Yahoo News. His new podcast series is called "Conspiracyland." We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Yahoo News chief investigative correspondent Michael Isikoff. He hosts a new six-episode podcast called "Conspiracyland." It explores conspiracy theories surrounding the 2016 murder on a Washington, D.C., street of a Democratic National Committee staffer, named Seth Rich, a theory suggesting it was Seth Rich and not Russian hackers that leaked the DNC emails to WikiLeaks that undermined Hillary Clinton's campaign, and that Rich's murder was a professional hit in some way related to those emails.

You spoke with Deborah Sines, who was the federal prosecutor in charge of the investigation. And these conspiracy theories kind of created an issue for her, and she made some efforts to find out where they may have come from. What did she discover.

ISIKOFF: Exactly. She was puzzled about all the conspiracy theories swirling around the case that she was investigating. So she finally turns to the U.S. intelligence community. She had a security clearance as a assistant U.S. attorney. She asked them to help her figure out, where's all this stuff coming from? And they come back with a bombshell. They provide Sines with copies, English translations of copies of intelligence bulletins that were circulated by the Russian SVR - that's Russia's version of the CIA - just three days after Seth Rich's death, July 13, 2016. In the intel - that first intelligence bulletin, the SVR suggests - it doesn't suggest - asserts that Seth Rich was on his way to talk to the FBI that early Sunday morning when he was gunned down by a squad of assassins working for Hillary Clinton.

And this was, as far as we can tell, the first time that a conspiracy theory about Seth Rich's death was put out there. That very same day, July 13, it pops up on an obscure website, called whatdoesitmean.com, which, when you look at it and examine it, it's filled with all sorts of stories attributed to Russian intelligence officials, Russian foreign ministry officials, Russian press reports. It's effectively a vehicle for Kremlin propaganda. And they apparently took this SVR bulletin that had been intercepted by U.S. intelligence officials and used it to put out this wild conspiracy theory that played right into that far-right conspiratorial meme I mentioned before about the Clintons' - a Clinton body count and assassins working for the Clintons who go around rubbing out inconvenient people in their political path.

DAVIES: And apart from that initial report, were Russian internet activists busy on this story?

ISIKOFF: At each stage of the game, whenever issues about Seth Rich would be raised or articles would appear in the press, Russian trolls working for the Internet Research Agency - that's that shadowy outfit in St. Petersburg that was at the center of the social media manipulation by the Russians during the 2016 - would play up the Seth Rich stories.

We found more than 2,000 tweets and retweets by these Russian troll operatives masquerading as American citizens, as American political groups. One of the most active was a Twitter handle known as TEN__GOP, masquerading as the Tennessee Republican Party's Twitter handle. It was actually a Russian troll in St. Petersburg. And they were - and it, TEN__GOP, was constantly tweeting about Seth Rich and retweeting anything it could find, keeping the Seth Rich conspiracy meme at the, you know, in the social media bloodstream.

DAVIES: So in, I guess, the spring of 2017, this hits Fox News in a very big way. And it was based on a story by one of their online reporters. What did she have?

ISIKOFF: Well, that is a subject of - that we go into in great depth, first because that was really the apex of the conspiracy mongering about Seth Rich. You know, what starts out as a Russian plant on an obscure website and then migrates to these alt-right websites, and Alex Jones of Infowars weighs in. By the spring of 2017, it's migrated to Fox News, which, you know, is the largest cable news network in the country with the biggest audience. And how it got there is quite a tale.

DAVIES: Right. So, yeah, how did this happen? I mean, how did they claim to have information, real information, that there was a connection between Seth Rich and WikiLeaks?

ISIKOFF: Well, there is a Dallas money man named Ed Butowsky, occasional commentator on the Fox Business Channel, occasional commentator on Fox News, a sort of political kibitzer. He'd been involved in a citizen's committee to investigate Benghazi. He was at the Republican Convention in 2016, sitting in the box with Sheldon Adelson, you know, one of the party's biggest donors.

And he decides he's going to smoke out the truth about Seth Rich's death. And he offers to hire a private investigator for the Rich family. They want to know, the Rich's, who did kill their son. And at first, they view Butowsky as somebody who's going to help them find the killers of their son. He starts working with the private investigator he hires, a guy by the name of Rod Wheeler, and this Fox News website reporter Malia Zimmerman, who, in May of 2017, claims that she has spoken to an anonymous federal investigator who can confirm that there is an FBI report showing that Seth Rich had leaked thousands of emails from the DNC to WikiLeaks.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with Michael Isikoff, chief investigative correspondent for Yahoo News. His new podcast is called "Conspiracyland." We'll hear more of the interview after we take a short break.

