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06.09.11

The Twitter User Who Exposed Weiner

The person who re-tweeted the now-infamous photo that led to Anthony Weiner’s downfall was part of a Twitter collective called Born Free Crew—before he disappeared without a trace. Brian Ries talks to his online colleagues.

When reports first surfaced of a mysterious group of Twitter users who had been tracking Anthony Weiner’s apparent obsession with following young women, the story was filled with more questions than answers.

Who exactly were they? A story  by The New York Times that attempted to answer that question went something like this: For about three months prior to the crotch shot seen ‘round the world, a conservative group of “cyberstalkers” patrolled Congressman Weiner’s Twitter account “with particular ferocity,” warning the young women the congressman followed on Twitter “to be wary.” (Sample tweet: “Weiner’s new follow is a high school girl. LMAO! Freak!”)

Like many online collectives, the group was a random assortment of Twitter users who had never met in real life—a retired firefighter from Philadelphia, a mom in Wisconsin. On Twitter, they called themselves the #bornfreecrew, after the Kid Rock song “Born Free.” The group first coalesced around Weiner’s tweets in March, but it was nothing more than teasing the congressman about his name. “Low hanging fruit we will call it,” says one member. 

As time went on the Crew became more of a social club, its members tweeting mundane messages as friends tend to do. But then things changed, as one member in particular began calling attention to Weiner’s affinity with following young women on the social network.  

Some members of the Born Free Crew feel they’ve been given more credit (or blame) for their role in outing the congressman than they deserve.

Then, in May, the Born Free Crew got wind of a brewing sex scandal (one member reportedly had ties to Matt Drudge, proprietor of the conservative media powersite The Drudge Report.) The scandal was said to involve “a ‘bigtime’ Congressman” and incriminating photos. “@RepWeiner is it you?” one of the Born Free Crew asked the pol in a tweet.

No one much noticed the Crew until the scandal exploded. The New York Times story thrust them into the spotlight, cementing their role in the narrative. But in reality, say members of the Crew, it was only that one member in particular who was especially interested in Weiner’s online activities: Dan Wolfe, or as he was known on Twitter, @PatriotUSA76.

Wolfe was the person who ultimately helped bring the Congressman’s Memorial Day weekend antics to light by retweeting the now-infamous shot of Weiner in his gray boxer briefs. And Wolfe was the one who shared the photo with conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart, who in turn broadcast it to his millions of readers and instantaneously turned a Twitpic into a major news story. But Wolfe, despite his instant notoriety, isn’t interested in attention. When reached by The Smoking Gun over email on June 1, he responded simply, “Who gave you this email address? Private.”

Perhaps as a result of Wolfe’s reclusiveness, some members of the Born Free Crew feel that they’ve been given more credit (or blame, depending on how you look at it) for their role in outing the congressman than they deserve. 

"Not real happy with the [New York Times] piece," says Michael Madden, 52, a member of the group when reached by The Daily Beast over email. "Many of the Crew are not happy with situation we are left with."

That situation, according to Madden, is summed up like this. 

Contrary to reports in the Times and The Smoking Gun, the Born Free Crew was not a conservative group of cyberstalkers, and their primary motivation was not to fixate on Rep. Weiner. "Consider the name," says Madden. "Why would we not name the group #Weinerhounds or #Weiniespies?" 

"The group was not really a ‘Hate Weiner’ group,” continues Madden, “but there was one who obviously did." Wolfe, says Madden, was the primary monitor of Weiner's tweets, and he led the majority of the efforts to call attention to the young women Weiner was following on Twitter. 

When the heat turned up the Friday before Weiner's testy press conference about the boxer-briefs photo, Wolfe wiped his Twitter account clear off the web and disappeared. Those who say they spoke to him at the time claim Wolfe had privacy concerns -- he said he was getting death threats, and he was a private man. "But here is a fascinating aspect of this scenario," says Madden. "He never told any of us he was doing it [exposing Weiner’s incriminating tweets]. He did not communicate with the group after the first big retweet of the now infamous picture."

With Wolfe gone, the Born Free Crew was left to fend for itself during the initial days after the scandal broke. They were accused of hacking the congressman’s Twitter account (these accusations were put to rest when Weiner admitted to sending the tweet himself) and bore the brunt of the media hysteria. 

“This is not fun or funny,” says Madden of how the incident has affected the Crew. “I and others do not like being put in this position.” He didn’t get involved in the circus until a blogger on Daily Kos drew up an elaborate chart that laid blame on the group in its entirety. “What a stupid ignorant post that was,” says Madden. “And dead wrong.”

So can those left standing in the Born Free Crew identify the man who led the crusade? 

"No,” says Madden. “I cannot, and nor can anyone. Even the guy accused of being closest to Dan has no clue who that is." There are rumors among both camps that Wolfe, operating deep under the veil of anonymity, is in fact a woman--perhaps a jilted lover, hell-bent on Weiner’s destruction. But nobody knows for sure. 

Michael Stack, a member of the Crew who was identified in emails published by The Smoking Gun as one-half of the "online duo" that spearheaded the assault and Dan Wolfe's "Twitter sidekick," is reportedly ticked off as well. The Weinergate "co-pilot" (and alleged moderator on a pornography web site) believes it was Wolfe who released the emails to The Smoking Gun. "Hell for all we know it was Dan who told [The Smoking Gun] about Mike," says Madden. "Who knows."

In the emails, Wolfe and Stack discussed working with House Oversight Committee Chairman and California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa’s director of digital strategy, Seamus Kraft. But a spokesperson for Issa’s office tells the Washington Post they never connected. Issa’s office did in fact receive an email from the group, the spokesperson says, but they “did not respond or offer advice or counsel.”

In the aftermath, as the political world awaits the fate of the tweeting congressman from New York, the feeling of the Born Free Crew is that Dan Wolfe used them. They’re hurt. “After leading us down a path of destruction @patriotusa76 hit a home run and got his target. He put it out there and then did not respond to any of us for days and without fanfare he deleted his account,” says Madden. “Lesson learned.” 

Brian Ries is senior social media editor at The Newsweek Daily Beast Co. He lives in Brooklyn with his two cats, Peter Ike Lee and Lucky Mr. Loki. His Twitter account is not yet verified.