‘Epstein’s Enablers’: Debunking a Bogus Social Media Post

December 4, 2019

A recent Facebook post by a friend-of-a-friend named Gary about Jeffrey Epstein featured a black and white montage of a dozen people he identified as “Some of his friends and enablers.” The photos weren’t captioned, and it wasn’t clear who all of them were, so it piqued my curiosity.

With a little research I tracked down the origin of the image. The photos came from an investigative series by The Miami Herald, and those depicted in the graphic are seen in a video titled “Where Are They Now? The Biggest Players in the Jeffrey Epstein Case.” The context is quite clear: they are “the biggest players” in the case, not “some of his friends and enablers.”

It’s not clear whether Gary intentionally or accidentally mischaracterized the photos, but it gets worse because in some cases those who Gary characterized as Epstein’s “friends and enablers” were actually people who were prosecuting him. One of those depicted is Michael Reiter, the former Palm Beach police chief, who was pressured to drop the charges against Epstein but instead decided to bring it to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

When I pointed this out in a response, Gary argued and backpedalled, claiming that he never said that all the people in the photographs were friends and enablers of Epstein—despite the fact that he clearly did—but that “Some of the people depicted” were friends and enablers.

This is a simple category syllogism, along the lines of “All men are mortal / Socrates is a man / Therefore, Socrates is mortal,” which you may remember from high school or college courses in logic or critical thinking.

There is of course a fundamental difference between “Some of [Epstein’s] friends and enablers [are depicted here]” and “Some [of the people depicted here] are Epstein’s friends and enablers.” The first sentence highlights a subset of individuals among a specific larger group (in this case people identified as Epstein’s friends and enablers); that is, everyone depicted is by definition part of the larger group. This is what Gary wrote. The second sentence states that among a larger group of people who may or may not be friends and enablers of Epstein, an unspecified number (“some”) of them are in fact Epstein friends and enablers. This is what he claims he wrote.

Why does it matter? Isn’t this just a pedantic or pointless distinction?

It probably matters to the people Gary falsely identified as being “enablers” of a sexual predator, such as Reiter. Compounding the problem, the photos were, as noted, uncaptioned. Some of the faces were more recognizable than others, such as Alan Dershowitz and Kenneth Starr. But others were more ambiguous—was one of them Martha Stewart (as some other posters on the thread guessed) or Epstein girlfriend Ghislaine Maxwell? It’s the latter, but you can see why Gary’s post was problematic (and potentially, though not actually) defamatory. If you’re going to accuse people of enabling child molesters on social media, you should at least know who you’re talking about.

The point isn’t that any of the dozen people depicted suffered any significant harm from Gary’s post. However falsely accusing others on social media of preying on children (or enabling those who do) is not harmless. There are many examples; one of the best known was the man who entered a Washington D.C. area pizza parlor with a fully loaded AR-15 semiautomatic rifle and a revolver —and fired it—because he’d heard false rumors that it was a cover for a child sex slavery ring connected to Hillary Clinton. Elon Musk is currently being sued by a British cave explorer, Vernon Unsworth, whom Musk referred to on Twitter in 2018 as “a pedo guy.” Musk claims that it was meant as a joking insult and that he did not mean to suggest that Unsworth is really a pedophile; Unsworth disagrees, claiming he has been defamed and his reputation damaged by the misinformation.

We all make mistakes, but this case can serve as an object lesson in how misinformation is spawned on social media: A photo was intentionally stripped of its accurate context and presented misleadingly. Presenting photos and facts out of their original context is a very common disinformation technique. Gary’s apparent eagerness to name and shame (or in this case depict-and-shame) got ahead of the facts.

When posting comments on social media it’s easy to forget that words have consequences, and those named or depicted have real lives. A “joke” or poorly-phrased point can easily mislead, and we never know who might be influenced by our ambiguous phrasing or misguided attempt at humor. Perfect clarity in a quick Facebook post or tweet is elusive, of course, but when the topic is child sexual exploitation—and who’s accused of promoting it—it’s better to err on the side of caution. (Or at least admit the mistake; Gary never acknowledged his error, not even to blame a typo or poor phrasing.) Media literacy, critical thinking, and skepticism, as always, are important antidotes to online misinformation.