Some call it “the pure id of a strand of conspiratorial thought of the left.” Others say it’s “a fake news bubble for liberals,” where “D-list Twitter celebrities are spewing unhinged takes and loosely-connected conspiracy theories.” But the community of Trump-focused citizen journalists that has formed on Twitter is one that I love being a part of — and the professional media should be nurturing it, not making it the butt of their jokes.
Sure, the nurture we deserve may be more like the kind you’d devote to a slightly awkward younger sibling. But within the conspiracy-hunting culture that is so often maligned, there’s a budding group of passionate, skilled researchers and writers finding their feet. Coverage of high-profile figures like Louise Mensch, Claude Taylor, Eric Garland, or Adam Khan has been overwhelmingly negative, and has completely overshadowed the dozens (perhaps hundreds) of others — many inspired by them.
I’ve been following these citizen journalists closely, because I am one of them.
My journey began on November 9. I was disillusioned by the media, and desperate to learn as much as possible. I quickly found that obsessive research, like drinking or drugs, numbed my political anger and depression. At first, I wanted to find a smoking gun or proof of collusion, to be the next Woodward or Bernstein exposing this generation’s version of Watergate. Quickly I learned about the vast, complex web of political, corporate, social, and religious organizations connected to Trumpworld. A shy Twitter user, I compiled hundreds of pages of notes before tentatively tweeting, then creating flow charts, and then tweeting out my research a whole lot more.
Twitter citizen journalists spend a lot of time in the weeds, combing through original source material: real estate filings, business incorporation listings, legal documents, or old but newly relevant articles. The work often gets messy. Some of the resulting threads are like Russian nesting dolls, with multiple tweets each embedding older threads — it’s easy to find yourself many layers deep and completely lost.
Other threads are team efforts, and following along is a wild ride. One person tweets about a Trump deal in Baku, and someone else replies with information about organized crime in Kazakhstan. Suddenly, there’s an oligarch on a yacht in St. Barts, and a time machine whizzes you back to the 2008 financial crisis in Iceland. Someone notes a mysterious flight path from Qatar to Aspen, and eventually, there’s a skiing-cat GIF. It’s fascinating. It also makes your head spin.
Trump/Russia stories stir up strong feelings, and the research is often delivered with a large dollop of emotion. Facts and data mix with opinion and attitude, and create a potent cocktail that may only appeal to certain tastes. And the most common issue, covered extensively by the media, is the lack of editorial oversight.
Twitter feeds exploded last week when Mensch tweeted that sources told her “the death penalty, for espionage, being considered for @StevenKBannon.” Much of the criticism that followed, like this Benjamin Wittes thread, highlighted the use — and misuse — of anonymous sources in making such claims.
But a focus on extreme claims based on unnamed sources misses a more interesting, and valuable, kind of work being done every day by Twitter’s amateur sleuths. The majority of these citizen journalists are working with primary sources, typically publicly available information, and they show their work for all to see. The resulting threads of screenshots can be bewilderingly complex and messy, and the work needs to be vetted, organized, and curated before producing anything meaningful. That will only happen when professional journalists start paying attention to the uneven but often excellent information being surfaced every day.
As an example, think of the story of Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with the Russian lawyer in Trump Tower — a story that has occupied much of the professional media as it unfolded in recent weeks. Back in mid-May, Twitter citizen journalist Polly Sigh posted a short thread on efforts to overturn the Magnitsky Act — ostensibly the focus of the meeting — and a former intelligence agent named Rinat Akhmetshin.
Months later, it emerged that Akhmetshin attended the Trump Tower meeting, and a mid-July New York Times article explored his backstory in fascinating detail. In recent weeks, he’s become a well-known figure among those paying close attention to the Russia scandal. But the connections mapped out by @dcpoll back in May — built on allegations in past lawsuits and press coverage — go well beyond that, considering Akhmetshin’s long history with business circles that include a group of Trump associates. Reporters looking for new angles to this story could benefit from a dive into her thread, and many others like it.
Not all members of the media are discounting the energy of citizen journalists, and some are actively trying to tap it. Christina Wilkie at HuffPo asked her readers on Twitter to help contribute data to a Google Docs inauguration spreadsheet, mapping connections between hundreds of individuals and businesses. Last week, ProPublica asked people to sign up to help find new Trump hotels around country. “We’ve nailed down six locations,” the investigative journalism outfit said, “but we need help finding the rest.”
Tasks like these, which require a methodical, distributed search through public information, are perfectly suited to outsourcing to citizen journalists online. We’re motivated, we’ve been doing this for a while now, and there are more of us than any single newsroom could muster for a single job. Why turn your back on that or mock it?
On their own, with no guidance or support, these amateur journalists have begun to connect dots, uncover previously unreported information, and learn how to scour the internet for useful data. Whether their outlets are understaffed or flush with resources, mainstream media should wake up and realize that there’s a group of diligent, passionate, skilled researchers working for free right now on Twitter. With less snickering and more thoughtful engagement, you might just find the next Woodward or Bernstein among them.