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Hundreds of citizens are digging up the dirt on President Donald Trump as part of a massive crowdsourced investigative effort that started when a reporter discovered what appeared to be fake donors in Trump’s reporting of inauguration contributions to the Federal Election Commission.
When Huffington Post investigative political reporter Christina Wilkie had been examining an FEC report document which lists all the inaugural donors to Trump’s 58th Presidential Inauguration Committee, she happened upon the $400,000 donation of Isabel T. John. The only problem: There were no public records for John. When Wilkie checked out the address listed for the donor, she discovered an abandoned and bulldozed lot in New Jersey.
After a further hour of research, Wilkie threw the query out on Twitter, and within minutes, Twitter users were meticulously combing through the Federal Electoral Commission’s records.
“I was incredibly surprised at how many people wanted to help,” Wilkie told the Daily Dot.
The effort began to take on a life of its own, as more individuals began to independently lend a hand in trawling through the records to verify individual donor information and report any discrepancies back to Wilkie. However, to better organize the investigation’s findings, Wilkie decided to enlist some help.
It was “Steven Rich of the Washington Post and Andrew Tran of the Connecticut Mirror, both data editors, who came up with the idea of a public spreadsheet with all the information in it,” Wilkie explained.
People further organized under Wilkie’s invented hashtag, #CitizenSleuth, and members of the r/esist community latched on to the project and a concerted push began.
“So far, we’ve logged nearly a thousand individual notes in the spreadsheet, each one with research that volunteers have done, names they’ve found, details about these donors, potential issues a donor might want help from Trump with,” she continued. “But there are a lot of details that are not adding up, which suggest that some donors may be using front groups or phony names to hide where the money really comes from.”
In one of the strangest findings, Wilkie described researchers discovered a donor entry utilized the name of Katherine Johnson, the former NASA employee whose work is portrayed in the film ‘Hidden Figures.’ The entry included the address for Johnson as NASA headquarters.
“The Intercept confirmed that Johnson never made this donation,” Wilkie said, “So someone fraudulently used her name.”
Discoveries like this are numerous in Trump’s FEC filing, and that in itself is concerning. It is a legal requirement that inaugural donors supply accurate information about themselves, and it’s clear from the crowdsourced investigation’s findings that this is not the case. Names of donors, amounts given, and addresses are all being called into question—and in many cases appear to be fake and outright fraudulent.
“Once we realized that there were more of these questionable donations than we’d previously imagined, we realized that to do it right, we should really try to verify all of them,” Wilkie said of the goal, which will provide an enormous information base for her own subsequent formal investigation.
Interestingly, a portion of the researchers in Wilkie’s project are based in the r/esist subreddit. For them, this project is, of course, about accountability, but the subreddit bills itself as a place for “ for organizing and discussing resistance against Trump.” In all appearances, this collaborative journalism is a new and enlightened form of activism for those now opposed to the president as it was for the right in supporting him through the election.
The crowdsourced effort is, perhaps, one of the first of its kind in working against Trump. In some ways, it is not unlike the cooperative research Trump supporters and redditors at ultra-pro-Trump subreddit r/The_Donald undertook in trawling through pre-election WikiLeaks mass email dumps to find compromising information on Democratic rival and presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. Those findings, picked up by mainstream reporters and right-wing new media outlets alike, may have damaged the Clinton campaign severely—alleging corruption and exposing the inner workings of a political campaign. R/esist’s participation in this type of organized research is a mirror of that.
Other online communities based in Europe are doing the same, where those opposed to the international rise of the right-wing political candidates now display a real understanding and awareness of the subversive tactics that derailed Clinton. As centrist Emmanuel Macron and the far-right’s Marine Le Pen fight for the French presidency, liberal redditors backing the pro-European Union Macron have created an r/The_Donald parody subreddit community to discuss the presidential race.
Jesus this is weird, there's a subreddit called /r/the_macron full of pro-EU pepes... pic.twitter.com/dgmiQeYcVo— Ryan Broderick (@broderick) April 24, 2017
There are other active anti-Trump crowdsourced investigations, too. Take former British politician and journalist Louise Mensch’s crowdsourced Russia investigation on Twitter, for example. In a recent conspiratorial conclusion, Mensch accused more than 200 people of being Russian spies, including numerous U.S. politicians and journalists, on the basis of the information pulled together by her social media volunteers.
The runaway accusations reflect the loose nature of the research and Mensch’s anti-Trump position. Openly slammed as conspiratorial, Mensch’s project underlines the fact that any investigation requires maintained editorial oversight to be taken seriously and to remain accurate and factually provable.
In speaking with the Daily Dot, Wilkie made clear her own impartiality and the journalistic integrity in her approach: “We’re only interested in the making sure accurate records are being filed and kept, and we’d do exactly the same thing if this were a Democrat in office.”
In Wilkie’s investigation, nominated editors, chosen because of experience, feed information to experienced journalists in a way that allows important proofing and gatekeeping.
“As the spreadsheet was getting underway, about a dozen people who contacted me stood out as having a really good understanding this kind of data. So I enlisted them as editors and moderators for the spreadsheet, and now they’re helping to guide hundreds more volunteers than I could have ever done myself,” she said.
Wilkie keeps her citizen sleuths up to date on her own investigation, and how their research is being carried forward, via her own Twitter feed. On Sunday, for example, she described in detail her next steps to contact Trump’s donors in person.
Careful curation and management are making for a cooperative journalistic project that is turning out not propaganda but important stories that are very much in the interest of the voting public. It’s an experience that Wilkie finds exciting.
“The internet and document-sharing have put incredibly powerful search tools into almost anyone’s hands,” she said. “Twitter and Facebook have made it possible for reporters to interact with readers in an unprecedented way, and I think that in the wake of the 2016 election, a lot of Americans want something to do, besides just post stories on social media. They want to participate.”
David Gilmour is a reporter who specializes in national politics, internet culture, and technology. He previously covered civil liberties, crime, and politics for Vice.