June 22, 2015

The first whispers of fraud in the LaCour gay-marriage persuasion study were voiced on an underground rumor site for political scientists, almost six months before the academic scandal broke nationally.

The site —, or PSR — is one of a growing number of gossip communities that may provide leads for enterprising reporters. Visiting such a site might be compared to turning over a rock to see the bugs underneath. It’s not necessarily the ideal source for a story about scientific ethics, but valuable if mined correctly.

Mainstream journalists are beginning to carefully enter these subterranean communication spaces. In the process, a whole new kind of anonymous source is emerging.

Jesse Singal, a senior editor at New York Magazine and head of its Science of Us blog, began posting on PSR to gather information relating to the bombshell revelations of data fabrication by UCLA grad student Michael LaCour.

Since the scandal, political science has taken a beating in the media, while the discipline asked itself how outright fraud had gone unnoticed by an advisor, a co-author and the peer-review process. It turns out someone did have doubts back when the study was newly making the press rounds, and posted their suspicions on PSR.

“This jumped out at me —if someone had really been on this five months before the story broke, then that was news. I posted to the board asking people about it, and a couple users quickly and assertively said yes, they remembered [statistics software] Stata output,” Singal said.

A few ashamed PSR-frequenting friends in academia said they had also seen the post. “Having a couple real-world people confirm to me that it was real, further whet my interest and made me decide that it was probably worth writing a story about this mystery-post.”

Singal later confirmed it was David Broockman —the graduate student who ultimately went public with a report on LaCour’s data irregularities —posting back in December, searching for others skeptical of the results.

Once acquainted with PSR, Singal went back to the well.

Building trust

Entering a community of snarky, cloaked insiders can pose problems. Forums like these tend to build unspoken norms over time and treat interlopers harshly. Journalists seeking information may want to do a little research before diving in.

“Early on I just posted,” Singal said. “Since then I’ve tried to get a better feel for the place in the hopes that my relationship with it can stay solid.”

Singal said he’ll always be an outsider as a journalist. “That’s fine. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think the benefits outweighed the minor drawbacks.”

Still, engaging in some form of impression management can help convince brutal message boards to provide some real information in place of pure scorn. “I did want them to know that I took their general concerns about academic integrity seriously,” Singal said, “and that I could deliver newsworthy information about this scandal, which I was lucky enough to do a few times.”

Not surprisingly, the majority of people who emailed Singal about LaCour indicated that they wanted explicit protection of their identity, with many particularly concerned about being outed as a PSR user. “There’s a stigma to the place,” he said.

A complicated relationship

Interacting with a forum instead of an individual can be “kind of weird,” Singal said. There is a small minority who “try to drown out everyone else with their anger and homophobia,” but overall the community was welcoming and helpful. Developing a thick skin helps.

Venturing into the wilds of an anonymous message board as a journalist can also mean that you are “impersonated” by other users. In the case of PSR, though, Singal said the community tends to know that when “someone says ‘X here,’ they’re just messing around.” He later began using a verified account.

Still, the plural anonymity of sites like PSR can lead to a complicated relationship with the whole.

“There are some users with whom there’s an interest-aligning taking place,” Singal  said. “They have information that they don’t feel comfortable discussing publicly or hadn’t thought to share with a journalist; I’m a journalist interested in social science and academic fraud. It seems to me like a potential win-win.”

But some posters claimed Singal was exploiting them. Based on the site’s up-vote/down-vote feature, he thinks that position is held by a tiny minority. “How can you exploit an institution when you don’t know its members, don’t know which of them are telling you the truth?”

Some posters suggested he had failed to give credit. “If a reporter overhears something in a bar, later verifies it, and ends up writing about it, it’s unlikely they are going to name the bar where they first heard the initial nugget,” he explained.

“But I did start being a bit more conscious about this as my relationship with PSR ‘evolved,’ if you can call it that.”

Plural anonymity

Murky online sources have been a growth industry of late. Icognito sharing apps like Secret and Whisper offer reporters the potential to stumble across scoops. There’s also Yik Yak, which limits audiences to a 10-mile radius. That may produce ad hoc pools of useful comments, as when journalists turned to Yaks for instant feedback on Ted Cruz’s candidacy announcement in March.

PSR is different. It’s niche —frequented by (mostly) legitimate insiders, who also happen to enjoy trolling anyone gullible enough to fall for it. It’s a “cesspool,” by all accounts. But interspersed among the gossip are whispers of truth.

Academic disciplines are sometimes seen as gnomic entities, driven by incentives and disputes invisible to outsiders. Careers in research are also based on reputation in exceedingly small worlds. Sites like PSR can serve as safety valves for sensitive information, including allegations of fraud.

Developed for discussions of a cutthroat job market, PSR (along with anonymous social science sister sites, and has made some of that visible, if unintentionally, to the outside world.

Singal likens the PSR-LaCour story connection to the 4chan-Gamergate link. But he adds that it “isn’t nearly as angry a place as 4chan, and is a lot more productive in many ways.”

And while there might be some passing similarities with how a journalist might use Wikileaks as a repository of tips to be verified, PSR doesn’t begin to approach the news value of official documents. “On PSR, the best you can hope to do is catch a whiff of a rumor that turns out to be true after you do some work to verify it. But the signal-to-noise ratio isn’t fantastic,” according to Singal.

In the end, the same principles that govern journalists’ involvement with traditional anonymous sources apply.

“In both cases, you simply can’t take what people tell you at face value. People obviously have their own agendas, and especially when you, the journalist, don’t know who you’re talking to, you need to be doubly cautious that you don’t end up broadcasting someone’s grudge or chasing a false lead that a petty or vindictive person dropped in your lap.”

While a real-name email still demands due diligence, the reporter is in a better position to judge the source’s motives. “With a source like PSR,” Singal said, “you’re on slightly dangerous ground.” Using this type of site is obviously only a starting point in a reporter’s research. There may be truth nestled in with trolling and academic grudges, but it must be filtered and verified.

“The whole thing is fraught.” Singal said. “It’s just a matter of being careful as a journalist —there aren’t any ethical issues with a journalist perusing a forum or reaching out to its members. The ethical issues come in if, after hearing an intriguing nugget, you fail to act like a journalist.”

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