Yesterday, shortly after Dave recorded the interview, there was an update to the Seth Rich story. Dave, can you explain it to us?

DAVIES: Sure. Terry, this involves a defamation suit that Ed Butowsky has filed against NPR and NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik for their reporting on an earlier lawsuit that claimed Butowsky was involved in a retracted Fox News story about the Seth Rich conspiracy theory.

Yesterday, a federal judge rejected NPR's motion to dismiss the suit, saying Butowsky's complaint is not defective. NPR says it stands by their reporting and will defend the case vigorously.

And, Terry, I'll just add we're going to hear more about that Fox News story soon in our interview with Michael Isikoff.

GROSS: What else are you going to talk about?

DAVIES: We'll talk about how the conspiracy theories have affected innocent bystanders in the case, as well as law enforcement officials trying to investigate the murder itself.

GROSS: And we're going to hear John Powers' review of the second season of HBO's series "Succession." That's after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with Michael Isikoff, chief investigative correspondent for Yahoo News. His new podcast, "Conspiracyland," explores how the murder of a young DNC staffer named Seth Rich in the streets of Washington, D.C., in the summer of 2016 spawned a conspiracy theory promoted by Russian intelligence. The conspiracy theory laid the blame on Rich for leaking DNC emails to WikiLeaks.

When we left off, Isikoff was explaining that in 2017, an article was published on the Fox News website that said a federal investigator told a Fox reporter that there was an FBI report confirming that Seth Rich was the person who gave the DNC emails to WikiLeaks.

DAVIES: It then gets picked up by Sean Hannity and other prominent hosts. And what happens over the next several days?

ISIKOFF: Well, first of all, the Fox News promotion of this story propels it to the, you know, media's and political stratosphere. You know, now what had been looked at as a completely fringe account on obscure websites in the far corners of the internet was being propounded night after night on Fox News by Sean Hannity himself, the cable host with the largest audience in cable news.

And, you know, Sean Hannity takes up the cause, saying, yes, this could be one of the - expose one of the biggest scandals in American political history. It will show the whole Russia story is a fraud. And, you know, this needs to be thoroughly investigated. He even has as one of his guests during that week of Seth Rich hype Jay Sekulow, the conservative lawyer who says quite openly, this is going to undercut the whole Russia narrative. What Hannity and Sekulow don't say is Sekulow had just been hired as Donald Trump's lawyer in the Russia investigation.

DAVIES: Yeah. Well, that raises another question, which is to what extent did the president or his allies stoke these conspiracy theories? Because, you know, he obviously didn't like the idea that his election's legitimacy could be challenged because it would be associated with Russian hackers. Seth Rich was a better story for him.

ISIKOFF: Of course. And there is evidence - and we did find evidence - that the Trump White House itself was quietly promoting this story, quietly fanning the flames. Steve Bannon, senior White House counselor at the time, is in a text exchange with a CBS "60 Minutes" producer by the name of Ira Rosen, who read us the text exchange he has with Bannon in March of 2017 in which Bannon is telling him that the Seth Rich story is a huge story. It was a contract kill, obviously, Bannon writes. So that's the first hard evidence we have that the Seth Rich story was in fact being pushed by a very senior person in the Trump White House.

Now, the idea that the Trump White House might have been pushing this story was - you know, has been out there for some time because Ed Butowsky at one point leaves a message for Rod Wheeler, the detective, a voicemail message saying the White House is very interested in this story and even sends him a email saying that the president himself has read a draft of the Malia Zimmerman story.

Now, that has been denied by the White House. They've tried to - they tried to distance themselves from this. But to have Bannon's text messages there, you know, in plain sight - and we, you know, produce them on "Conspiracyland" - would suggest that there may in fact have been a lot more to the White House role.

DAVIES: Right. And we should say that Ed Butowsky himself, as you reveal in the podcast, now says, no, I never talked to the president. I was just BSing (ph) my - this private eye I hired, trying to get him to move. There was also, of course, Roger Stone, Trump's ally and adviser, promoting this in any number of ways.

ISIKOFF: Absolutely.

DAVIES: Fox News backed away from the story after - what? - eight days or so? Why?

ISIKOFF: Yes, eight days.

DAVIES: Why?

