As Election Day looms like a bulbous monster made of flesh, exit polls, and cable news chyrons, let’s take a moment to appreciate the bizarro ingenuity of some of Donald Trump’s most conspiratorially-minded supporters. Over the past week or so, conservatives who congregate on 4chan’s politics message board have adopted a new tool in their quest for a truth that fits the version of reality they crave: FBI Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
Posters on 4chan’s /pol/board have decided the FBI, or someone within the bureau, is sending them a signal encouraging them to file requests for FBI documents about Hillary Clinton, the Clinton Foundation, and a slew of other Clinton-adjacent topics. The first ‘secret’ nudge from the FBI was this tweet from last year:
After tweeting this, the FBIRecordsVault account went dormant until a week ago when it began spewing forth links to several already completed and publicly posted FOIA requests on the Clintons, Trump’s father, and a number of other topics. The FBI said the brief flood of tweets was the result of a software update.
But the posters of 4chan took it as a sign. A sign that some agents within the FBI, apparently furious at FBI Director James Comey over his handling of cases involving Clinton and deeply devoted to Donald Trump, wanted them to submit FOIA requests.
This wasn’t dismissed out of hand because 1) /pol/ posters love a conspiracy theory and 2) the FBI is in what seems like a state of turmoil at the moment. Comey’s July recommendation not to indict Clinton, vague letter in October revealing that the FBI was reopening the investigation, and clearing of her again on Sunday, has people looking askance at the agency, especially given its long history of political abuses. Some have even accused Comey of violating the Hatch Act, which makes it illegal for federal employees to use their power to influence elections. Meanwhile, individual Bureau agents have been leaking information damaging to Clinton, with one unnamed agent telling the Guardian that “the FBI is Trumpland.”
People who claim to be FBI insiders have been stoking conspiracy theories on 4chan for months. In one case, the poster actually seemed prescient.
“The intelligence agencies do not love HRC, and they are not happy with her actions,” an alleged FBI insider wrote in July. “They will leak highly sensitive information. Expect an October Surprise, if not earlier. Have faith, keep digging. I will be back in a month or two for more questions.”
The same month, someone started a thread on /pol/ titled “AMA about the Clinton case.”
“I am a person with intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the Clinton case,” the person wrote. “I will answer as many questions as I can without giving too much away.”
The poster was generally vague, saying it was “impossible to determine” when the FBI would indict people tied to the Clinton email case, but suggesting there would be indictments. The rare specifics were about extreme possibilities, such as a prediction when asked about Bill Clinton’s health that “Bill Clinton will likely die this year.”
Last week, though, things kicked into high gear when a Swedish poster started a thread citing the FBI tweet from October 8 and encouraged people to file FOIA requests on a number of individuals, including the late Ashley Turton (a Nancy Pelosi aide-turned-lobbyist who died in an accident in 2011) and deceased Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
The thread quickly became people posting about the different FOIA requests they said they’d filed and how they were figuring out ways to game FOIA rules. In a thread about Ashley Turton (who the 4channers believe was killed as part of a conspiracy) someone claiming to be from the FBI posted encouragement, writing, “I promise it shall be processed this weekend.”
A couple of days earlier, a similar idea took hold on 8chan (a smaller, even less moderated board based on 4chan) and the massive r/The_Donald subreddit where posters cast an even wider net, once again alluding to FBI agents giving them a signal. On r/The_Donald, no fewer than five threads sprung up last week encouraging FBI FOIA requests, eventually coalescing into a “megathread” to coordinate all the requests. One redditor took a bland post about dark net marketplaces on the FBI’s website as a winking hint that the administration is selling weapons through the marketplaces, and said the right FOIA will reveal this.
What’s fueling this is, in part, what fuels any conspiracy theory: a patina of plausibility. The FBI has been leaking information like crazy the past few weeks. But the idea that they’d carry out leaks through FOIA, or at least that they’d do so as quickly or effectively as promised, is kind of absurd.
“That is a strange interpretation because most knowledgeable FOIA requesters view the Bureau as hostile to FOIA,” Nate Jones, the Director of the National Security Archive’s Freedom of Information Act Project, explained in an email. “National Security Archive requests to FBI usually take years. The only exception is if FBI has previously processed a request and just needs to resend its response. But it’s laughably unrealistic that the FBI would or could turn around any new FOIA request in days.”
It’s frustrating because FOIA is an important tool, and one that’s broken in many ways. The FBI is almost legendarily slow in its response to FOIA requests, reportedly using outdated computer systems that slow the process further, and sometimes charges hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees. FOIA researchers like Ryan Shapiro, whose FOIA work the FBI has claimed is a threat to national security, often have to sue the agency to get it to deliver on requests, which are then often heavily redacted. Shapiro echoed Jones’s thought that what the excited channers and redditors had in mind was laughable.
“While the possibility of this kind of FBI leak is plausible, I’m incredulous that random 4chan users would be the recipients of any such information,” Shapiro told me in an email. “The extremely expedited processing of their FBI FOIA requests anticipated by those on 4chan would far too obviously reveal Bureau machinations. The Bureau is not above politically motivated leaks, but it is highly averse to getting caught.”
The norm for the FBI is to drag FOIA requests out as long as possible. Shapiro offered up the example of a request he filed in 2011 on a fur industry trade group. The FBI eventually reviewed 86 pages of records and released 56 of those pages. Those were released to Shapiro in the past month, five years after his original request, even though the Freedom of Information Act calls for the Bureau to process a request in 20 days.
I reached out to the FBI for comment, but have yet to receive a response.
There’s almost certainly no way to dissuade the posters who’ve convinced themselves that the FBI is sending them a signal. And they may well receive some new information a long way down the line, or get previously processed records, like a 2011 request on Ashley Turton that yielded no documents.
It’s also possible they’re shitposting, hoping for nothing at all and just stirring up controversy. Or it may be one or two people messing around with many others. At best, the very excited Trump fans are likely to learn how bad their new perceived allies at the FBI are at turning around the documents the agency is legally supposed to make available. Arguably, that’d make it 4chan or 8chan’s most edifying conspiracy theory yet.