Paul Quintaro, John Fuenchem, and the Double-Edged Sword
March 7, 2018
When the history books are written, the Trump era will be notable for several reasons, but one of them will almost certainly be the rise of "fake news"—not just misinformation, and not just propaganda, but propagandistic disinformation masquerading as real news—as both a term and a phenomenon. PlainSite has been in the middle of two issues lately that involve fake news: one concerning our Reality Check report on the subprime auto lender Credit Acceptance Corporation, and another involving our ability to use court information from the RECAP project that we have supported financially in the past.
On December 13, 2017, we published Part I of our Reality Check report. Almost immediately after publication, a stock-focused news service called Benzinga covered the release with the headline "Orion Research and Plain Site Out With New Negative Report On Credit Acceptance." We were glad for the coverage, but it was not clear whether Benzinga had written an article or just a headline for news wires. The article was attributed to "Eddie Staley, Benzinga Staff Writer."
We didn't think much of it at the time, until we published Part II of the report in February. By that time, Benzinga's "SVP of BizDev (Financial Content & Market Data APIs)" had already contacted us to find out when the next part would be coming out, and sounded genuinely interested. Benzinga is located in the Detroit area, and our report was focused on a company that has had an extremely negative impact on Michigan. It therefore came as a surprise to us when the next Benzinga headline was cheeky, a little bit disparaging, and also a little bit confusing: "Credit Acceptance Corp. Shares Unaffected As Twitter Account With ~400 Followers Tweets Short Report On Name."
PlainSite did in fact have a Twitter account with just over 400 followers at the time, although there is clearly more to the operation that its Twitter account alone. It's also true that the report didn't have any obvious impact on Credit Acceptance Corporation's stock price. A more thorough or careful news service might have bothered to read at least one page from the report to find out if it actually had anything new to say about the topic at hand, but what was inexplicable were the last two words of the headline: "On Name." "On the 'Name' of what?" we wondered. How did those words get in there? Was it a typo?
This second Benzinga post on PlainSite's coverage of Credit Acceptance also had a byline, this time reading "Paul Quintaro, Benzinga Staff Writer." Since the coverage was considerably less warm than the first Benzinga post, we were now curious as to who might be responsible, and why. It seemed next to impossible that someone at Benzinga harbored a grudge against our site or our work—after all, we were so small as to be confused with our irrelevant Twitter account. That led us to wonder, who is Paul Quintaro?
After some internal debate, a few possibilities emerged. One of our team members was convinced that Paul Quintaro was actually an automated script designed to churn out a high volume of posts on stock activity for distribution to Benzinga's news customers. This seemed possible—a robot might count the number of Twitter followers on an account easily enough. But how would it know that our report was a "Short Report" specifically? Or to use another Paul Quintaro article, that North Korean news (as opposed to any other news item) was responsible for a stock market decline? Another theory floated was that Paul Quintaro was actually a person who just got it wrong when it came to our story. Paul has a profile on the Benzinga site, after all.
Yet there's something strange about Paul's profile. If Paul were a person, he's one of the most prolific writers ever to have lived, eclipsing Alexander Hamilton and Judge Richard Posner. As of the writing of this article, Paul Quintaro's name is tied to 311,457 articles (which have generated 4 million views for Benzinga). That fact alone would certainly tip the scales in favor of the robot theory—but something still didn't add up.
If Paul Quintaro's articles were completely automated and the name was simply made up, then the Benzinga robot would have to be one of the best in the business. Benzinga CEO Jason Raznick has raised $4.5 million in funding for his company according to Crunchbase, with the most recent round in 2016. The cost of living in Michigan is certainly far lower than it is in the Bay Area, but $4.5 million is hardly a blockbuster budget. It would be difficult to build a groundbreaking artificial intelligence engine with that much money, while still having to pay staff and run a business. Raznick does not appear to have any kind of computer science background that would suggest an interest in such endeavors.
This raised a third possibility: outsourcing. "Paul Quintaro" could be a sort of nickname for Indian labor, much like Indian call center representatives often insist to American callers that their names are "Bobby" or "Suzy," when in fact their real names are Srikanth or Aditi. If Benzinga was truly asking an entire room full of Indian laborers to write stories about gyrations in the United States stock market, it might end up with 300,000 or so articles somewhat based on facts pulled out of headlines here or there. It would also make sense if these laborers used templates for their headlines that ended in phrases such as "Report On [Name]," where the writer was supposed to fill in the blank.
I called Benzinga's SVP who had gotten in touch with us previously to find out when Part II would be released. He apologized for the tone of the second article, but left many of my questions unanswered. When I asked if I could speak with Paul Quintaro, I was told that Paul was simply one of the company's staff writers. I asked if I could be transferred to his extension, but received a non-answer. Eventually, the SVP admitted only that some of Benzinga's writers were, indeed, "overseas." I was unable to confirm which country or countries these overseas writers were located in.
If in fact Paul Quintaro is a blanket moniker being used to hide the fact that Benzinga's articles are poorly sourced nonsense originating from the equivalent of an Indian call center or a click farm in the Philippines, that would raise serious concerns about whether Benzinga is actually a "fake news" site. (Another Benzinga Staff Writer is named "Shanthi Rexaline." Her profile shows a picture of a South Asian woman. Rexaline is the name of a skin cream. Some Benzinga writers have links to social media accounts on their profiles; like Quinatro, she does not.) The use of a person's name in a byline conveys a sense of security, implying that the content of the article has been reviewed by the specific author. If in fact the name is incorrect, or not a real person's name at all, that says that the news service is unwilling to vouch for the accuracy of the article's contents. In other words, the article might as well be fake.
