The conspiracy theory around murdered Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich isn’t weird so much as sad: it drags a man’s fairly recent death into the spotlight in order to promote the idea of a “deep state” plot, based on evidence that’s either speculative or factually wrong. But it’s brought together a strange coalition of well-known subscribers — including the internet entrepreneur Kim Dotcom.
Dotcom, founder of defunct cloud storage site Megaupload, isn’t just a high-profile proponent of the Seth Rich cover-up story. Last week, he claimed to be at the center of it. But in promising to blow the lid off the conspiracy, he mostly succeeded in proving how much traditional political divides have shifted, and how easily you can bend political paranoia toward mundane publicity stunts.
Who is Kim Dotcom?
Kim Dotcom (born Kim Schmitz) is primarily known as the creator of Megaupload, a “cyberlocker” site particularly popular with — and arguably catering to — pirates. In 2012, the Department of Justice shut down Megaupload and charged Dotcom with criminal copyright infringement. This kicked off a remarkably intense extradition battle, including a police raid on Dotcom’s New Zealand mansion, and the case remains open more than five years later.
During that time, Dotcom has launched another cloud storage site, released a poorly reviewed EDM album, and founded the recently revived New Zealand Internet Party. He’s a reliably colorful and belligerent figure in debates over copyright, surveillance, and other tech policy issues. The platonic ideal of Kim Dotcom may be this 2012 video for his song “Mr. President,” with its combination of internet-friendly politics, hyper-processed aesthetics, and shameless self-mythologizing.
What does he have to do with Seth Rich?
According to Dotcom, lots.
The central Seth Rich conspiracy theory posits that Rich, not Russian hackers, leaked last year’s trove of DNC emails to WikiLeaks — leading someone (like the Clinton campaign) to kill him in retaliation. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has coyly hinted that Rich was a source, and Dotcom tweeted last week that he could give “written testimony with evidence” that proved it. This wouldn’t explain the later cache of emails from Clinton’s campaign, or prove Rich’s death was related to the leak, but it would greatly contradict our current understanding of the election hacks.
— Kim Dotcom (@KimDotcom) May 19, 2017
Dotcom later elaborated in a statement on his website. “In late 2014 a person contacted me about helping me to start a branch of the Internet Party in the United States. He called himself Panda. I now know that Panda was Seth Rich,” he wrote. According to Dotcom, Rich provided the information that Dotcom mentioned in a 2015 interview with Bloomberg, where he said Assange would be Clinton’s “worst nightmare” during the election because “he has access to information.”
Can he prove any of this?
Who knows? Dotcom says he’s waiting to give his “full statement” to authorities, provided he’s given safe passage to the US and back — in other words, as long as nobody tries to hold him for a Megaupload trial. He’s been tweeting about Clinton’s downfall since 2014, and he was hinting about WikiLeaks’ election plans before they became public. But given that he’s coordinated with WikiLeaks in the past, he could have simply gotten information from Assange. And as The Outline points out, he’s tweeted other “bombshells” that never went off.
Dotcom also responded to a clarification request from pundit Sean Hannity by gleefully declaring “I’m the evidence!,” which is not how most people would describe having actual evidence.
What are Dotcom’s own stakes here?
Dotcom has likened the Megaupload case to Obama’s aggressive prosecution of whistleblowers, and Hillary Clinton was secretary of state when Dotcom’s charges were filed; Dotcom has repeatedly tweeted about how she signed his extradition order. “Democrats destroyed my business, attacked my family, stole my assets in a pay4play strike for the @MPAA,” he tweeted last week. “Counterstrike: Trump Presidency.” Like Assange, this makes Dotcom part of the coalition of people who aren’t traditionally conservative, but were embittered by the Obama administration and the Clinton campaign.
But Dotcom is also a savvy and enthusiastic self-promoter, and he’s getting a lot of free advertising out of this. His announcement about Seth Rich — ostensibly a massive revelation about a political murder — is buried beneath full-screen ads for his album, his music videos, and a video of the 2012 police raid.
Do people believe him?
Well, there’s Seth Rich super-investigator Sean Hannity, who tweeted Dotcom’s claims and invited him onto his show. Zero Hedge seemed to take the veracity of Dotcom’s tweets more or less for granted, and anticipation was high in the days before his statement. But the tone of discussion on places like r/The_Donald’s Discord channel remains at least somewhat skeptical, with speculation that Dotcom is either looking for attention, or making a play for legal immunity.
What does Seth Rich’s family think of this?
They’re unsurprisingly upset. “The burden of proof is on Mr. Dotcom to either prove he has evidence or face the consequences of damaging Seth’s good name and creating more emotional hardship on a grieving family,” a spokesperson said. “The family is not going to entertain his ridiculous, manipulative and completely non-credible statements.”
In a Washington Post story, the family also said they worried Dotcom had been attempting to hack Rich’s email account, based on an account creation email from the Mega cloud storage site that Dotcom founded, but no longer runs. Dotcom took issue with this claim in an open letter to the family, threatening to sue them for defamation.
Would suing a grieving family that’s upset you’ve used their dead son as conspiracy theory fodder be incredibly cruel and tacky?
Does he have a point, though?
Sort of. As Dotcom pointed out in his letter, anybody could go to Mega and create an account using Rich’s email address, prompting the service to auto-send an email to verify it. Conspiracy investigators have been randomly punching information about Rich into all kinds of sites and services, hoping to find new clues, so there’s no reason to think Dotcom is involved. But if anyone’s to blame, it’s the Post for not pointing this out.
Does any of this even matter?
It is hypothetically possible that someone will open a major legal investigation into Seth Rich’s death, in which case it is hypothetically possible that Dotcom could be called to testify, and hypothetically possible that he will provide credible proof. Dotcom is trying to speed the process by tweeting a link to a White House petition, despite the fact that Trump has seemingly abandoned the petition site.
It’s more likely, of course, that Dotcom’s allegations won’t reach beyond his website and Twitter feed — but that they will cause more pain to Rich’s family, and polarize internet politics even further. Even if we assume that Dotcom was working in good faith, it’s hard to argue that releasing unsubstantiated claims into an already murky “investigation” was going to benefit anyone except himself and other people profiting off the conspiracy. And the sad thing is that next week, most people may have forgotten he said anything at all.