Washington - The looming battle over President Donald Trump's potential impeachment has sparked an online hunt in the far-right corners of the Web as self-styled internet sleuths race to identify the anonymous person Trump has likened to a treasonous spy.
Their guesses have been scattershot, conspiratorial and often untethered from reality, spanning a wide range of such unlikely contenders as presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner and Vice President Mike Pence.
Some of the online commentators and anonymous posters said they have been spurred to action by Trump's fury, foreshadowing the online clashes that are likely to engulf any upcoming impeachment hearings and the 2020 campaign.
"Carpet bomb the memes. Everywhere," one anonymous poster on the message board 4chan wrote in response to one of Trump's angry tweets about the whistleblower. "Time to rise up. Your president has asked for your help."
The quest to identify the person who crafted the politically explosive complaint against Trump has become a fixation across the most extreme corners of such platforms as Twitter, Reddit and Gab - and has spread onto conservative news sites, radio shows and TV broadcasts.
The president's scornful portrayal of the whistleblower shaped and stoked the online conversation throughout the week, as it descended into a case study of the internet at its worst - frenetic, fueled by rumor and frequently racist, misogynistic and crude.
"the whistleblower is not white," one 4chan commenter asserted Thursday, probably misreading a part of the complaint in which the whistleblower calls himself or herself a "non-White House official." "see second set of bullet points on page 3. trump only has a handful of non white staff. I wonder who it might be."
The hunt for the whistleblower revealed a glimpse of how polarized partisan media and the internet have become, in which every news event becomes an opportunity for online brawlers to steer mainstream conversations and defeat the other side.
"We're seeing all the elements of information warfare play out online during this episode," said Peter Singer, a senior fellow at the think tank New America. "There's this crowdsourced manhunt to find out who did it, and once that identity comes out, everything in their life - what they majored in in college, where they like to eat dinner, where their kids went to school - will be pulled out in the hope there is one little nugget that can be weaponized against them."
After the complaint was made public Thursday morning, pro-Trump commenters guessed the whistleblower is Hispanic or Jewish or Arab or African American and, many were sure, a woman - though rarely did the commenters use such delicate terms. A top choice soon became Susan Gordan, a former deputy director of national intelligence, though others thought a more probable candidate is CIA Director Gina Haspel.
Some commenters offered names or rough demographic characteristics, while others posted photos of potential suspects. One 4chan commenter focused on former national security adviser John Bolton as a contender, posting a close-up image of his trademark bristly mustache with the words "Operation Infinite Walrus!"
The speculation gained energy at several key moments, beginning with the release of the transcript of a July 25 call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The frenzy accelerated with the release of the complaint itself and when Trump said the whistleblower, whom he suggested should be prosecuted, was "close to a spy."
Conservative commentator Bill Mitchell, who attended Trump's social media summit in July, replied in a tweet: "No Mr. President, that IS a spy."
On the pro-Trump Reddit message board r/The_Donald, a commenter using a pseudonym said, "This 'whistleblower' needs to be put in the public spotlight, and then f------ prosecute him/her to the fullest extent of the law."
Another replied, "I bet the whistleblower is the fired ambassador [to Ukraine]," referring to Marie Yovanovitch, a career U.S. diplomat recalled abruptly in May.
The guessing game took another twist after The New York Times reported the complaint was made by a CIA officer detailed to the White House. A conservative writer, Stu Cvrk, tweeted out his guess a few hours later.
"Is This Guy The Ukraine Phone Call Whistleblower?" Cvrk tweeted, linking to a post he wrote on RedState, a conservative news and commentary site.
"A source known to me at the State Department, who will remain anonymous, tells me that everyone is pointing to Edward 'Ned' Price as the whistleblower who came forward with the accusation that President Trump 'abused his office' during a phone conversation with the Ukrainian president," wrote Cvrk. Price is a former CIA officer who retired in 2017 and is now a political analyst for NBC News.
Price, who was more amused than upset at the claim, said it made him concerned about the development of "discourse that is just divorced from the facts."
"It's part of the political atmosphere that we live in now," Price said. "People are looking for anything on which to hang their tinfoil hats."
Cvrk, in a direct Twitter message to The Post, stood by his assessment. "You didn't seriously think he would admit it, did you?" he wrote, adding that he was insulted by the inference "that I am a tinfoil hat guy."
On Friday, the Washington Examiner spread word of a $50,000 reward offered by two pro-Trump political activists known for smear campaigns, who called the scandal a "national disgrace" and said they hoped identifying the whistleblower would help put "this dark chapter behind us."
A post on the conservative Washington Sentinel suggested the whistleblower complaint was written by a "very organized" team of individuals, based on what they called "document analysis (grammatic profiling) software." Breitbart News said the "so-called whistleblower" marched to the orders of a vast operation bankrolled by George Soros, a longtime target of conservative conspiracy theories.
The whistleblower has remained anonymous. But should his or her name be publicized through the efforts of internet sleuths, journalists or others, the consequences probably will be serious given the intensity of the fixation online.
Many people in such spotlights have had their personal information - such as their home addresses, family affiliations and Social Security numbers - published through online "doxing" harassment campaigns. It's not unusual for figures identified in this way to be confronted in person at their homes or workplaces.
"It's very disruptive," said Joan Donovan, research director at Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. "The president has already branded this person as a snitch and a spy, and that's a problem."
The whistleblower's lawyer has publicly called for respect for the person's privacy. But many in conservative media have shown no interest in standing down.
In response to this request, the Trump-boosting talk-radio host Mark Levin said on Sean Hannity's Fox News show Thursday night, "Too bad, pal. Too late. You want to impeach our president, using this BS? We want to know all about your guy."