Who else but the Democratic presidential contender himself, Feinberg thought, would have made sure Buttigieg showed up under a list of notable Rhodes scholars just one day after he was elected mayor of a midsize city in Indiana? Who else would have gone on six minutes later to create the rising politician’s own page? Who else would have edited Wikipedia’s offerings on his favored Skagen watch, the friend and musician who played at his wedding, the 2010 race for Indiana State Treasurer?
But when Feinberg reached out to the Buttigieg team after a few days of her trademark Internet sleuthing, the mystery of years-ago activity from an account named “Streeling” only deepened.
“We’ve been asked before,” she says a representative told her. “It’s not Pete.”
It would take another week or so of digging, she told The Washington Post, to come to the conclusions in a Slate article posted Friday — backed up by screenshots and convoluted evidence spread over more than 3,000 words. Another South Bend, Ind., man told Feinberg the account was his, but the reporter would still zero in on photo metadata and other minutiae to argue that Buttigieg “has had knowledge of, and at least some active participation in, the maintenance of his Wikipedia presence.” She’d trawl for deleted content beyond public access, appealing to her Twitter followers for help (“Hello, are you a Wikipedia admin or do you know someone who is…?”)
The resulting story was an unusual piece of political journalism — typical only for Feinberg, who has built a reputation for savvy online stalking across stints at Gizmodo, Gawker, Wired, HuffPost and now Slate. The 29-year-old reporter has launched Internet frenzies as she digs for hidden online lives of the political elite, explaining her methods in great detail along the way.
She says she has picked up reliable tricks, like bee-lining to accounts’ very beginnings — the first followers, the first tweets, where famous figures may have been less guarded. But each puzzle is different, she said, and the scoops could become harder as people become more conscious of the limits of online anonymity.
“But I think we’ve got a bit of time left,” Feinberg said.
Chris Meagher, a spokesman for Buttigieg, declined to comment beyond pointing The Post toward tweets and comments in Feinberg’s article. Meagher told Slate that the man who ended up claiming responsibility for Streeling volunteered with Buttigieg’s treasurer’s race “but never in paid capacity."
“It appears it is an overzealous supporter of the mayor’s,” Meagher said of Streeling, adding that Buttigieg does not know who runs the account. Feinberg is skeptical.
The dissection of the Wikipedia edits, like many of Feinberg’s online adventures, is couched in probabilities. Unlike some of her best-known stories, it hasn’t solved a mystery: It leaves readers with multiple possible scenarios and a request that anyone with further information shoot Feinberg an email.
Other projects, like Feinberg’s viral exposé of Mitt Romney’s Twitter alter-ego, have yielded more solid answers. Feinberg says it took only about 25 minutes at her computer to spot a likely account for the Republican senator from Utah, after Romney alluded to its existence but declined to reveal his handle in an interview with the Atlantic.
“He explained that he uses a secret Twitter account — ‘What do they call me, a lurker?’ — to keep tabs on the political conversation,” the writer of the Atlantic piece recalled.
Romney did, however, let slip that he was following 668 people. And Feinberg realized she could track the lawmaker down based on her guess that a “known family man” would “want to keep close tabs on his offspring,” as she explained in her October article for Slate. She found an account for the politician’s oldest grandchild, which at fewer than 500 followers could feasibly be combed for Romney candidates.
From there, tracking him down was tedious but straightforward, she recounted on an episode of the podcast Longform. She opened lots of browser tabs. She eliminated profiles that had too many followers and looked for someone with a peculiar interest in people from Romney’s orbit.
Feinberg says she always hovers nervously after her reports post, worried for a few hours that she has gotten something horribly wrong. With Romney, at least, the relief came quickly, as the senator affirmed he had been posting under the name Pierre Delecto.
Confirmation from another high-profile target, former FBI director James B. Comey, took far longer.
“This is almost certainly James Comey’s Twitter account,” Feinberg headlined her piece, saying it took her just four hours to get to the bottom of the secret Twitter account Comey mentioned at a dinner. Her findings blew up online as people scrutinized Comey’s nature photos — but it wasn’t until months later, in the fall of 2017, that the former top intelligence official validated all the speculation.
Feinberg says her love for Internet sleuthing dates to high school, when she and her best friend would try to find “stuff about our friends to make them uncomfortable.” And Feinberg “revels in making people uncomfortable,” a former colleague at now-defunct Gawker told Columbia Journalism Review, pointing to an early piece that catalogued the “creepiest things you can do on Facebook” (“Request someone’s relationship status … then request their address”).
The assessment from John Cook, now an editor at Insider Inc., wasn’t meant as criticism.
“She uses the weapons of the troll for the forces of good," he told CJR.
Feinberg has expressed particular interest in monitoring the activities of political conservatives, but above all, she said, she’s drawn to people whose public personas seem like “an act.” One of her articles revealed reality TV star Josh Duggar — a “family values activist,” she noted — to be a member of Ashley Madison, a site that helps spouses cheat.
“I was finding something that people hadn’t wanted to be seen,” she told The Post of her early forays into online detective work.
With Buttigieg, she said, she doubled down after a representative “seemed to sidestep” a follow-up query, as she asked whether the avid Wikipedia editor was affiliated with Buttigieg.
The mayor never had a Wikipedia account, she says she was told. The editor seemed to be an enthusiastic supporter.
When Feinberg’s article published, it brought the usual marveling from fellow journalists and other admirers, such as “Jeopardy!” star Ken Jennings. Wired editor Caitlin Kelly lauded a “master at the height of their powers,” comparing the act of reading about Feinberg’s process to watching Monet paint waterlilies.
Not everyone was impressed, though.
“We deal with a lot of absurd incoming these days- never a shortage of entertainment,” tweeted Buttigieg’s communications director, Lis Smith, saying she had “some laughs” and placing the idea of a secret Buttigieg Wikipedia account among “bizarre conspiracy theories.”
“It’s Friday night- log off and get a beer or something,” Smith said.