There seems no limit to the imagination put into rumors now being thrown about on social media and pseudo-journalistic outlets regarding Jeffrey Epstein, who was found dead in his cell Saturday at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan. Let the conspiracies begin: Was it a coverup, the work of someone politically prominent? No, speculated one familiar voice; he’s still alive, smuggled out of his cell to freedom — this, despite the fact his body has now been autopsied.
Meanwhile, actual news on the multimillionaire financier’s apparent suicide has been, appropriately, slow to emerge. It takes time to get the facts, after all.
Epstein was a convicted sex offender whose plea deal in a Florida court outraged many. Swirling around the case were reports that Epstein frequently “loaned out” girls to prominent men and taped their sexual assaults so he could later blackmail them. Epstein was known to associate with a long list of famed power-brokers, including Great Britain’s Prince Andrew and Presidents Bill Clinton and Donald Trump.
The situation re-emerged last month when Epstein was again arrested, in New York, on charges of sexual trafficking in girls. Already, rumors old and new were being thrown about regarding how he’d gotten such a lenient sentence in Florida, what he’d been up to since, and whether a new trial would reveal some of the secrets not made public a decade ago. Then he was found dead, and the hype — most of it largely invented — spiked.
Making matters worse, Trump, himself the focus of some wholly unfounded rumors regarding Epstein’s death, retweeted rumors of a conspiracy involving the Clintons, and far-right radio host Rush Limbaugh, with millions of listeners, was the one promoting the “he’s still alive” scenario.
Since our culture thrives on speculation and conspiracy, it seems natural, then, for social media and barroom conversations to take the facts of the situation, meld them with rumor and imagination, and create new scenarios regarding what “actually” happened to Epstein over the weekend. After all, if modern fiction has taught us anything, it’s that nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Occam’s razor be damned.
The entire episode, thus far, has been a perfect illustration of how the American public obtains its information these days. Too few are willing to wait for the tedious process by which responsible journalistic outlets verify information before throwing it out like meat into the lions’ cage.
But that process is necessary. As we’ve seen increasingly over the past four years, without it, there is no truth; there are no facts. There is just spin.
Knowledge is power; without it, we are unable to assimilate information and form reasonable responses. And if we’re given only misinformation, or at the very least, can’t trust what we do get, we’re powerless.
Perhaps something truly nefarious did happen to Epstein, and his apparent suicide was more than that. The venerable Washington Post reported Thursday that autopsy results indicate his injuries could — maybe — point that way.
Far more information is needed before anyone ought to make up their mind about Epstein’s death or his connections to the rich and powerful. Sadly, while real news organizations are digging out that information, purveyors of misinformation and rumor will also be hard at work, quickly generating wild stories and speculation for their own purposes.
And many people will listen, coloring the truth when, and if, it finally does emerge.
Consumers of news — which all of us ought to be — should take care to cultivate multiple sources that have proven track records of providing reliable information. It also wouldn’t hurt to mix in some sources that don’t just cater to your preconceived notions. In any case, it’s vital to look well beyond those that don’t clearly do their own reporting, such as social media feeds.
In the age we live in, wild stories ought to be deemed suspect until they can be verified.