President Donald Trump might have been up to something when he coined the phrase “fake news”. Turns out these are more likely to spread on social media than real stories.

The family of slain Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich has filed a lawsuit against Fox News seeking compensation for emotional distress from the network’s coverage of a conspiracy theory about their son’s death in 2016.

The suit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in New York by Joel and Mary Rich, also names Fox News investigative reporter Malia Zimmerman and Dallas financial adviser and unpaid network guest contributor Ed Butowsky.

They charge Fox News, Zimmerman and Butowsky with fabricating a story suggesting their son exchanged email  with WikiLeaks and that he might have been the source of a trove of DNC emails released a month after his death. Rich, 27, was shot to death July 10, 2016 in what Washington police say was a random robbery attempt.

“The network, Zimmerman and Butowsky intentionally exploited this tragedy — including through lies, misrepresentation and half-truths — with disregard for the obvious harm that their actions would cause Joel and Mary,” the suit says. 

The case involves a speculative story Fox News published in May 2017 tying Rich to the leak of DNC emails to Wikileaks during the 2016 campaign. The story quoted Rod Wheeler, who had appeared on Fox News as a paid law enforcement and crime analyst, as suggesting Rich had been in contact with Wikileaks. Subsequently, Wheeler said the story was wrong and the family, the suit says, asked for a retraction.

“Fox directed its employees and agents Zimmerman and Wheeler to pursue the sham story, worked with Butowsky to develop the same, published the Zimmerman/Fox Article, and, according to Wheeler, told Zimmerman to include in the Zimmerman/Fox Article fictitious allegations that Seth provided the DNC emails to WikiLeaks,” the Rich family suit says.

The story was discussed on several Fox News programs, but a week later the network removed the story from its website saying it “was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting.”

Even after that, the network and Butowsky continued to “propagate the sham story and Butwosky continues to harass Joel and Mary (Rich),” the suit says.

Neither Fox News nor Zimmerman has issued a clarification about the story, the suit says.

Fox News declined comment on the suit citing pending litigation.

Wheeler has filed his own defamation suit against Fox News. The network has sought a dismissal of the suit, which is pending in federal court.

In the newly-filed suit, Mary Rich is quoted saying the severe emotional harm “was like burying (her son) all over again.”

Both parents are exhibiting symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other mental health issues, the suit says. Mary Rich is also unable to work.

“All of these factors have had and continue to have a profound impact devastating Joel and Mary’s physical health, their mental well-being, and their quality of life,” the suit says.

Follow USA TODAY reporter Mike Snider on Twitter: @MikeSnider.

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