The street protests following last Friday's inauguration saw two headline-grabbing acts of public violence. In one, a masked protestor in Washington, DC punched white nationalist leader Richard Spencer in the head, before running away. In the other, a Trump supporter in Seattle shot an anti-fascist protester outside a Milo Yiannopoulos speech at the University of Washington. (The protester survived.) The shooter later turned himself into police, who released him without charging him with a crime, and without naming him.
Two acts of violence, committed by two men unknown to the public, separated by one key difference: The identity of Spencer's assailant is the subject of a $5,000 bounty on an eight-month-old crowd-sourced investigations site called WeSearchr that has become a hub for the often conspiratorial energies of the alt-right.
The model behind WeSearchr is simple: Staff or users post a bounty for "questions people want answered," users fund the bounties through the site, and successful bounties get paid. "Questions people want answered" so far include what is in Megyn Kelly's divorce records, "Are there satanic pedo tunnels under your walnut pizza kid's hangout spot?" and "Has [former Gawker media owner] Nick Denton committed financial crimes?" Just as often, the site crowd funds projects that don't reveal any new information, such as putting up a Pepe billboard in the Midwest or inviting Kathy Shelton — a rape victim whose attacker Hillary Clinton defended in court in Arkansas in the 1970s — to a presidential debate in October.
Internet citizen investigations aren't new, and it's well established that they can be parlous for their subjects. (Just last month, a man armed with an assault rifle entered a pizza parlor in Washington DC to look into the "Pizzagate" conspiracy theory that it was the site of a child sex ring.) And now — in the context of a new administration that has already offered the media "alternative facts" and catered to news outlets that have published demonstrably false news — there's quite an opportunity for an explicitly pro-Trump, crowd-sourced information bounty service. The market for such information includes but is hardly limited to a new universe of Trump-loyal outlets that are in the process of creating a new reality.
Especially so since WeSearchr may have the ear of the Trump administration. One of the site's cofounders is Charles Johnson, the troll and conservative activist who according to a Forbes story worked with members of the Trump transition staff to select cabinet choices. In an email to BuzzFeed News, Johnson called the Forbes story a "libelous hit piece," but did not deny having access to the members of the new administration. Earlier this week, Twitter suspended WeSearchr's account in response to its promotion of the bounty for identifying the man who punched Spencer.
In a separate email to BuzzFeed News, Johnson wrote that "I have discussed the matter with the Trump administration," and that he plans to sue Twitter with money crowdfunded on WeSearchr. (Johnson would not say who he talked to in the White House.)
Asked whether he was concerned that the site condoned vigilantism, Johnson responded, "we have a very productive relationship with law enforcement and those relationships continue to grow thanks to the regime change in Washington. We will likely have the LEO community as a client this year. Our terms of service are pretty clear. We are crime stoppers for the 21st century."
An update to the bounty yesterday stated "Information on the suspect who is the subject of this bounty will be immediately forwarded to the appropriate law enforcement departments. As our terms of service and disclaimers state, this is not a call for any vigilante justice, libel, or other illegal action."
According to Johnson, WeSearchr has so far paid out "ten or so" bounties. Those include the surfacing of the divorce records of the David Mikkelson, the creator of Snopes (a $500 bounty); and video of a young Barack Obama speaking in Kenya that was subsequently broadcast on Infowars (a $10,000 bounty).
Still, the site has not yet succeeded in identifying the man who punched Richard Spencer. And another update to the bounty makes it clear that the submissions have not all been rigorously fact-checked: "Many are saying he has already been identified as a poop-eating degenerate called 'Ray.' We are also told that this 'Ray' character is deceased. Either way, we need more CONCLUSIVE PROOF as to who the ANTIFA attacker is, proof that would satisfy a police department, not just an MS paint meme."
Joe Bernstein is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Bernstein reports on and writes about the gaming industry and web culture.
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