How CNN Identified HanAssholeSolo
On July 2, 2017 at 9:21 AM, President Donald Trump tweeted a video clip of him attacking a figure labeled “CNN.” According to CNN’s Joshua Chavers, this is the president’s most retweeted tweet. The meme appeared to have originated from a Reddit user named @HanAssholeSolo. This individual had predominantly posted hate imagery against Muslims, Jews, and African Americans. In a period of no less than 14 hours and no more than 39 hours, CNN identified and contacted @HanAssholeSolo. How did they identify an anonymous social media user so quickly?
It is possible to view all posts, comments, and active communities for any Reddit user without logging in. @HanAssholeSolo had been active for over a year and had posted frequently as well as commented. He often conveyed bits of personal information along with his political ideas and that trail of breadcrumbs clearly led to a real person. A classic operational security (OPSEC) rule of thumb is that from many pieces of unclassified information an adversary can gather classified information. CNN’s investigative achievement is not really that remarkable; within the same time period, the Anti-Defamation League reviewed @HanAssholeSolo’s social media and concluded he “is a parent and a veteran in his 40s living in Tennessee.” Personally, I read all of @HanAssholeSolo’s submitted items since I was interested in whether his anti-Semitism occurred within another ideology, but I found myself deciding not to research more because he had posted so many identifiers.
For example, if I take what I read in his submissions and the articles by the Guardian, Quartz, and the Anti-Defamation League, @HanAssholeSolo volunteered:
- His age (Hint: not 15)
- His marital and parental statuses
- His degrees and that he was a current doctoral student
- His length of military service
- His current state
- What year he left another state
- A very specific description of his current city
- A third state he had lived in
- His gun permit status
- His favorite NFL team
- The privacy levels of his Facebook account
- His Facebook profile picture
- Whether he smokes or not
- Video games he likes
Those are only a few of the details that could have been compiled before his account was deleted. With his full account, anyone could have gathered a fairly complete profile. It appeared to be truthful because he would repeat various facts such as his being a doctoral student and did not deviate from the story.
But even still, how could CNN have identified him? There must be millions of smokers or non-smokers in the U.S., to name one of the demographic identifiers. However, there are not that many doctoral students from X military branch in X state in a city with X identifiers who have a Facebook account with X profile picture. CNN explained that they were able to find his Facebook account and then reach out to him. Since @HanAsshole Solo’s posts have been deleted, I can’t study them to see if there were any other clues, but even with this limited amount of information, I can guess different ways CNN might have located his profile.
In general, one should always begin with the easiest hypothesis — Occam’s razor. He posted a message on Reddit that he said his wife had posted to Facebook on Memorial Day. By copying and pasting any unique phrases into Facebook, the message and his wife or or even @HanAssholeSolo might have come up in a search, particularly if someone had posted the message publicly.
A little more time-intensive method but quite possible within 14 hours even for one person is the process of elimination. Some groups of people are smaller than others and some have a more public presence. The key to finding a person is to select a small enough cohort that they belong to that searching it wouldn’t take too long. @HanAssholeSolo belonged to multiple distinctive communities, doctoral student being a particularly noteworthy one. Actually, there are not that many doctoral programs in any given state and often doctoral students have profiles on their university webpages. I was aware that if I chose to look up Tennessee, I could easily guess which doctoral programs would fit a veteran of his ideological bent. For example, I doubt he’s getting his PhD in Middle Eastern or Jewish Studies. Gradschools.com only lists 24 universities in Tennessee with doctoral programs. Since @HanAssholeSolo described his town (I’m pretty sure he stated the population at one point), that would eliminate a number of universities. A determined researcher would check the profiles of each doctoral student of the remaining universities (or maybe university) searching each program, and less than 100 webpages later, the investigator could quite possibly check suspicions by seeing if any Facebook profiles match @HanAssholeSolo’s demographics.
There are a few more techniques CNN could have used. While Facebook no longer allows simple browsing, a researcher could search a specific network (such as a university) by keyword (such as a military service). Another possible method CNN could have used to identify @HanAssholeSolo is through a reverse image search of his stated profile picture.
However, based upon the description CNN gave of just taking information from Reddit and plugging it into Facebook, I believe it was simpler than any of these methods. It is highly likely @HanAssholeSolo revealed one detail so identifying that CNN simply searched for his name. That is also probable because I didn’t read his comments, and people are more prone to disclose personal information in comments when they are trying to prove a point. Perhaps another user called him by name. Perhaps he gave his wife’s name. I don’t know what it was, but the existing information suggests it was something quite personal.
Nevertheless, it was not necessary to figure out who @HanAssholeSolo was. All CNN had to do was contact him on Reddit if they wanted a comment. I believe that the identifiers he put out were so intriguing that CNN felt an urge to follow them through to the end.
Analysis of Reddit User Claiming Responsibility for President Trump’s CNN Video. (2017, July 03). Retrieved July 05, 2017, from https://www.adl.org/blog/analysis-of-reddit-user-claiming-responsibility-for-president-trumps-cnn-video
Gabbatt, A. (2017, July 03). Reddit user who took credit for Trump’s CNN tweet has history of racist posts. Retrieved July 06, 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jul/03/trump-tweet-reddit-user-history-hanassholesolo
Gershgorn, D. (2017, July 02). President Trump appears to have sourced his CNN wrestling tweet from a racist troll on Reddit. Retrieved July 06, 2017, from https://qz.com/1020045/us-president-donald-trump-sourced-his-cnn-wrestling-tweet-from-a-racist-troll-on-reddit/