'Snitch list:' Trolls harass those who reported Covid-19 business violations in Washington state
In late March, Washington state officials launched an online portal to report non-essential businesses operating despite Gov. Jay Inslee's order that they close.
But some people have received threats and harassment after filing reports and having their personal information released by the state.
Among the complaints to the state:
A Kirkland woman reported on March 30 that an alternative medicine business was open and advertising an intravenous drip that could supposedly boost one’s immune system against the coronavirus.
A man, concerned about a Redmond coffee shop inside a QFC that remained open, filed a report using the portal a day later.
And in Seattle, a business owner watched as customers visited a spa next door to his yoga studio, which he’d closed to clients. He submitted a report, he told KUOW, because he thought the longer non-essential businesses remained open, the longer the Covid-19 pandemic would persist.
These reports were among thousands submitted to the state regarding the alleged operation of non-essential businesses, against Inslee’s stay-at-home order. The measure is intended to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.
These three individuals told KUOW they didn’t realize their names — and contact information — would be subject to public disclosure. A fourth person said she didn’t believe anyone besides state officials would go through the trouble of obtaining the complaints.
Many discovered that wasn’t the case when they received a mysterious email on May 6, warning that their personal information was being circulated online. The email was sent by firstname.lastname@example.org, which appears to now be defunct.
“You may or may not have recently sent a complaint to Jay Inslee of Washington state," the email reads. "Recently I came across your information by what I believe may have been a leak of everyone who turned in a business.”
Ten minutes later, harassing phone calls came rolling in for the Kirkland woman, who asked not to be named in this story, citing concern for her personal safety. Kirkland was the first hot spot identified amid the U.S. coronavirus outbreak.
Some of the emails and voicemails were mean-spirited, others threatening.
“I just got news that you knocked on my business," said a male caller with a seemingly affected New Jersey accent. "You got 48 hours to get the f--- out of Washington, or I’m coming for you and your loved ones.”
Voicemail left for a Kirkland woman who reported a business
Warning: This voice record includes offensive language.
“You liberal f------ c---, I hope you choke on the f------ virus,” said a woman with the cadence of someone who might live in northern Washington. “I’m so glad it’s public disclosure.”
Voicemail left for Kirkland woman
Warning: This recording includes offensive language.
Those who reported potential violations found themselves on what would become known as the “snitch list.” The document, which contains names, phone numbers, email addresses, and the complaints themselves, was shared within politically fueled Facebook groups.
KUOW is not naming the complainants in question, as they have requested not to be identified out of concern for their safety.
“It was a lot. It was really scary and stressful,” the Kirkland woman said, recounting the numerous voicemails and emails that she received. “I was just trying to be a good person. I thought my information was protected.”
By reporting businesses to the state, these complainants unwittingly found themselves in the middle of a conflict between right-wing groups advocating against business closures and state officials who argue the shutdown is necessary to curb the pandemic.
The "snitch list" was requested 19 times before the warning email was sent to the Kirkland woman on May 6. Several media outlets, individuals, and people who listed themselves as lawyers asked for the document using public disclosure requests.
The document is now housed on a website run by conservative activist Glen Morgan, who lives on a farm in Thurston County. On his website, Morgan calls the document the “list of Inslee’s informant army.”
Within the first four days of it being posted, 6,500 people downloaded the spreadsheet containing the complaints and contact information of those who filed them. Morgan said he posted the list as a matter of transparency and habit.
"I will never write an article — unless I absolutely have to — that doesn't have the original source-linked documents that I'm referencing," he said. "If you look at the other articles that I write, I mean I put up hundreds of original source links — usually government documents — on a monthly basis."
Morgan told KUOW he doesn’t condone the harassment that has resulted from the list circulating online. He said the culprits behind the intimidation should be identified and exposed. Still, he doesn't intend to remove the list from his website.
When asked if he would feel responsible if someone on the list were to be harmed, Morgan said “No — but I think the state should be.”
As he sees it, state officials created a hostile situation.
"It's certainly not a good way to build the harmony in the community or, you know, really achieve anything other than just pitting neighbor against neighbor," Morgan said.
“I mean, that's something that you would find more in like an Eastern Germany spy novel, you know — or China,” he said.
Today, the online complaint portal gives this warning: “All of the information collected at this site is considered public information. All of the information collected at this site is public information that will be publicly released in a public records request per RCW 42.56.”
This disclaimer had been on the website, which linked to the form, but not on the form itself. This meant that people who Googled the form, or accessed the form through a media outlet, would not have seen the disclaimer.
Governor's Office spokesperson Mike Faulk said officials "strongly condemn" the harassment resulting from the circulation of complainants' personal information.
"The treatment people have been subjected to is unacceptable and repugnant," Faulk said by email. "It is extremely troubling that people who were trying to keep their communities healthy were subjected to this."
He said the harassment has not discouraged people from submitting complaints through the online portal, to the surprise of state officials. However, more of the reports are being filed anonymously now.
Meanwhile, the Seattle yoga studio owner said he's not satisfied.
"I support what our governor is doing," he said. "I'm very disappointed in him just kind of brushing this aside when ... people being threatened is also a matter of public health. "
The harassing phone calls and emails the Kirkland woman received have died down for now. But the experience has left her shaken.
“I would never provide contact information ever again for anything,” she said. “I literally thought this was completely anonymous and I’m trying to be a good person. And now I’m afraid for my life.”