Investigating Issues

It's long been known that Heartless, Corp. has been up to no good, but nobody's every really pinned them to a specific evil action. Ex-employees report about suppressive gag-orders and threats to keep employees from 'airing dirty laundry'. Users of their products report unusually bad phone support and products that rarely live up to expectations. There had been an article published once about pollution issues near one of their plants, but it got pulled from the media. Someone once posted an internal memo revealing discussion about illegal actions, but a flurry of cease-and-desist letters put an end to that.

And now, somehow, the company has received a HUGE government contract, and their stock is soaring. Something smells fishy...

Unfortunately, the media is saying nothing, and despite widespread speculation on blogs and repeated letters-to-the-editor, word simply is not getting out into the mainstream. You decide this issue needs your help.

Getting Organized

First thing's first: Define the questions. You do some googling and scour the blog discussions, gathering together every scrap of info, every vague rumor, every email address, and every website you can find and put it onto your website.

Sorting through all this stuff you assemble a list of specific issues that appear to exist, and boil it down to the following questions:

Now, you've never done any 'investigative journalism' or activist research like this before, and you haven't got a huge amount of time or money, but you're willing to get the ball rolling, and you know there's enough other folks pissed off that maybe together you can get to the bottom of all of this. Or, if not, to at least raise the visibility enough that some lawyer or reporter can take it the rest of the way to the public.

In any case, you're going to need help, lots of help. You install the volunteer management system on your website, along with a Wiki and a document management system for folks to post info to. You install a blog as well, so folks can report breaking news as it gets discovered.

Last, you put out an announcement listing the questions and your intent to dig into it and collect more info, and ask that if people would like to help, to register themselves, their location, and their skills in the VMS.

Internet Research

The first step is to beat the bushes of the internet. You ask people to start scouring publically available sites for any and all information related to the topic, and to add it to wiki or the document system.

Participants hit the Library of Congress, scan the archives of online newspapers, dig up information about the pollutant mentioned in the lost article (thankfully someone happened to have found a copy of it in their browser cache). Someone digs through the EPA's Enforcement and Compliance History Online database and finds a laundry list of violations, fines, and closures stretching back years. Someone digs through some labor dispute databases and finds a few vague references to the company. A record is found of a lawsuit filed against them but settled out of court.

Within a week the wiki has filled up with bits and pieces, scraps, names, and many, many questions. But postings have slowed, and it looks like you've gotten as most out of the Internet as possible.

Phone, phone, phone

In the material collected so far there are a number of organizations and people mentioned, whom may be able to provide additional info. This is excellent work to split up, so you establish tasks for each of the calls needed - the EPA, the court where the lawsuit was filed, and on and on. A couple of the participants help you dig through online phone books and websites to collect phone numbers. A few others lend some hours to draft questions to be asked of each organization. Who, what, when, where...

You post the phoning tasks to the tool. Some are 800 numbers, but there's a set that are all within one state. You do a query on interested volunteers in that state and drop them a note about the need for phone calling. Three people eagerly respond, and divvy out the numbers between them.

As they call around, they type up and their notes from the conversations. They identify new names and numbers, chasing them down as they go. Some will only talk under conditions of confidentiality; the group can't grant that so these individuals are just flagged for a professional to follow up with later.

Public Records Search

Meanwhile, people have been following up on some of the earlier research by visiting libraries and government agencies to request further info. There's a lot of information that can't be had except in person. The people uncovering this info post task requests for in-person research in the cities in question.

Unfortunately, some of the most important public records are in places no where near any of the currently registered volunteers. However, one participant who works on political campaigns has a list of registered Green Party members in that city, and figures the chance to take a polluter to task might interest them. A task is entered to call these people and recruit a couple volunteers to do the investigation. They photocopy a range of records and mail it to one of the volunteers, who scans it all in for further analysis.

Some information can only be obtained for a fee. At this point you set up a donation system in order to build a fund. You post another announcement on the blogs, and quickly obtain sufficient funding to move forward with it.

Finding Whistleblowers

Unfortunately, no magical 'Deep Throat' has shown up, but perhaps with some effort one can be found. You post the following tasks:

You divide out the phone calling among 30 volunteers and undertake the calls over a single evening. Three ex-employees are found willing to talk; two speak at length about employee mistreatment, gag orders, and pollution, the third gives a disturbing account about fraud perpetrated against a number of clients in the past, and how those events were kept quiet. This person also identifies several still-employed people who probably could give information about government fraud. He further explains how the products typically fail, and how the company arranges testing so they cannot fail and buys off the testing agency to look the other way. He reveals the identity of bio-hazard materials that are routinely dumped into drain sewers, and strange illnesses that tended to afflict the workers all at once.

Independent Testing

An effort is taken to purchase and independently test the company's product. One of the company's recent clients is contacted and the potential fraud is explained. An independent testing lab is contacted and informed about the concern, and given a sample of the product from the client. The results are damning.

Attracting a Reporter's Attention

There's much more of interest to explore - what are the illnesses? Has Heartless Corporation defrauded the government? What dangers does the bio-hazard material pose to the environment?

At this point, enough evidence exists to call in the pro's. Unfortunately, it's hard to find someone willing to investigate the story, but after phoning a couple dozen reporters, you finally find one fascinated by the depth of research collected, and he promises to take on the story.


The government fraud angle quickly turns into a major scandal for the company. They learn about your website and send cease-and-desist letters to you, threatening lawsuits to you and other members if you don't. Fortunately, your work is done, as the company's name and misdeeds are spread across the mass news media. No sooner is your site taken down but half a dozen others spring up. Heartless Corp. can't keep up with the wack-a-mole approach and give up as they struggle to maintain the government contract now slipping through their fingers. Logo