— -- A fake news article headlined "JUST IN: 6 REPUBLICANS TOOK SECRET PAYMENTS FROM CLINTON TO DESTROY TRUMP" has been all over Facebook during the last several weeks, spreading misinformation on a conspiracy between former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and several high-ranking Republicans -- a conspiracy that never actually happened.
The website called USA News Today makes the false claim that the Clinton campaign was in cahoots with GOP politicians like Paul Ryan, John McCain and Lindsey Graham as well as three of Trump's Republican rivals during the 2016 primary race. It falsely states that dollars flowed from Clinton's team to GOP sources in order to try to derail Donald Trump's presidential bid.
No contact information was available for USA News Today. So ABC News dug into the claims themselves:
The Truth Behind This Fake News Story
The fake article cites "an email from John Podesta to Huma Abedin that was released as document number 1078645" in July. This document is supposed to reveal that political action committees run by former GOP candidates Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina and John Kasich would "receive a significant allowance from advertising budget."
Document number 1078645 actually corresponds to a WikiLeaks-released email from the intelligence company Stratfor on operations in Saudi Arabia in November 2009. It has nothing to do with Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. And it is not a matter of a mis-numbered document, since a search of all WikiLeaks for the text of the purported email at the center of the story comes up empty.
“HRC is in the loop and has talked to all three personally. Eyes only,” says the fake email -- that phrase and others quoted don't appear anywhere on the WikiLeaks website.
The three GOP presidential candidates mentioned -- Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina and John Kasich -- had all ended their campaigns by the time the fake article claims the "source" emails were sent. It therefore can't be true that these GOP campaigns were subsequently "on Hillary Clinton’s payroll."
The story goes on to falsely claim that dollars from Hillary Clinton's campaign were funneled to Sen. John McCain's U.S. Senate re-election campaign.
"FEC reports shows that two large donations from PACS and private sources ln [sic] early October went to John McCain right after he attacked Trump publicly criticized Trump," says the fake story, even though it's impossible to register "private sources" of money with the Federal Election Commission.
An ABC News analysis of campaign finance documents found no such transactions. The article falsely asserts that Clinton and her aides somehow cleared the field for Sen. Lindsey Graham's re-election bid in 2020.
Our usual warnings -- that poor grammar and spelling mistakes are a hallmark of fake news stories that are often written abroad -- hold true with this story as well.
How This Fake News Story Became Popular
The story became prominent when conservative media personality Sean Hannity mentioned it on his radio show in mid-December. It had surfaced in a couple of fake news articles before that date.
Hannity asked WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange whether the fake WikiLeaks email was valid.
"I don't have that in front of me," Assange replied. "We have published nearly 100,000 documents, so, I mean I have seen references to things like that. I don't recall seeing an 'eyes only' phrase."
Asked again, Assange said, "I don't know."
But that didn't stop the story from continuing to spread on Facebook on other social media sites. It's resurfaced again in recent weeks.
A search for the text of the fake email shows up almost 600 times on Google, and other versions of the article have racked up thousands of shares on Facebook.
ABC News has launched "The Real News About Fake News" powered by Facebook data in which users report questionable stories and misinformation circulating on the platform. The stories will undergo rigorous reporting to determine if the claims made are false, exaggerated or out of context. Stories that editorial partners have also debunked will then appear flagged in your News Feed.