This past weekend, the Atlantic published an article by McKay Coppins about Mitt Romney that included the following passage, after Coppins asked about Trump insulting him on Twitter.
“That’s kind of what he does,” Romney said with a shrug, and then got up to retrieve an iPad from his desk. He explained that he uses a secret Twitter account—“What do they call me, a lurker?”—to keep tabs on the political conversation. “I won’t give you the name of it,” he said, but “I’m following 668 people.”
By that evening, Slate senior writer Ashley Feinberg had tentatively identified that account, which Romney, perhaps the most Advanced individual to ever run for President, had named “Pierre Delecto.” She noted the tweets he had liked, his replies, and who was following him. Romney soon confirmed she was right: “C’est moi,” he told Coppins.
Feinberg’s act of internet detective work was a blockbuster for Slate, which has offices in Washington and New York. It was the publication’s biggest-ever trafficked story from Twitter, Slate spokesperson Katie Rayford tells Washingtonian. Readers have “collectively spent 4.62 years reading this post,” she adds.
The article is also yet another example of Feinberg hacking through digital brush to discover the bizarre trails famous people have left on the internet: As a reporter for Gizmodo, Gawker, Wired, HuffPost, and Slate, she’s identified James Comey’s secret Twitter account, found what appears to be Ivanka Trump’s Spotify sex playlist, and dug up Amazon wishlists for Trump administration hangers-on (I had no idea Sebastian Gorka is a Terry Pratchett fan). Washingtonian got Feinberg, who lives in New York, on the phone to ask her how she bends the chaos that surrounds us to her will.
Can you take me through the events that led you to unearthing Mitt Romney’s secret Twitter account on Sunday?
So around that afternoon, I looked at my phone and there were maybe four or five people tweeting at me with the paragraph from McKay Coppins’s story. I didn’t really want to start looking for it, but all my other plans kind of got shot once I realized I had to do this or I was gonna hate myself.
How long did it take you?
Maybe under a half an hour to find the one that I thought was his, but then I spent, like, four hours building a case for it.
How would you rate Mitt’s attempts to keep his Twitter account private?
Up until that article, I guess, decent. He’s not someone who I would’ve assumed automatically had his own account. Matt Gaetz seems like someone who absolutely has other accounts. I don’t think if he hadn’t said anything I would have thought to go looking.
Do you think he wanted to get caught? Like, was it thrill-seeking behavior?
I think if he wanted to get caught he would have not immediately made it private.
What were your mentions and emails like after you published this story?
I have received approximately 300 emails informing me Mitt Romney went to France, and thats where “Pierre” came from. It’s astounding. Honestly I was kind of surprised, because after Comey there were a bunch of people going off about how he deserves his privacy, which, it seems with Romney, it really hasn’t been.
How did you learn to do this kind of internet sleuthing?
Honestly a lot of this started in college and high school trying to find embarrassing things about my friends, which was a very fun pastime. It was just sort of overtime figuring out the quickest ways to find things that people usually suppress.
It seems like it could be really tedious work–I know that when you look at who follows people on Twitter, for example, you have to keep scrolling and reloading the page.
Yeah, when Twitter did a redesign it made that incredibly difficult. I had to find workarounds to get the old Twitter UI back.
You seem to work like a detective, identifying patterns, then networks.
At this point, I’ve sort of accrued certain things to look for. When I was first getting into it, basically what would I do if it was someone making an account, you’d either follow yourself or someone you know. Probably the first person to follow you would be people who know you. With Romney I was actually very impressed that he had a seemingly entirely random display name. I would have expected less from him, frankly. People use the same usernames across multiple sites. Every time I do this I get a little more nervous, because the platforms catch on. The thing is this stuff is the most fun to me; it’s like trying to solve a puzzle, basically. When there’s a solution, it’s extremely satisfying.
You must encounter lots of dead ends. How do you keep up the energy to, say, find Ivanka’s sex playlist or Josh Duggar’s Ashley Madison account?
For stuff like that, it’s just putting out feelers periodically and seeing what you get. Every once in a while I will go through the candidates’ Wikipedia pages to see if someone on the campaign is editing them.
Is that how you found out Axios paid someone to edit its Wikipedia page?
That was actually a tip about Jonathan Swan’s page. I saw someone was doing this for a lot of larger people.
There are all these urban legends around the Trump administration: Melania’s secret house in Maryland. The racist Apprentice outtakes. The pee tape. Do you think any of them are real?
I mean, I find the pee tape—I think that obviously there’s a fake one. I’m less sure if a real one exists. I honestly and completely have no idea. A lot of this stuff, there is some kernel of truth to a lot of it, so it’s just basically about figuring out what it is. A lot of it is you will get on these tangents, I’ll find some username that seems like it’s connected to someone in the Trump administration and I’ll spend hours chasing them all over the internet and find out it’s just a supporter.
How can famous people cover their tracks so you never find them?
Basically, I make fake accounts for various purposes to follow people who have blocked me. I will make a new email account for each one. Obviously I don’t follow any of my own accounts. If it needs a phone number I will make a new Google Voice number and use that. I silo it off. There’s certain people right now I know for a fact have multiple Twitter accounts because if you search for a phone number, Twitter will tell you if there are multiple accounts attached to it.
What are some of your favorite stories that you’ve done?
Honestly, the greatest sense of relief was actually when Trump faved that Rihanna tweet. It was a bizarre thing for him to stumble across, and I spent hours figuring out that he faved it at a time when Rihanna was trending. So then I realized he had done some more things in the past, and I realized he was clicking on Trending Topics.
Do you have a white whale? Someone you’d do almost anything to find stuff on?
I mean, I believe without question in my heart that Don Jr. has one, if not multiple, fake Twitter accounts, and I’ve been trying to find them forever, and it kills me.
Can other reporters learn to do what you do? Would you teach a Poynter seminar?
Basically this most recent one, it was very easy to find, so it feels weird to even talk about it.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.