The Internet Muddles An Already Confusing FBI Investigation Into Clinton Emails

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The internet had infinite interpretations of a vaguely-worded letter FBI director James Comey sent to the House Judiciary Commitee Friday. In the letter, Comey said the FBI potentially had new email evidence related to its previous inquiry into Hillary Clinton’s email server and handling of classified data while at the State Department, and was taking “appropriate investigative steps” to evaluate the information.

Comey wrote that although the FBI does not yet know whether or not the information is significant, in light of his previous testimony declaring the FBI’s investigation closed, “it is important to update your Committees about our efforts.”

The lack of clarity created the perfect petri dish for the internet’s many armchair pundits to instantly muddle the message about what was really happening. To Donald Trump and his army of online supporters it looked like a sign that the FBI was admitting it was wrong in clearing Clinton of wrongdoing back in July. In fact, the letter said the FBI would be evaluating the new information to determine if it warrants a reopening of the investigation. But no matter.

Minutes later, Trump was on stage at an event in New Hampshire, telling a crowd of thousands that he hopes “the FBI and the Department of Justice are now willing to have the courage to right the horrible mistake that they made.”

The media didn’t help. NBC News tweeted soon after that the FBI was re-opening the case, only to change their story moments later.

Meanwhile, as the news broke, Clinton and her press corps were reportedly on a plane without access to Wi-Fi, unaware of the news and unable to respond. It may have only been a matter of minutes, but in the age of Twitter, that’s an eternity. The internet had already made up its mind, and that’s a dangerous thing.

So, what actually happened? We’ll start by saying that much (MUCH) is still unknown. What we do know, according to officials cited by The New York Times, is that the new information came from devices seized by the FBI during its investigation of former Congressman Anthony Weiner’s sexting scandal. Weiner happens to be married to Clinton’s right-hand woman and campaign vice chairwoman Huma Abedin. If any of the new information appears to be classified, presumably, the case would be reopened. If not, it wouldn’t be. Either way, given that Comey testified under oath that the case was closed, it’s his job to inform the Committee that new information has come to light.

A senior law enforcement official commented to NBC News on Friday that Comey sent the letter “out of an abundance of caution” and that the emails hadn’t been withheld by Clinton or any of her affiliate groups.

But what exactly was found on those devices remains unclear. About two hours after the story broke, the Clinton campaign called on FBI Director James Comey to release more information about what, exactly, this investigation will entail. “Already, we have seen characterizations that the FBI is ‘reopening’ an investigation but Comey’s words do not match that characterization,” wrote campaign chairman John Podesta in a statement. “Director Comey’s letter refers to emails that have come to light in an unrelated case, but we have no idea what those emails are and the Director himself notes they may not even be significant.”

The bureau had no additional comment on Friday beyond what was in Comey’s letter, which seemed to characterize the action as more of an assessment. The FBI said it was working to figure out whether the new information was classified.

But regardless what the FBI finds, for some part of the electorate, the damage has been done. In the rush of slapdash reporting and hot take tweets following the initial reports, the good people of the internet are left to pick the version of the story that appeals most to them. Are you a Trump supporter looking for a smoking gun? Here you go. Or maybe you’re a different kind of Trump supporter, the kind who thinks this is a conspiracy to distract from the real issues coming out of Wikileaks? Hot-take reactions accept all kinds! Are you a Bernie Sanders-type who’s sick of hearing about her “damn emails?” Well, then you might view this as the FBI being overly cautious.

In a statement Friday House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) wrote that the FBI “must conduct the investigation with impartiality and thoroughness.”

At the risk of interrupting your tweetstorm, so should we all.

This is a developing story.

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