WASHINGTON -- Senators from both parties are deeply concerned that the conspiracy theories swirling online about Jeffrey Epstein's death -- and even amplified by President Donald Trump on Twitter -- are playing right into Russian hands.
The rush to spread baseless theories in the wake of Epstein's apparent suicide is what makes American society "so vulnerable to disinformation and foreign influence threats," Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, tweeted this weekend. Rubio asserted that Russia, as part of its long-running campaign to sow political division in the U.S., might be capitalizing on the death of the disgraced financier and accused sex abuser.
Perhaps the most shocking share of a conspiracy theory came from Trump himself, who retweeted a conservative actor who suggested Epstein's death might somehow be tied to former President Bill Clinton and used the hashtag #ClintonBodyCount. Posts citing #TrumpBodyCount, implicating the president instead, were also trending on Twitter.
While Rubio did not offer evidence to support his claims -- and Twitter found the theories so far seem to be stemming from real accounts that are not foreign-backed -- the rapid spread of conspiracy theories is indeed similar to how Russia weaponized previous news events to sow division among Americans.
And the fact that even the commander-in-chief joined in the fray raises concerns that Moscow is well-positioned to repeat its 2016 playbook in the next election.
While Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told me suggestions Russia was involved "would be reliant on open source reporting at this point," he noted "it would be well in line with Russia's overall strategy of using social media to sow distrust with institutions, promote conspiracy theories, and generally divide and polarize Americans."
"That's why it's astonishingly irresponsible for the president to be echoing these charges using his own Twitter account -- when Americans, wittingly or unwittingly, push this type of unproven propaganda, they are, in essence, doing Russia's dirty work for them," Warner continued.
The report from former special counsel Robert Mueller recently detailed the lengths that the Russians went to in order exacerbate existing racial, political and religious tensions among Americans on social media. And one of their goals was to get the Trump campaign, or the president himself, to retweet their activities or tweet about them. In one instance, they celebrated when Trump applauded an event in Miami that they had organized.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement that Congress has "failed to act" to address disinformation, and that it's time for Congress to pass the bipartisan Honest Ads Act, bipartisan legislation that seeks to prevent foreign actors from buying political ads on social networks.
"At this point no one should be surprised that Russia is attempting to further divide Americans through disinformation," she said. "They did it after Parkland, Charlottesville, and in numerous other instances." The New York Times reported that within an hour after news broke about the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, last year, Twitter accounts suspected of ties to Russia released hundreds of posts weighing in on the gun control debate. And in the aftermath of the Charlottesville, Virginia, violence in 2017, ProPublica found that the same Russia networks amplifying disinformation ahead of the presidential election were boosting right-wing extremism.
Laura Rosenberger, the director of the German Marshall Fund's Alliance for Securing Democracy, which aims to expose foreign actors' efforts to undermine democracy, also said she can't confirm there is evidence of Russian activity in this instance at this time. "But history has shown that Russian government-linked trolls are adept at jumping on any divisive narrative in the news cycle," she said. "
In 2016 Russian trolls targeted online audiences on the left and the right, including Black Lives Matter activists and Second Amendment advocates, in an effort to divide Americans," Rosenberger added. "In doing so, Russia exploited a key strength of our democracy -- free and open debate. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's goal is not to help one party or the other, but to divide us."