For months, rumours and conspiracy theories have swirled around the dark corners of the internet about the safety and whereabouts of Julian Assange, the founder and editor-in-chief of whistleblowing website WikiLeaks who currently lives in London under political asylum. Or does he?
Since late-October, when Assange's internet connection was cut off by Ecuador – his host nation – for a slew of leaks that were perceived as influencing the US presidential election, the speculation has intensified. It has now reached the point where every WikiLeaks social media post is met with a barrage of demands for 'proof-of-life'.
According to the unfounded theories – of which there are many – Assange is missing, perhaps renditioned by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) or another three-letter agency. Some claim he is in Russia. Others say he remains in the Ecuadorian embassy but is "compromised" in some way.
Hashtags #proofoflife and #whereisassange are littered by demands for video evidence that Assange is alive and well. Some conspiracy-minded followers have produced images appearing to show mysterious 'white vans' on routes around London. Others claim a recent blackout in the city was related to WikiLeaks.
Is there any truth to the claims?
Well, while the speculation has reached fever pitch, WikiLeaks has continued to publish documents, Assange has given lengthy telephone interviews and close confidantes have visited him in person.
On 24 November, WikiLeaks' verified Twitter account begged its four million-strong follower base to stop spreading the false rumours. "Please stop asking us for 'proof of life'. We do not control Assange's physical environment or internet connection," it said.
Most recently, during a telephone interview at the Free Connected Minds conference on 26 November, Assange directly addressed the rumours of his untimely demise and timestamped his appearance by referencing the recent death of former Cuban president Fidel Castro.
"I doubt anything I say here is going to put an end to the rumours," he said. "It's very natural that these have come about because of my high visibility in the last few months in the US [...] It's not an acceptable precedent to have to make an appearance when there are all sorts of security [risks]."
However, on Reddit – which has a section dedicated to sharing these conspiracy theories called r/WhereIsAssange – the commenters were left unfazed by this direct evidence that the WikiLeaks founder was unharmed and still residing in London.
"Did you think that was him and maybe captured and being tortured? Or it was a voice-over?" one commenter wrote. "I felt like he stuttered at the PGP question like he didn't know how to answer. I'm really sad. I feel like he might be dead."
Another said: "At this point, anyone thinking about leaking to them should be worried if it's a honeypot waiting to catch them. If Assange isn't in trouble, he needs to clarify [via] PGP and make an effort to show he is okay."
Around the same, Alex Jones, famed conspiracy theorist who runs InfoWars, posted a video online that claimed: "We were talking to a lot of folks who are really smart and they said 'his group got infiltrated, they have taken it over' [...] this is beyond some spy thriller, folks, this is really happening."
However, Craig Murray, broadcaster and human rights activist who has visited Assange at the embassy published a blog post on 28 November in an attempt to clear up any confusion.
He wrote: "I have been quite amused to receive some – well actually rather a lot of – rather aggressive tweets and other social media messages from people who believe Julian Assange is dead, and are therefore outraged I had supper with him on Friday.
"This seems to me the ultimate in concern trolling – to pretend to adore someone so much that you are angry and upset to find the object of your adoration has not been killed or kidnapped. It is a peculiar kind of cargo-cult.
"Best of all are the demands for photos with a sock on the head or a newspaper. To pander to these silly demands would be a never-ending task, and merely spark a new round of craziness – 'that sock on his head is photo-shopped', 'that was a double at the window'.
"I have been visiting Julian since before Jane from Idaho heard of him, and the purpose of visiting him is not to provide comfort to Jane from Idaho. If my word does that, fine. If she does not want to take my word, also fine."
Despite having published sensitive documents for over a decade, WikiLeaks grew in notoriety during the 2016 US election after leaking thousands of emails from the Democratic Party and John Podesta, a close aide to Hillary Clinton. Most recently, it released The Yemen Files and more than half a million US diplomatic cables from 1979.
On its latest post on Twitter, a link to diplomatic cables allegedly on the Iranian revolution from the 90s, the majority of comments are still asking for proof-of-life. Comments include "Show us Julian", "Where is Assange?" and "Why would you show us something 30 years old? You wouldn't. WikiLeaks is compromised."