Today’s AP report on the FBI’s secret use of dummy corporations and surveillance planes is startling—but what’s almost as surprising is that the same information has been circulating in the internet’s darkest corners for years.

The AP’s revelation, that “the FBI is operating a small air force with scores of low-flying planes across the country carrying video and, at times, cellphone surveillance technology—all hidden behind fictitious companies that are fronts for the government,” is only a revelation if you haven’t been keeping up with message board conspiracy theorists. And why would you? Reddit’s capacity for uncovering the truth en masse has been an online laughingstock ever since the site deeply and methodically botched its attempt to I.D. the Boston Marathon bomber.

Why would anyone turn to Reddit for legitimate information about the federal government, or literally anything at all? This is a site that can barely tie its own shoes without getting sidetracked by whether revenge porn victims are really just sluts who should have never taken those selfies. An even less-likely news-gathering force is 4chan, the notorious community for sharing Hitler memes, images of dolls with semen on them, and photos of corpses.

But it’s exactly these two communities, cyberspace’s premiere open septic tanks, that were discussing the secret FBI spy campaign long before the AP. Members of the /r/Conspiracy subreddit, known for handwringing over communist lesbian censorship, were discussing the mysterious aerial surveillance flights almost a month ago, and had already begun honing in on the dummy corporation angle, too (other, less loony subreddits tried to discuss the matter, but were deleted for being to conspiratorial). That thread is itself based on an archived 4chan thread from 2013, over two full years before the Associated Press ran its story.

This is shocking, if only because these sites are known for their willful aversion to reality. Chan culture is about luxuriating in the intentionally dumb, wrong, chaotic, and contrary. Just take a look at what usually passes for discussion on /r/Conspiracy:

  • Is Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner just a distraction tactic for the Freedom Act?
  • What evidence is there that a missile hit the Pentagon?
  • Government Wipes Recent Vaccine Injury Data from Website
  • Does anyone else think Bruce Jenner is a mk ultra experiment?
  • I’ve found this list of UFO whistleblowers - is this legit?

This is the unsorted Filene’s Basement clearance rack of newsgathering, and yet, these people were discussing the truth about a federal surveillance program. A lot of the fleshy padding of the AP’s piece is missing, but the heart of the story got nailed by an an anonymous poster on 4chan:

The government is running nightly flights over Quincy, MA. The aircraft are all Cessna 182. They have a FLIR or some other device on the Pilot side of the airplane behind the landing gear. They fly a pattern over the city every night except cloudy or rainy. The FAA refuses to answer questions about them.My searching shows there are several aircraft registered in Bristow,VAAll are registered under phony companies:Klj Aviation, Kqm Aviation, Lcb Leasing, Nbr Aviation, Nby Productions, Ng Research, Obr Leasing, Otv Leasing, Psl Surveys, Pxw Services, and Rkt Productions.there are at least 47 aircraft.

Racist message boards weren’t the only ones on the case: individuals unassociated with any journalistic outlet beat the AP to its story, though they received no credit for it. Minneapolis resident Sam Richards, who eschews his last name online and describes himself on Twitter as an “independent journalist and adventurer,” wrote a detailed post on Medium based on his own research that clearly beat the AP:

The United States Department of Justice appears to be operating a fleet of at least 62 [EDIT: Now it appears that number is actually 100] small aircraft and helicopters over cities nationwide. The aircraft have been registered to corporations that do not exist, and the purpose of the aerial operations is not known at this time.

John Wiseman, a programmer from California, also pieced together a lot of the story on his own before the AP, and circulated his digging on Twitter:

In both cases, these guys were turned on to the story completely outside of the usual investigative media machine: “My friend who I used to work with at MSP International Airport pointed out a suspicious flight pattern to me,” Richards explained via email, “and it snowballed from there. I spent the next few days uncovering (and publishing in near real-time) the fake companies and their aircraft registration as well as the flight paths that seem to show an obvious nationwide surveillance operation.” He was upset the AP hadn’t given his work a nod: “Never thought I’d be ripped off so badly.” A large dump of Richards’ research is currently sitting out in the open on PasteBin—a site usually known for hacker leaks and petty doxxing—instead of a newspaper.

Wiseman doesn’t even consider himself a journalist, he told me over email: I’m a programmer with an obsession with drones...tracking aircraft is my hobby/art project.” He got on the spy plane trail after an early Washington Post article on post-riot surveillance over Baltimore, intrigued by the fact that the only people discussing the mysterious flights were so-called conspiracy theorists:

Going past the first pages of Google results on the few companies and aircraft I had linked together I started seeing random fringey forums where people talked about these planes being FBI or whatever.

I don’t want to say I’ll read Reddit and 4chan more credulously in future, because I won’t, and almost certainly shouldn’t. But there’s also no denying that a group of unrelated, known, partially anonymous, untested, un-credentialed internet people beat the Associated Press to one of the most compelling privacy stories of 2015—and anyone who looked in the right place and worked hard could’ve assembled it for themselves. The mood in /r/Conspiracy following the AP story was upbeat, and just short of smug: “Say what you want about accuracy... Being a conspiracy theorist is fucking fun and it feels good. It’s good to do something good.”

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