The Epstein court documents: How to distinguish facts from fiction

The Epstein court documents: How to distinguish facts from fiction

By: siri christiansen&
January 8 2024

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The Epstein court documents: How to distinguish facts from fiction

Jeffrey Epstein's former home on the island of Little St. James in the U.S. Virgin Islands. (Emily Michot/Miami Herald/TNS/ABACAPRESS.COM

Conspiracy theorists, journalists, researchers, true crime nerds, and the generally curious all rushed to X (formerly Twitter) late on January 3, 2024, as previously sealed court papers from a lawsuit relating to Jeffrey Epstein were released. Social media platforms were soon flooded with screenshots of transcripts, images, and lists connecting celebrities and politicians with the late financier and his alleged sex trafficking ring. But much of the supposed “evidence” was left out, or fabricated. 

This was the first batch of court documents. The second batch, comprising 300 pages, was released on January 5, with more expected to come in the next few days. As the story unfolds, here’s what you need to know.

Who was Jeffrey Epstein, and why is QAnon obsessed with him?

Jeffrey Epstein was a wealthy U.S. financier known to mingle with celebrities, politicians, billionaires, and other high-profile people, including Bill Clinton, Prince Andrew, and Donald Trump – the latter of which, in 2002, called Epstein “terrific” and said he “likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.”

Allegations of Epstein’s sexual abuse of underaged girls had been circulating since at least 2005, when police in Palm Beach, Florida, initiated an investigation after a 14-year-old girl claimed she was molested at his mansion. He was charged in 2006 with multiple counts of unlawful sex with a minor and pleaded guilty to a single count of soliciting prostitution in 2008. The larger public, however, only became aware of Epstein in 2019, when he was charged with operating a sex trafficking network of underaged girls at his luxury properties. Coinciding with the #MeToo movement, which brought greater scrutiny of sexual abuse made by powerful men, the case became explosive news material. 

Epstein’s long-term girlfriend and associate Ghislane Maxwell was sentenced to a 20-year prison term in 2022 for aiding Epstein’s recruitment of underaged girls. Epstein, however, was found dead, hanging by a bed sheet in his jail cell in 2019 while awaiting trial. The death was ruled a suicide by hanging according to the medical examiner’s office, and a report issued by the U.S. Justice Department concluded that staffing failures had left Epstein alone and unmonitored for hours.

However, social media users immediately concluded that Epstein was murdered as a cover-up by the rich and powerful implicated in Epstein’s trafficking. Epstein’s enormous wealth and elite circle of friends also attracted the attention of Pizzagate and QAnon believers, who have used his example to attempt to prove the existence of a secret child trafficking network frequently linked to prominent Democrats such as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. 

What are these newly released court documents?

The court documents now released comprise part of Virginia Giuffre’s 2015 lawsuit against Ghislaine Maxwell. Guiffre, one of Epstein’s victims, said she was 17 when she was recruited by Epstein, and claims she was pressured into having sex with several of his high-profile acquaintances, most notably Prince Andrew. 

The lawsuit against Maxwell was settled in 2017. However, it has re-entered the limelight thanks to a Miami Herald request to release previously sealed court documents that would publicly disclose the identities of 150 people mentioned in them. This was approved on December 18, 2023, and the release has been eagerly awaited.

What do they show?

Not much that wasn’t already known. 

At least, that’s the consensus among commentators in newspapers such as The Guardian and AP News. This was also a leading factor as to why the judge in the Maxwell case, Loretta Preska, ruled in favor of the Miami Herald’s request

The batch of documents contains a mix of court filings and depositions with unredacted names relevant to the case, including Epstein’s accusers, witnesses at Maxwell’s trial, people mentioned in passing during depositions, and people who have associated with Epstein. 

These names were sealed for privacy reasons, and their reveal does not evidence they were accused of or complicit in any crimes. For example, Donald Trump is among the unredacted names because Guiffre was asked in her deposition whether she had ever met or massaged Trump. Guiffre said she did not.

Deposition with Virginia Guiffre. (Source: The Guardian/Screenshot/Edited by Logically Facts)

The second batch of documents, released two days after the first, does not seem to add any new information about Epstein’s sex trafficking. The Guardian reported it contains some discussion of Guiffre’s medical records. More documents are expected to be released in the coming days, which could lead to new information coming to light.

What kind of misinformation is circulating on the back of the documents’ release?

Misinformation about the court papers began appearing before they were released, as rumors of a so-called “Epstein client list” circulated on social media. As early as December 21, AP News reported social media posts claiming or implying that the 150 unredacted names were all complicit in Epstein’s sex crimes.

On January 2, when the documents were assumed to be released, falsified lists started popping up. Archived posts can be found here and here. There is no evidence to suggest these lists of names are correct.

TikTok and X screenshots of unverified lists. (Source: TikTok/X/Screenshot)

BBC Verify journalist Shayan Sardarizadeh reacts to an unverified list. (Source: X/Screenshot)

When the documents did go public, a fabricated deposition transcript quickly went viral, falsely implicating the comedian and talk show host Jimmy Kimmel in Epstein’s sex crimes. Logically Facts examined the publicly available court documents and found no mention of Kimmel. We also conducted a visual analysis that concluded the formatting of the transcript in the viral image differs from the real transcripts.

(Source: Twitter/X/Screenshot)

Stephen Hawking was also subject to a fabricated deposition, most likely originally intended as satire, claiming Hawking “frequented the island for pleasure” and enjoyed “watching undressed midgets solve complex equations on a too-high-up chalkboard.” An archived TikTok can be found here

A screenshot showing a Stephen Hawking/Jeffrey Epstein-related claim on TikTok. (Source: TikTok)

However, the searchable court PDFs do not contain any trace of this deposition. Hawking is mentioned twice in the court papers, once in an email from Epstein where he said he wanted to disprove allegations that Hawkings participated in an “underaged orgy” at Epstein’s, and once in a request for Giuffre to turn over photos and videos of her with individuals, including Hawking.

Fact-checking organizations have also found several fake images showing different celebrities with Epstein. This includes three images of Donald Trump and Jeffrey Epstein with what appears to be underage girls. Logically Facts has analyzed these images and found them to be edited or AI-generated. 

Baseless conspiracy theories about the rich and famous that might have participated in Epstein’s sex trafficking ring have been circulating for years. Logically Facts has previously fact-checked several such claims: 

How can I fact-check the Epstein-related posts I see online?

The easiest way to fact-check a claim is to do a lateral reading – namely, to type keywords related to the claim into your search engine of choice to see if credible media organizations, such as Reuters, BBC, or AP News, have reported on the claim. 

If you’re unsure whether a media source is reliable or not, you can look it up on Media Bias/Fact Check, an independent resource that rates media outlets. If no articles show up, try adding “fact check” to your search. This is more likely to generate results from fact-checking organizations, which are sometimes quicker to report on niche, specific claims than large media organizations.

You can also try figuring it out yourself – the real court documents are publicly accessible and many credible institutions and newspapers have shared searchable PDFs. You can access The Guardian’s here. If you come across a social media post claiming that a certain name or fact appears, open the PDF, hit Ctrl+F or Command+F to open the word search field, and type in keywords. If you don’t get any results, it’s likely the post is misinformation. 

Screenshot of searchable Epstein PDF. (Source: The Guardian)

To learn more about how to identify AI-generated images, see Logically Facts’ guide.

Would you like to submit a claim to fact-check or contact our editorial team?

Global Fact-Checks Completed

We rely on information to make meaningful decisions that affect our lives, but the nature of the internet means that misinformation reaches more people faster than ever before