How I pretended to be the NSA PRISM whistleblower on Twitter, gained some 4,400 followers, duped a bunch of journos, and why
June 8, as the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper was disclosing the identity of the leaker of top-secret National Security Agency PowerPoint slides, I was just finishing up a blog post on the leaker’s revelations. Having contrasted and compared published slides with claims by public officials, and given an in-the-loop Washington Post‘s reporter’s rationale for their selective release, I had the distinct sense that I was already behind the curve. The leaker, former NSA employee Edward Snowden, had fled the country for Hong Kong by the time he handed over the slides to The Guardian and The Washington Post. In an exclusive video interview with The Guardian from Hong Kong – where he is currently seeking asylum – Snowden made claims even more extraordinary than the slides themselves.
In their video interview, The Guardian immediately took to framing Snowden as a whistleblower. Yet Guardian – along with, again, The Washington Post‘s – staff have refused to release all of the information Snowden had requested they would.
NSA, said Snowden, “targets the communications of everyone.” He added, “While they may be intending to target someone associated with a foreign government or someone that they suspect of terrorism, they’re collecting [citizens'] communications to do so.”
At one point Snowden’s accounts of life inside seemed contradictory, such as when he asserted that “any analyst at any time can target anyone – any selector, anywhere.” Only a moment later he would claim “not all analysts have the ability to target everything.”
Snowden spoke of a ruthlessly vindictive intelligence community willing to assassinate for his dissidence, exposing what he sees as an abusive panopticon. In retribution, he claimed, U.S. authorities could very well “pay off the triads,” members of Hong Kong organized crime, to take his life, “however long that happens to be.”
Snowden defined a narrow set of NSA analysts, such as himself, with broad omniscience into society. “I sitting at my desk certainly have the authorities to wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant to a federal judge to even the president,” he told The Guardian‘s Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Ewen MacAskill.
Snowden denied that he was trying to harm the United States or aid it enemies. Had he really wanted to endanger the country, he said, he “could [have] shut down the surveillance system in an afternoon.”
Snowden’s extraordinary claims were bolstered in part by statements to the LA Times by former NSA and CIA counsel Robert Deitz, who said, “There are, from time to time, cases in which some [NSA] analyst is [angry] at his ex-wife and looks at the wrong thing and he is caught and fired.” Deitz did not imply that these abuses by NSA analysts resulted in any criminal prosecutions for payrolled megalomaniacs.
Immediately I intuited that oncoming media profiles of Snowden would descend far lower than mere allegations of treason or defection. Snowden’s earlier leak to The Guardian of a top-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court memo had detailed not only Verizon’s release to the NSA of vast swaths of telephone records “wholly within” the United States. It confirmed the long-understood cooperation between electronic communications firms and the NSA in seeking out foreign intelligence information.
Quickly, I created a Twitter account with the closest possible match to Snowden’s name, @ejosephsnowden, and sought to begin a cartoonishly radical caricature of the e-dissident. To anyone who understood the implications of Snowden’s claims, the very existence of a Twitter account at all should have seemed impossible and thereby ironic. But how impossible would it seem to most, and how ironic? With that high-minded goal of watchdog journalism (to gauge media and public perception) along with an interest in finding some humor in a too-impulsive media environment, I began what would be a three-day mission of online sockpuppeteering. I was somewhat inspired by the FBI’s long campaign of using the Twitter account of hacker Hector Monsegur, or “Sabu” of LulzSec. Surely, some of the same tactics used to root out cybercriminals can be used in watchdog journalism.
You can read much of the tweeting content from early this week on The Internet Chronicle‘s updated Twitter account, where we have shamelessly co-opted the followers of the Snowden puppet. Although the marionette now sits here.
As the account quickly accelerated and peaked to 4,400 followers, I was struck by how many Twitter users were requesting that Twitter actually validate it. The pretense of such a request was that Twitter would somehow ascertain the identity of any actual Snowden, while somehow maintaining discretion with authorities as to the location of the hounded leaker. Despite assurances from those like Senate Majority Leaker Harry Reid (D-Nev.) that Snowden’s allegations of metadata monitoring weren’t anything “brand-new,” clearly many with half a mind to be interested in hearing from an NSA leaker had a rather breathtaking trust in the inviolability of trust Twitter kept with its end users. (Although to be fair, in the wake of PRISM’s having been revealed, Twitter claims it is as resistant as any communications firm to overreaching government requests.)
Additionally, striking is the number of people willing to thank Snowden openly, which – even should the old “Snowden” followers delete tweets or unfollow – I cannot imagine not having some effect in the future on their attaining clearances in the course of future employment with the federal government, the largest single domestic employer. Several people accused me of working for the CIA or the NSA, which is ludicrous, to my knowledge. Yet it was also illustrative of just how jaundiced these agencies’ reputations are.
