Updated 8:50 p.m. ET Wednesday
A federal judge in California has ordered that Twitter reveal the identity of an anonymous user who allegedly fabricated an FBI document to spread a conspiracy theory about the killing of Seth Rich, the Democratic National Committee staffer who died in 2016.
The ruling could lead to the identification of the person behind the Twitter name @whyspertech. Through that account, the user allegedly provided forged FBI materials to Fox News. The documents falsely linked Rich’s killing to the WikiLeaks hack of Democratic Party emails in the lead-up to the 2016 election.
While Twitter fought to keep the user’s identity secret, U.S. Magistrate Judge Donna Ryu in Oakland, Calif., ordered on Tuesday that the tech company must turn over the information to attorneys representing Rich’s family in a defamation suit by Oct. 20.
It is the latest twist in a years-long saga over a conspiracy theory that rocked Washington, caused a grieving family a great deal of pain and set off multiple legal battles.
In a now-retracted story, Fox News falsely claimed that Rich’s computer was connected to the leak of Democratic Party emails provided to WikiLeaks, and that Rich’s slaying was related to the purported leak. The theory was even debunked in special counsel Robert Mueller’s report.
The Washington Times later reported in 2018 that Rich’s brother, Aaron Rich, helped steal the emails in exchange for money from WikiLeaks and that he knew his brother would be killed and did nothing to stop it. None of those allegations are true. That story has also been retracted.
But the Rich family insists that the baseless story is still causing real harm. Aaron Rich filed a defamation lawsuit against money manager and former Fox News guest Ed Butowsky; Matt Couch, a far-right activist; America First Media, Couch’s media company; and The Washington Times, which later reached a settlement.
As the defamation case moves toward trial, one major question has been what unnamed “federal investigator” supposedly reviewed an “FBI forensic report” and shared information with Butowsky and others.
Attorneys for Aaron Rich say they believe it was the now-deactivated Twitter account @whyspertech, and the judge’s ordering Twitter to provide information about that account could help them get closer to an answer.
“Learning the identity of @whysprtech is necessary in order to confirm that @whysprtech was not in fact a FBI ‘insider’ or otherwise someone who had access to non-public FBI material,” Benedict Hu wrote in a filing.
Over the course of gathering evidence for the defamation case, nobody has been willing to confirm the identity of @whysprtech, Hur noted.
Attorney Julie Schwartz, who is representing Twitter, did not return requests for comment. It is unclear if Twitter intends to appeal.
The subpoena does not seek private messages sent by the account, but merely “limited account registration information” and the user’s Internet Protocol address. If Twitter complies with the judge’s order, the account information will be available to Adam Rich’s attorneys, though it could eventually become public in later court filings.
Twitter: Unmasking violates free speech
Twitter fought to have the subpoena killed. In court filings, attorneys for the social media giant claimed such a disclosure would violate the First Amendment rights of a user to be anonymous.
“Twitter’s primary goal is to ensure that the subpoena not be used to chill anonymous speech that does not rise to the level of defamation,” Schwartz wrote in a motion to have the subpoena thrown out.
Yet lawyers for Aaron Rich said the person who hid behind the @whyspertech Twitter handle to fuel a harmful conspiracy theory should be exposed.
“Plaintiff seeks to demonstrate the reach of the forged FBI report on the false information spread by Defendants, but cannot do so without serving discovery on the anonymous user who disseminated that report,” Hur wrote.
The judge sided with Adam Rich, noting that the law “weighs towards disclosing the anonymous user’s account information.”
“The information sought is proportional to the needs of the case because the subpoena is limited in scope and Twitter does not argue that responding would pose an undue burden,” Ryu wrote.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is imprisoned in Britain awaiting the outcome of a U.S. push to have him extradited to face espionage charges, was also subpoenaed in the defamation case.
The 2016 killing of Seth Rich, in the Bloomingdale neighborhood of Washington, D.C., remains unsolved. Law enforcement have maintained that Rich was the victim of an armed robbery.
Disclosure: NPR is involved in one of the legal battles tied to the Seth Rich controversy. Ed Butowsky has filed a defamation suit against NPR and NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik over the network’s coverage of the Fox News story on Rich that has since been retracted.