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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Misinformation Flows Following Epstein’s Death

Unfounded claims and baseless conspiracy theories have run rampant in the aftermath of the Aug. 10 death of accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein.

The misinformation has flourished in an online environment where people want to know how the high-profile prisoner was allowed to die in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan. Epstein, a wealthy 66-year-old financier with connections to many high-profile figures, was facing federal charges of sex trafficking relating to allegations that he sexually abused dozens of underage girls.

Attorney General William Barr — who said he was “appalled” and “angry” at the “MCC’s failure to adequately secure this prisoner” — has instructed the FBI and the Justice Department’s inspector general to investigate.

But stories circulating on social media would have users believe that Barr himself might know more: A viral claim mentioned a purported “secret visit” by Barr to the prison recently. One website wrote that, if true, the visit “will fuel rumors that are already circulating that suggest President Donald Trump might have wanted to see Epstein eliminated.”

Except there’s no evidence that the supposed visit took place. The claim hinged solely on a quote from a former associate of mobster John Gotti in the New York Post. And that individual, Lewis Kasman, told FactCheck.org in a phone interview that he had no idea if Barr had been to the prison.

“First of all, I would have no knowledge of the attorney general going there,” Kasman said. “He doesn’t check with me. I don’t do his calendar.”

For more, read our Aug. 13 story, “Baseless Claim About Barr Visit to Epstein Prison.”

One of the more sensational claims to be made about Epstein’s death is that he is actually alive. That falsehood was based on speculation about a news photo of Epstein being wheeled into a hospital after he was found unresponsive in the prison; some questioned the tone of his skin. But the photo did not prove anything. Multiple agencies — including the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the U.S. Department of Justice, and New York City’s Office of Chief Medical Examiner — have all confirmed Epstein’s death.

For more, read our Aug. 13 story, “Bogus Conspiracy Theory Claims Epstein is Alive.”

Potential camera footage from inside the prison might provide some answers in Epstein’s death — but we don’t yet know what any cameras did and did not capture.

A viral tweet, however, prompted many to spread word of a “camera malfunction” taking place inside the prison before Epstein’s death. But that claim is unproven.

The source of the claim, a Twitter user named Michael Coudrey — who has also referenced a conspiracy theory that Bill and Hillary Clinton were behind Epstein’s death — told us that his source was a “NYPD officer and close family friend, who’s best friend works in the MCC facility.” (Trump himself shared a comedian’s tweet peddling the baseless claim about the Clintons.) 

Coudrey would not elaborate on that source, and there has been no confirmation by any authorities that a “camera malfunction” occurred.

Update, Aug. 30: More than two weeks after Epstein’s death, news outlets, citing unnamed law enforcement sources, reported that two cameras outside of Epstein’s cell malfunctioned and were being analyzed by FBI experts. The Washington Post reported that footage from “at least one camera in the hallway outside [Epstein’s] cell” was “unusable,” but “other, clearer footage was captured in the area.” These reports have not been publicly confirmed by federal officials. We still don’t know what the cameras did and did not capture — or how the investigation has been affected — but we will update this story again when we do.

For more, read our Aug. 12 story, “Unproven Claim of ‘Camera Malfunction’ Before Epstein’s Death.”

Some stories have spread misinformation about the death of a federal judge who had presided over a case involving Epstein. One headline claimed that the judge, Robert Sweet, was “killed” and others suggested that he died recently. In reality, though, Sweet died of natural causes in March at the age of 96.

Sweet had been overseeing a civil suit related to Epstein, not the criminal case against the financier.

For more, read our Aug. 20 story, “Judge in Civil Epstein Case Died in March.”

Editor’s note: We will update this item to include any stories that we publish in the future.  

Update, Aug. 16: We removed a reference to Epstein as a “billionaire,” which we cannot confirm. Epstein reported total assets of $559 million in court documents when requesting bail.

Update, Aug. 19: The New York City Chief Medical Examiner’s Office on Aug. 16 publicly reported that, after a “careful review of all investigative information, including complete autopsy findings,” the determined cause of death for Epstein was “hanging” and the manner of death was “suicide.”

Update, Aug. 22: We added a summary of a story we published on Aug. 20, debunking claims about the death of a federal judge who had been presiding over a civil suit related to Epstein.