In the case of the second Benzinga post on our report, while the headline wasn't "fake" per se, it was misleading. Part II of our report uncovered a $1.4 billion discrepancy in a publicly traded company's financials, yet the headline told readers to yawn and move along. Furthermore, Benzinga has recently been accused of misleading its readers in another way: Sharesleuth points out that Benzinga can be and has been used to hype stocks for fraudsters.
In the case of our ongoing debate over our ability to use RECAP, pseudonyms have played a different role. An anonymous PlainSite user calling himself John Fuenchem (which is a pseudonym) contacted us in late December 2017, asking why the Free Law Project refused to answer his questions. Despite our own reservations about how the Free Law Project has handled the situation, we attempted to smooth things over between Mr. Fuenchem and the Free Law Project, but the Free Law Project's Executive Director ended up inflaming the matter further. Since then, the identity of Mr. Fuenchem has become a minor obsession for some in the world of legal technology. Yet despite the fact that John Fuenchem is a pseudonym just as Paul Quintaro is, the situation is far different, and calls for a much different response, for to the best of our knowledge the Fuenchem name is being used responsibly, whereas the the Quintaro name is most likely not.
Unlike Paul Quintaro, there is no serious doubt that behind John Fuenchem's pseudonym there is a single real person. He has e-mailed us at PlainSite in a style consistent from his first contact. He has spoken to multiple independent journalists on the phone. And he has also e-mailed many others, hoping to interest them in a topic that most would find esoteric at best.
Fuenchem's e-mail campaign has particularly irritated the Executive Director of the Free Law Project, who took to Twitter with a claim that he had been "harassed" in February. This took place shortly after an article was published by lawyer Robert Ambrogi about the RECAP affair, in which Ambrogi wrote, "Two people I spoke to speculated that Fuenchem is actually a sockpuppet for Greenspan." One of those two people was the Executive Director of the Free Law Project, who in effect was accusing PlainSite—one of his organization's long-time supporters and donors—of spearheading a campaign of harassment.
Several journalists and lawyers responded to the Executive Director's call for more information about Fuenchem, hoping, it seems, to out his identity or determine some sort of pattern. One journalist speculated on his location based on IP address information contained in e-mail headers, forgetting that web-based e-mail systems (such as Yahoo!, Fuenchem's e-mail provider) stamp their own IP address on each message, discarding the IP address of the end-user. The underlying subtext, shockingly among journalists who should know better, was that this individual with concerns about a public service seeking the protection of anonymity—an anonymous source, in other words—must be found.
It should be obvious why this kind of miniature witch hunt is both wrong and unprofessional (aside from the not-so-veiled accusations against PlainSite, which have not gone unnoticed). Harassment, especially in this day and age, is a serious charge. We have seen many of the e-mails between John Fuenchem and the Executive Director of the Free Law Project, and it is simply ludicrous to characterize them as harassing in any way. Although it's impossible for us to know if there are more e-mails to or from the Free Law Project and John Fuenchem that haven't been shared with us, it seems clear that Fuenchem is merely a concerned user who was frustated with the Free Law Project's coy replies to his genuine concerns. E-mailing journalists and tech enthusiasts about a matter of public policy is hardly a crime, or even anything close. Furthermore, it bears repeating: we at PlainSite are not John Fuenchem, have never used the pseudonym John Fuenchem, have not asked anyone to pose as John Fuenchem, and do not know who John Fuenchem is.
We live in a complex world where transparency is a vital lever that can be used to accomplish acts of good (the RECAP project in its original form) and evil (Wikileaks's deliberate dumping of the Democratic National Committee e-mails during the 2016 election to harm a particular candidate). The use of pseudonyms is a small part of the puzzle, but an important one, and we should all be on the lookout for instances where anonymity makes sense, and where it doesn't.
UPDATE: Luke Jacobi from Benzinga has responded via e-mail at 1:55 P.M. Pacific Time as follows:
The characterization of Benzinga as "fake news" in a March 7 post on PlainSite's website is false, and we ask that you remove this statement from publication. Benzinga should have been given the opportunity to comment on such a statement prior to publication.
The headlines regarding Credit Acceptance Corp. referenced on your site are headlines from Benzinga Pro, a subscription news wire service. Multiple U.S.-based Benzinga staffers publish headlines to the wire. Wire headlines are between five and 30 words in length and distinct from the full-length stories published ?on Benzinga.com.
The second headline referenced by PlainSite simply reported that Credit Acceptance's stock was not moving in response to PlainSite's tweet. "On name" refers to the name of the corporation in question: Credit Acceptance Corp.
Shanthi Rexaline is a full-time Benzinga staff writer working remotely from Chennai, India.
Our reply, sent at 2:00 P.M. Pacific Time:
Thanks for your message. I’ll make sure that your comment is posted, both on our site and on Twitter.
As for asking for comment: I called and talked to Matt (who works for Benzinga to the best of my knowledge) as mentioned in the article, so that criterion was met from my standpoint. Moreover, I can’t ask Paul Quintaro for comment because as I understand it, he does not exist.
If I am mistaken and Paul Quintaro does exist, please have him call me at [phone number] or e-mail and I’d be glad to speak with him so long as he can verify his identity with some form of government-issued ID.
Lastly, I will assume your "privileged and/or confidential" signature is standard legal boilerplate that you waive all rights to since you asked to have your comment posted publicly.
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