ISIKOFF: After eight days because the story was just not sustainable. First, Rod Wheeler, that private detective, had been an on-the-record source in the story, suggesting that he in fact had confirmed himself what this anonymous federal investigator was saying. And then Rod Wheeler goes south. He says, no, I actually don't know anything about this. I have no confirmation that there's such an FBI report. And as for that anonymous federal investigator, he acknowledges, I have no idea who this guy is or even if he is a current federal investigator. At one point in one interview, he suggested maybe he was a former FBI guy.

As for the identity of that source, we should point out that both the Washington police, the FBI - and you can hear Deborah Sines, the prosecutor, say that there was absolutely nothing to what Fox News was reporting. Sines calls the story a complete fabrication. And finally, Fox realized that they had - they could not support this story. And they take it down, strike it from its website and retract the story in its entirety.

DAVIES: So there was never anything that - any confirmation that there was ever a FBI report that anyone can verify.

ISIKOFF: Not at all. As I said, Deborah Sines checked very closely with the FBI and was told there was nothing to what Fox News was reporting. The FBI didn't even have an investigation open into Seth Rich's death. Homicides are investigated by local police with, in Washington, D.C., the U.S. attorney's office because they prosecute local crimes. But the FBI had no role. We also talked to Andrew McCabe, who was the acting director of the FBI at the time. And McCabe says when he first heard this, he reached out to his agents and was told there's nothing there. There's no there there.

DAVIES: You know, what's striking as - you go through this in the podcast - as you listen to this, you know, a very thinly sourced report asserts something controversial. It gets taken as gospel and expanded upon. And at one point, they've got Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, coming on. And I believe he says it's known that Seth Rich gave WikiLeaks 53,000 emails and 17,000 attachments - do I have the numbers right? I'm doing this from memory - very specific stuff. How does - where do those kinds of assertions come from this one shadowy source that seems to have disappeared?

ISIKOFF: Because it was a shadowy source who was asserting something - or supposedly asserting something - that was very politically convenient for the Fox News audience. And Gingrich, you know, openly called Seth Rich's death a political assassination on Fox News. I mean, here's the former speaker of the House talking so loosely about a young man's death that is, you know, it's really quite shocking when you hear it. Hannity is clearly the biggest offender, but Lou Dobbs is out there. Laura Ingram is out there. The "Fox & Friends" hosts are out there all pushing this completely bogus narrative about Seth Rich's death.

DAVIES: Michael Isikoff is chief investigative correspondent for Yahoo News. His new podcast series is called "Conspiracyland." We'll talk some more in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Yahoo News chief investigative correspondent Michael Isikoff. He hosts a new six-episode podcast called "Conspiracyland." It explores conspiracy theories surrounding the 2016 murder on a Washington, D.C., street of a Democratic National Committee staffer named Seth Rich, theories suggesting it was Seth Rich and not Russian hackers that leaked DNC emails to WikiLeaks that undermined Hillary Clinton's campaign, and that Seth Rich's murder was a professional hit in some way related to the emails.

DAVIES: One of the things that the podcast focuses on, apart from the way theories like this pollute the political discourse, is the number of innocent people who get dragged into this stuff, obviously Seth Rich's family primary among them. But the bartender at the bar where Seth Rich had had drinks and was well-known gets tagged. A neighbor who heard the shots and came out that night, both of them end up getting slimed on the Internet, right?

ISIKOFF: Right. I mean, this is a classic case of how Internet bullies work and also gives you real insight into the sort of conspiratorial mindset. That bartender - he actually was the manager of Lou's City bar, which was Seth Rich's favorite hangout and where he was the night of his death, a guy by the name of Joe Capone. He was a friend of Seth, viewed him as, you know, one of his favorite customers.

A few days before Seth Rich's death, Joe Capone takes his daughter and a visiting friend from Canada on a tour of the White House. It's a public tour of the White House. Matt Couch and the Internet horde discover this apparently from White House visitor logs. And they say, a-ha, you see, why is Joe Capone going to the White House just a few days before Seth Rich's death? He must have been consulting with somebody, aides to Hillary Clinton, and this somehow had something to do with Seth Rich's death. And suddenly Joe Capone sees pictures of his family being put on the Internet, claims about his public tour of the White House being made into a dark conspiratorial event. And he's being hounded by the Seth Rich horde.

The other guy you mentioned, Mark Mueller, was a neighbor who just happened to have heard the gunshots and gone out to see Seth Rich's - what had happened. And he sees Seth Rich's body lying there and being - while he's being treated by the emergency workers. He becomes a target, and they start going after him. He's compared to Jeffrey Dahmer at one point because - apparently because he's from Milwaukee. And the suggestion is that Mark Mueller might have had something to do with Seth Rich's death.

