Jeffrey Epstein’s apparent suicide in a US federal jail has launched a range of conspiracy theories online, fuelled by Epstein’s ties to princes, politicians and other famous and powerful people.
Online theorists offered unsubstantiated speculation – some retweeted by Donald Trump – that Epstein’s death was not suicide, or was faked.
Hours after Epstein’s death on Saturday, as the hashtag #EpsteinMurder was trending worldwide, the president joined Twitter speculation about Epstein’s death under the federal government’s watch.
Trump, who rose to conservative prominence by falsely claiming Barack Obama was born outside the US, retweeted unsubstantiated claims about Epstein’s death.
Other politicians also took to social media to question the circumstances.
Republican senator Rick Scott of Florida, the state where some of Epstein’s alleged sexual abuse crimes took place, suggested the possibility that others might have been involved in Epstein’s death when he called on officials to explain what happened at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan.
“The Federal Bureau of Prisons must provide answers on what systemic failures of the MCC Manhattan or criminal acts allowed this coward to deny justice to his victims,” he tweeted.
The former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, now an attorney for Trump, tweeted several questions about Epstein’s death.
“Who was watching? What does camera show? … Follow the motives,” Giuliani tweeted on Saturday afternoon.
Theories picked up on conjecture that resurged after Epstein’s 6 July arrest on allegations that he had orchestrated a sex-trafficking ring designed to bring him teenage girls. Some of his accusers have described being sexually abused by the wealthy financier’s friends and acquaintances.
The combination created fertile ground for theories and misinformation to breed on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
Epstein, 66, had been denied bail and faced up to 45 years behind bars on federal sex trafficking and conspiracy charges unsealed last month. He had pleaded not guilty and was awaiting trial next year.
His relationships with the current US president, the former president Bill Clinton and Britain’s Prince Andrew were at the centre of those online rumours and theories, many of which question what politicians knew about Epstein’s alleged sex crimes.
Others theories have been easily debunked.
For example, days after his arrest, online memes and Facebook statuses wrongly claimed that the Obama administration, in order to protect Clinton, forged a once-secret deal in 2008 in Florida that allowed Epstein to plead guilty to soliciting a minor for prostitution to avoid more serious charges. The deal was actually executed before Obama took office, under the former president George W Bush.
Meanwhile, a manipulated photo, shared by thousands on Twitter and Facebook, falsely claimed to show Epstein with Trump and a young Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter.
Both Clinton and Trump have denied being privy to Epstein’s alleged scheme.
A Clinton spokesman, Angel Ureña, said the former president “knows nothing about the terrible crimes Jeffrey Epstein pleaded guilty to in Florida some years ago, or those with which he has been recently charged in New York”. He said that in 2002 and 2003, Clinton took four trips on Epstein’s plane with multiple stops and that staff and his Secret Service detail travelled on every leg.
Trump has acknowledged knowing Epstein but said he “had a falling out with him a long time ago”.
Some Epstein theories aired online have been extremely dark, especially after Epstein was found injured on the floor of his cell last month with bruises on his neck. Some online commentators described it as a “murder attempt”.
The FBI and the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General would investigate the circumstances surrounding Epstein’s death, the attorney general, William Barr, said.
“Mr Epstein’s death raises serious questions that must be answered,” Barr said.
Epstein’s suicide was probably recorded by jail cameras, according to Preet Bharara, the former federal prosecutor in Manhattan.
“One hopes it is complete, conclusive, and secured,” he tweeted.
Epstein’s arrest last month led to separate investigations into how authorities handled his case initially when similar charges were first brought against him in Florida more than a decade ago. The US labor secretary, Alexander Acosta, resigned last month after coming under fire for overseeing that deal when he was US attorney in Miami.
Epstein’s lawyers maintained that the new charges in New York were covered by the 2008 plea deal and that Epstein had had no any illicit contact with underage girls since serving his 13-month sentence in Florida.