The reaction from the online fever swamps was predictable enough. Jeffrey Epstein, the well-connected financier accused of underage sex trafficking, was found dead in his Manhattan jail cell early this morning, just one day after unsealed court documents surfaced new allegations against him and his high-powered inner circle.
The reported cause of death was suicide—but the conspiracy-mongers were already springing into action.
Within hours, #EpsteinMurder was trending on Twitter, as was #TrumpBodyCount (where liberals speculated that the president had offed his former friend), and #ClintonCrimeFamily (where conservatives accused Bill and Hillary Clinton of orchestrating a murderous cover-up). But the speculation was not limited to the fringes—the president himself retweeted a video suggesting Epstein was now dead because he had information on the Clintons.
As the day went on, prominent commentators, journalists, and political figures used their platforms to broadcast conspiracy theories, implicate their ideological enemies, or simply engage in the Twitterwide guessing game about what really happened—all of them working with virtually no concrete information.
The MSNBC host Joe Scarborough tweeted, “A guy who had information that would have destroyed rich and powerful men’s lives ends up dead in his jail cell. How predictably...Russian.” His colleague Joy Ann Reid noted on air that the federal prison where Epstein had died was operated by the Department of Justice. “Let’s just be blunt,” she said. “William Barr’s justice department is not one that you can readily, simply rely upon, and feel confident in. So what do we make of all this now?”
Clara Jeffery, the editor in chief of Mother Jones, called the fact that Epstein reportedly wasn’t on suicide watch at the time of his death inside the Metropolitan Correctional Center “sketchy as shit.” And former Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri tweeted, “Something stinks to high heaven. How does someone on suicide watch hang himself with no intervention? Impossible. Unless.....”
Some saw Epstein’s death as cause for a broad indictment of American elites. Sohrab Ahmari, the conservative op-ed editor for the New York Post, touted the wisdom of a bar owner he knows who’d repeatedly predicted that “our ‘Eyes Wide Shut’-style ruling class” would “never let Epstein live.”
Others, like the Fox Business host Lou Dobbs, took a more sharply partisan approach. “Epstein should have been at least on Arkanside Watch,” he tweeted, deploying a portmanteau of suicide and Arkansas that was being used by Twitter conservatives to accuse the Clintons of foul play.
Amid all the fevered speculation, Mike Cernovich—a right-wing social-media personality and proponent of the so-called Pizzagate conspiracy theory—live-streamed his reaction to the Epstein-take cycle. Barely able to contain his glee, Cernovich seemed to revel in how some mainstream journalists were edging closer to his approach.
“Right now, in real time, mainstream media—they’re going to have to adjust their operating software; they’re going to have to adjust their mental model of the world,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how normie mainstream you are. It doesn’t matter how credible you think you are.” The official story of Epstein’s suicide, he declared, “just does not make sense.”
It would be easy to treat this frenzied reaction to Epstein’s death as a sad case study in how conspiratorial thinking has bled into mainstream discourse. But finger-wagging feels inadequate at this moment.
As I’ve written before, every grotesque beat of Epstein’s story—including, now, his untimely death—illustrates how America’s culture of elite impunity, failure, and corruption has allowed conspiracy theorists to thrive.
For some, the initial account of Epstein’s death did leave serious questions unanswered; suspicions of foul play—or at least mind-boggling incompetence—seemed natural. Indeed, by this afternoon, the attorney general, facing bipartisan pressure from lawmakers, announced that both the FBI and the inspector general would be investigating the death. No matter what facts emerge in the coming weeks or months, some observers will forever remain unconvinced.
Last month, after I wrote about the Epstein case, a certain conspiracy-obsessed segment of the internet became convinced that I was somehow trying to “gaslight” them—or perhaps even that I was a “puppet” serving Epstein and his co-conspirators. I received a wave of wrathful messages from strangers on Twitter and Facebook calling me a “pedo-apologist” and worse.
I considered trying to reason with them, to explain that they were misreading what I’d written. But I suspected engaging would be futile. Their trust in appointed gatekeepers and other people in power—from the media to government officials to the worlds of Hollywood and high finance—has been too fully eroded. Their paranoia may have been disheartening to me, but at this moment in American life, it seemed almost inevitable.