DAVIES: How did all of these conspiracy theories affect the people who had to investigate the crime? I mean, did they end up having to interview these people and run down these things?

ISIKOFF: You know, that is an important point here because the police and Deborah Sines, the prosecutor, said no matter how nonsensical these conspiracy theories were, they had to be thoroughly investigated. It was a diversion of resources and time that they had to put into this because Deborah Sines knew that if they ever can catch the killers of Seth Rich, the first thing the defense lawyers are going to do is say, well, what about the Russians? What about these claims about Seth Rich providing emails to WikiLeaks? Have you looked into that?

So Deborah Sines had to do that. That's what conspiracy theories do to legitimate law enforcement. And they've become not just a distraction but a real danger.

DAVIES: You know, it struck me as I listened to this that there are a lot of cases, as this particular conspiracy theory was stoked, where people are saying things that are just clearly factually inaccurate. Like, it might have been Roger - I think was Roger Stone who said it's a fact that Seth Rich headed the IT division in the Democratic National Committee when, in fact, he didn't even work there. Somebody else says, you know, it's a fact that WikiLeaks money was funneled into Seth Rich's surviving brother's bank account - again, not true. Do libel and defamation laws offer a possibility of holding these folks to account?

ISIKOFF: The Seth Rich case has produced quite a few lawsuits that are still ongoing. The Rich family is suing Fox News. And we got audio of the oral arguments before the U.S. Court of Appeals about the claims of the Rich family against Fox News. And it's quite an interesting discussion because Fox News is saying - their lawyers are saying, yes, we may have retracted the story, but this is still covered by the First Amendment. That - this was First Amendment-protected journalism exploring an issue of public concern. And, you know, the Rich family are - you know, is countering that this was a completely discredited story that caused Joel and Mary Rich a great deal of pain and emotional distress and anguish.

We'll see how the Court of Appeals rules. The District Court had ruled in favor of Fox News, and it dismissed the case. The case is now under appeal, and we're waiting to hear how the Court of Appeals rules. But I think that how they do will, you know, be an important milestone for how - what recourse people have when clear fabrications, clear distortions get circulated on the internet in the way it was with Seth Rich.

DAVIES: America's not new to conspiracy theories. I mean, all of the assassination in the '60s had conspiracy theories that have lingered and flourished. Is what's happening now different in some meaningful way?

ISIKOFF: Yes, in some important respects. And that's - we're in the world of social media, where sort of crackpot theories get more traction than they've ever had before because, you know, there's a receptive audience out there in the dark corners of the internet in the world of social media where these sort of, you know, wild claims can be put out there, get circulated, tweeted, retweeted, reposted and have a real impact. You know, to some - in many respects, I mean, this is sort of a case study of disinformation in the modern social media world made all the more sinister, I should say, by the role of a foreign intelligence service, the Russians, in promoting this, planting these conspiracy theories, fueling them on social media.

But then they play right into what certain people on the - in the American political spectrum want to hear, people who are looking to support the president and discredit the Russian narrative. So you had a confluence of a perfect storm, in a way, to propel the Seth Rich story in a way that nobody could have ever anticipated. It's - and, you know, I should add that the FBI now realizes that these kind of fringe conspiracy theories, because of social media, are getting a lot of traction and have officially sort of concluded this is a law enforcement threat, a potential terrorist threat, because people are motivated to act when they hear these things.

DAVIES: Is this Seth Rich conspiracy obsession pretty much over with, or is this still developing?

ISIKOFF: Well, one would hope it's over with. But I've noticed that since we released "Conspiracyland," the perpetrators are still out there pushing the idea, fanning the flames, tweeting and posting various versions of the conspiracy theory. There's lots of litigation that's ongoing related to this.

But I think the real importance at the end of the day about this is sort of how disinformation works in the modern world and how these kind of phony stories can circulate and get so much traction. I think that's something we all need to be concerned about because the - you know, this is a case of fake news. This is a case of disinformation, disinformation that, you know, it - in an - to an important degree, was being pushed by a foreign government but also by many actors in the United States.

DAVIES: Well, Michael Isikoff, thanks so much for speaking with us.

ISIKOFF: Thank you.

GROSS: Michael Isikoff is chief investigative correspondent for Yahoo News. He spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies. All six episodes of Isikoff's new podcast called "Conspiracyland" are now available. Coming up, John Powers reviews the second season of the HBO series "Succession." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.