After dozens of previously sealed court documents related to financier Jeffrey Epstein were made public on Wednesday, social media users began spreading false accusations about major public figures whose names appeared in the release — and some who hadn’t been named at all.
Two people singled out in viral false claims containing images made to look like snippets from court documents were late-night host Jimmy Kimmel and theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, who died in 2018. In both cases, the images were used in an effort to tie the men to illicit activities involving Epstein.
Here’s a closer look at the facts.
CLAIM: Court documents connected to a lawsuit involving Epstein that were released this week include details about Hawking’s “proclivities” and accusations about a sexual encounter with Kimmel.
THE FACTS: The images were fabricated to look like part of the court documents. They are not among the records that were released this week. In both cases, the images show what are alleged to be question-and-answer sessions with unidentified participants.
In the fake image involving Hawking, the questioner asks, in reference to Epstein, “Did Jeffrey ever talk to you about Stephen Hawking’s proclivities?” The respondent answers, “Yes, he liked watching undressed midgets solve complex equations on a too-high-up chalkboard.” Additionally, the respondent replies “yes” when asked whether Hawking “frequented the island for pleasure.” The other image includes an exchange about Kimmel in which the respondent says they gave him multiple massages and had sex with him at the comedian’s suggestion.
Posts that shared the images had received tens of thousands of views on X, formerly Twitter, and other social media platforms as of Thursday.
Hawking is mentioned twice in the documents that were released. One reference involves a 2015 email from Epstein offering a monetary award to friends, family or acquaintances of Virginia Giuffre, one of Epstein’s victims, if they could help disprove allegations that the physicist had participated in an “underage orgy” on one of Epstein’s islands. The other is a request for Giuffre to turn over all photos or videos of her with a number of individuals, including Hawking. But there is no reference to any “proclivities.”
In 2006, a few months before Epstein was charged with multiple counts of unlawful sex with a minor, Hawking was one of many scientists who attended a five-day conference in the Caribbean funded by Epstein. The physicist appears in multiple pictures from the event.
Kimmel does not come up in the documents at all. Ahead of their release, social media users wrongly claimed that his name might appear, spurred by a comment New York Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers made Tuesday on ESPN’s “The Pat McAfee Show.” Kimmel said in response on X that he had never met Epstein and that Rodgers’ “reckless words put my family in danger.”
Moreover, the purported document snippet that mentions Kimmel states that it is part of page 1,375, but only 944 pages of records had been made public when the image began spreading.
Other major public figures social media users have falsely claimed are named in the documents include Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks, Elon Musk and many more.
There was much speculation before the release that the records amounted to a list of rich and powerful people who were Epstein’s “clients” or “co-conspirators.” But the records come from a 2015 lawsuit filed by Giuffre against Epstein’s former girlfriend Ghislaine Maxwell, which was settled two years later.
U.S. District Judge Loretta A. Preska, who ordered the release, said most of the names were already public. They include many of Epstein’s accusers, members of his staff who told their stories to tabloid newspapers, people who served as witnesses at Maxwell’s trial, people who were mentioned in passing during depositions but aren’t accused of anything salacious, and people who investigated Epstein, including prosecutors, a journalist and a police detective.
There are also boldface names of public figures known to have associated with Epstein over the years, but whose relationships with him have already been well documented elsewhere.
Previous documents from the case were released in 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022. About 60 of 250 records currently being released had been made public as of Thursday evening, with more expected in the coming days.
Epstein killed himself in jail in 2019 while awaiting trial on sex-trafficking charges. Maxwell is serving a 20-year prison term for helping Epstein sexually abuse underage girls.
This is part of news agencies’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at news agencies.