In the course of his writings at Guardian and Salon, Greenwald has gone to great lengths to undermine the left-right narrative, and his own political connections add great credence to that. Those connections run the gamut, from contributions to the libertarian Cato Institute, to remarks given to an International Socialist Organization conference. Greenwald’s diverse affiliations are key to understanding the partisan political divide that surrounds outrage, when it occurs, over surveillance overreach.
In 2006, at the height of the last decade’s previous warrantless NSA controversy, a Pew poll highlighted acquiescence from 75 percent of Republicans and 37 percent of Democrats. On the other hand the past month’s revelations have yielded 64 percent approval on the issue from Democrats and 52 percent from Republicans. Whichever administration doing the monitoring appears to have a pretty serious influence on whether people feel like getting mad.
It was for this reason that my Ed Snowden was to be of what William Buckley termed the “fever swamps.” Heavily ideological, conspiracy-bent libertarians have an extremely ubiquitous online presence, and in the current climate, tend to lean Republican on foreign policy. (For example, Republicans made up a slight majority of the opposition to the Obama-era no-fly zone in Libya, and doubtless any upcoming Syria no-fly zone.) I knew there was going to be a lot of momentum to attempt to try Snowden in the public sphere—a mob mentality for which I have no regard whatsoever, even for the filthiest of criminals.
Former Mother Jones national security editor Adam Weinstein remarked on Twitter, “The solipsism of a young white male libertarian IT guys … is a real problem.”
Don’t hate on David Brooks for pointing out the solipsism of a young white male libertarian IT guys. That is a real problem well beyond NSA.
— Adam Weinstein (@AdamWeinstein) June 11, 2013
When as “Snowden,” I started tweeting support for Ron Paul, I had not yet actually heard that Snowden was a supporter of the former congressman and perennial, long-shot president hopeful. Weinstein referenced a stereotype that deserved lampooning, and so I, along with some help from Chronicle correspondent Jaime Cochran, took to the puppet with conspiratorial banter. It is unfortunate that, for much of the general public, anyone who would do what Snowden did would have to be an absolute sociopath. Billy Walshe, or “Kilgore,” had long ago set up a Greenwald sock puppet (@ggreenwild), subsequently shuttered by Twitter. We used that to endow the Snowden puppet with a veneer of undeserved credibility, mostly piloted by Walshe himself.
Even though Greenwald and WikiLeaks had disavowed the Snowden puppet (Greenwald, repeatedly and explicitly) the Snowden and Greenwald puppets apparently duped journalists, including Rosie Gray of Buzzfeed, a former Reuters social media editor, Boing Boing co-editor Cory Doctorow, David Shuster, a co-author of a book with Glenn Beck, and Reason editor Nick Gillespie. I won’t bother denying some degree of tap-dancing schadenfreude at that.
On the other hand, my three-day campaign of feigned anarcho-capitalist lunacy should serve as a warning of Nellie Bly magnitude to journalists and news junkies alike. As this news and entertainment outlet has painstakingly sought to demonstrate, a Brave New Internet demands greater incredulity from the media-consuming public. The Answer will never be that media networks as large as Twitter endeavor to root out impostors or screen for disinformation any more than they screen for the ill-informed. Just as time and experience has lessened susceptibility to (the not benign) 419 scams, the same will have to happen for Twitter users desperate for the ground-level scoop and click bait.
While the Post‘s Barton Gellman had told me that some of the data Snowden handed over was classified for good reason (I can’t know this, but we’ll never hear a admission like that in those terms, even if true, from Glenn Greenwald), it was important to point out, via the puppet, that we’ll always rely on some estate, first or fourth, to filter our data. Maybe the Snowden data the Post and The Guardian are withholding are dangerous if disclosed to the public. For now it’s a subject of speculation, speculation based on conversations that took place between these newspapers and the government before even the three (or in The Guardian‘s case, four) PowerPoint slides went public. But established journalists will always have an interest in maintaining access, daresay staying out of jail for espionage; and those motives may or may not happen to line up with the public’s right to know. Especially when the Fourth Amendment is on the line.
Certainly, Snowden’s personal life is about to get a serious snow job—and one treated with far wider credulity than any Twitter puppet.
Not long into the course of my sockpuppeteering, as Weinstein referenced, New York Times columnist David Brooks would not disappoint, disparaging the leaker for, of all things, not finishing high school and for being mildly rude to a neighbor once. Just as Frontline hyped Bradley Manning’s homosexuality as a factor in his decision to leak, and the media allowed Julian Assange’s alleged sex crimes in Sweden to overshadow legal threats he faced from the Justice Department, the media was sure to be hungry for some red meat, beyond anything high-minded, to explain Snowden’s leaks. Thus widespread banter about matters as insipid as the attractiveness of his ex-girlfriend.
The tabloid chum has and will spread in the waters of public discourse, from sources as serious as paper of record, which the public should have good reason to take with more credibility than an unverified Twitter account. As red as blind anger, the chum will obscure the prescient debate that must be had about the meaning of the Fourth Amendment in a technologically evolving, if not “advancing,” world. We must be sure that it does not attract the real sharks, those complicit in the abuse of power, power needed to protect Americans.