Here's today's insane story of FBI ridiculousness: the FBI has been investigating an editor at Huffington Post, Nick Baumann, for an obvious joke tweet mocking fake news
. Really. To understand what happened, it requires a bit of background, especially if you're not steeped in Twitter culture -- but it's the kind of background that (1) you can pick up quickly and (2) shouldn't confuse an FBI agent... but apparently it did. Still, it requires knowledge of two separate jokes, then a third attempt at a joke... and general knowledge that the FBI doesn't seem to get jokes. Especially Twitter jokes.
First, you have to understand that there's a thing called Weird Twitter, which is... basically what it sounds like. It's more or less a group of Twitter users who post a variety of absurd or silly things, often (though not always) from accounts not naming the actual user. There's a sort of silly, but dry, sense of humor in these tweets, and unless you follow it closely, you might not always get the humor of it. Even if you are aware of it, you might not get the humor of it. But it's generally people coming up with silly tweets, some of which kick off more viral memes. Back in October, Weird Twitter person "raandy" or "@randygdub" kicked off quite a storm by tweeting a joke tweet pretending to work at a Post Office in Ohio, and claiming that he was ripping up absentee ballots of people voting for Trump.
Of course, this was back in the day when Trump and his surrogates were insisting that the election was being rigged against him and that there was going to be voter fraud. So, after it made the rounds of Weird Twitter, it left those cozy, joking confines and some Trump supporters picked up on it, believing the tweet was real. Eventually it got onto sites like Gateway Pundit
and Drudge Report. Rush Limbaugh mentioned it. It was pretty clearly a joke to people who get Weird Twitter, but once foolish people started taking it seriously, suddenly Ohio's Secretary of State said he was investigating
things, and the Postal Service was forced to make a statement
Once people started mocking those who fell for it
, lots of people on Twitter started making similar joking tweets, using the phrasing "I love working at [x] in [y] and [doing terrible thing z]"
So, that's joke number one. The second joke involved people passing around totally ridiculous and obviously faked Wikileaks releases claiming extremely silly things related to the conspiracy theories around Hillary Clinton. Perhaps the most well known one -- which also fooled some Trump supporters who retweeted it, was a hilariously obvious fake "Clinton Foundation accounts payable invoice" listing all sorts of groups that conspiracy theorists wanted to tie to the Clinton campaign:
Another one was the following one pretending to be from someone associated with Smartmatic voting machines telling Clinton campaign team members that things were all set to program voting machines with some special code with the help of George Soros.
This one is playing on another anti-Clinton conspiracy theory (which some people in our comments insisted was true, though it's not), that billionaire George Soros owned a company that was making voting machines that were used in the Presidential election (Soros was a big Clinton backer). The story isn't true. Soros doesn't own the company, and the machines in question weren't used in the election anyway, but... details.
Anyway, that's joke number two.
That finally gets us around to joke number three, which, amazingly, got the FBI's attention. Baumann saw an acquaintance tweet that fake "voting machine" leak (rightly noting that it was fake) and Bauman creatively decided to effectively mix the two jokes
into a third joke. A mashup joke, if you will:
Get it? Got it. Baumann even explained the joke a little while later in a reply tweet, linking to one of the stories about the silly @RandyGDub tweet after some (notice a trend?) people started believing the joke was real and claiming it was evidence of voting machine tampering.
But apparently, the FBI didn't get the joke. At all. I'll let Baumann explain the next part:
One Twitter user warned that she had reported me to the FBI and to Project Veritas — a right-wing organization led by James O’Keefe that stages elaborate stings of reporters, liberals and others; heavily edits its gotcha videos; and then tries to get those people fired.
Project Veritas did not contact me.
But the FBI decided a journalist’s joke was worth its time.
On Nov. 4, I received a call from someone who said he was an FBI agent and wanted to speak to me. I figured it was a prank. I get a lot of hate emails and angry voicemails, and I dismissed the insane possibility that the FBI would investigate an obvious joke on Twitter. I would’ve called back anyway, just to be sure. But it was right before the election, and I forgot about it.
Then, on Monday, a month later, I received a followup message. It was the same person. It turns out he really is a special agent in the Washington Field Office of the FBI.
“Sorry to bother you,” he said. “The reason I’m calling is — I can’t give you too many details over the phone — we recently received some complaints regarding some online postings that were made. I don’t know if you know what that’s in reference to, but would you be willing to sit down with us for a couple minutes tomorrow morning by chance?”
I couldn’t believe it and started to say so. But he continued, “I know this may sound ridiculous, but when we receive complaints we have to follow them up no matter what.”
As Baumann notes, this isn't actually true. The FBI has every right to ignore totally ridiculous and obviously bogus reports. And, it should. Otherwise it would be way too busy chasing down conspiracy theories. The FBI agent asked to have Baumann come and talk to him, but Baumann rightly notes that when the FBI wants to talk to you, you should shut up
and get a lawyer
. Baumann went to his employers and got company lawyers involved (given that HuffPo is owned by AOL which is owned by Verizon, you can imagine these are pretty good lawyers).
Baumann notes some further problematic aspects to this investigation -- including that the FBI and DOJ have pretty strict rules about contacting a journalist as part of an investigation (that whole Freedom of the Press thing that the FBI has had some problems with in the past...), and it's pretty clear those rules weren't followed. And, yes, Baumann identifies himself as a journalist in his Twitter bio. And the investigation is not officially over yet, though one hopes the publication of this article gets it closed pretty quickly:
The investigation is ongoing. I hope it goes no further. As Matthew Miller, a former Justice Department spokesman, said, “When you have to guess whether it’s incompetence or something nefarious, it’s usually best to guess incompetence.” But getting a call from an FBI agent investigating you is a big deal.
And, of course, the article ends with this lovely kicker:
On Tuesday, I called @randygdub and asked him whether he had heard from the FBI about his original joke. He laughed and said he hadn’t.
Baumann also notes that he sometimes reports on the FBI, but doesn't think that this is anything nefarious in response to his reporting -- and that's probably true. But it also shows how somewhat random and arbitrary such investigations are -- and what a total waste of time and resources they can be. Is this really the best use of the FBI's time? And if they really "had" to investigate it, that investigation should have started and ended with someone doing at least a tiny bit of online researcher about the jokes in question. It's not that difficult. One would hope that the FBI employs agents who can do a fairly basic Google search before having to call for a meeting over a tweet...