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8 Oct, 2020 15:56

Twitter must unmask ‘FBI impersonator’ who allegedly forged document that launched Seth Rich conspiracy, judge rules

Twitter must unmask ‘FBI impersonator’ who allegedly forged document that launched Seth Rich conspiracy, judge rules

A federal judge has ordered Twitter to identify the anonymous user who allegedly sent forged FBI materials to Fox News, launching the conspiracy theory that Democratic Party staffer Seth Rich was killed for leaking emails.

Twitter has been ordered to reveal the identity of the person behind the @whysprtech account used to send fake FBI documents – which linked Rich’s killing to the 2016 Democratic National Committee email leak – to Fox News, a federal judge ruled on Tuesday. Northern District of California Judge Donna Ryu overruled Twitter’s effort to keep the name secret.

The order was part of an ongoing defamation lawsuit by Rich’s brother Aaron, whom the conspiracy theory accuses of assisting in the theft of emails from the DNC, turning them over to WikiLeaks in exchange for money, then doing nothing to stop Seth’s murder and even obstructing law enforcement’s investigation into it. Because the fake FBI documents, which included a forensic report supposedly detailing the contents of Seth Rich’s computer, were used as the basis of the Fox News report that launched the theory into national prominence, Aaron Rich sought to have their apparent author unmasked.

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The forged document claims Rich emailed WikiLeaks before his death in July, 2016 by multiple gunshots in the Bloomingdale neighborhood of Washington, DC. While police concluded the shooting was a botched robbery, Rich’s wallet, watch, and phone had not been taken and the culprit was never found, leading to speculation about other motives, largely focused on Rich’s work with the DNC. 

The conspiracy theory insists the shooting was revenge for stealing and leaking the emails, which – whatever their origin – arguably helped sink Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and forced the resignation of DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

Twitter had attempted to block the motion on First Amendment grounds, arguing the user’s anonymity was safeguarded under the law and revealing it could “chill protected speech,” but Judge Ryu determined it would be sufficient to treat the identity as “highly confidential.” Aaron Rich’s subpoena asks for “limited account registration information” and the user’s IP address, which would only be seen by the participants in the lawsuit. 

His lawyers successfully argued that @whysprtech’s identity was central to the defamation case, explaining that as the originator of the conspiracy theory, the user’s identity must be known. However, earlier forms of the theory espoused in the May 2017 Fox News article had been circulating since Rich’s murder in 2016.

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Previous discovery in the case showed @whysprtech’s email account, whysprtech@gmail.com, had written two emails to an individual with an FBI.gov email address and shared the forged documents with an Infowars reporter, Joe Biggs, as well as with Malia Zimmerman, author of the Fox News report. Communication between Biggs and Zimmerman suggested neither was convinced of the materials’ authenticity but that “other info” the source had shared had been “spot on.

Aaron Rich has also subpoenaed WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, currently imprisoned in the UK awaiting extradition to the US, where he could spend life in prison on 17 espionage and hacking charges. While WikiLeaks allows leakers to send documents anonymously, the organization stirred up speculation about Seth Rich as the source of the emails by offering a $20,000 reward for “information leading to conviction for the murder of DNC staffer Seth Rich.” Assange himself fed the rumors by citing the slain 27-year-old as an example of the “very significant risks” taken by whistleblowers. 

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