In the past week, the media and entertainment industries were forced to reckon with two horrifying exposés. On Thursday, The New York Times published an investigation of extensive sexual harassment accusations against the ultra-powerful movie producer Harvey Weinstein. These allegations led to his termination, and were followed by a New Yorker story that detailed many more accusations against Weinstein, including rape allegations from three women. Also on Thursday, BuzzFeed published a piece detailing how Breitbart has worked with racist groups and the website’s sympathizers in the media, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood to make the site’s hateful ideas more mainstream.
These two shocking stories had something beyond timing in common: They were barely revelations at all. Weinstein’s alleged creepy bathrobe rituals were, as several reporters pointed out in the aftermath, common knowledge in Hollywood and among the press that covers it. The Cut’s Rebecca Traister wrote that even Weinstein’s most concerning behavior was overlooked, in part, because “there were so many journalists on his payroll, working as consultants on movie projects, or as screenwriters, or for his magazine.” A similar feeling of recognition washed over media circles when they discovered that writers at Broadly and Slate, alongside Silicon Valley writer and coproducer Dan Lyons, were all secretly siccing “alt-right” poster child Milo Yiannopoulos on people with whom they disagreed. “This story describes something that has *always been exactly as it seems.* It also contradicts years of obstinate Reasonable Denial,” The New York Times’ John Herrman tweeted.
Why these stories took so long to report has become a topic of passionate debate in the media. In the case of Weinstein, blame has been hoisted on an amalgamation of industry executives, celebrities, and media outlets that enabled the Miramax and Weinstein Company founder because they didn’t want to lose him as a profitable connection. In the Breitbart blowout, critics pointed to a similarly beneficial relationship between Yiannopoulos and many of the reporters tasked to cover the alt-right at large. But all conversations of complacency aside, these two stories were enabled by the same clincher: digital documentation. On the New York Times podcast The Daily, reporter Jodi Kantor described Weinstein Company junior executive Emily Nestor’s reaction to Weinstein’s inappropriate behavior in 2015: “She wrote this memo that is very long and very detailed and it had dates and it had specific examples,” Kantor said in reference to a document that was emailed to Weinstein’s board of directors. As details of Weinstein’s alleged abuse continued to emerge, so did the intel. On Monday, after Weinstein had been fired from the company, former Hollywood Reporter editor-in-chief Janice Min tweeted a transcription of a pleading email from Weinstein that she said was recited to her by a “disgusted (male) recipient.” The New Yorker follow-up by Ronan Farrow drew from sources that included LinkedIn messages, an audio recording of Weinstein secretly captured during an NYPD sting operation, and a spontaneous personal note typed up by a female Miramax executive. “She said that she often thinks of something Weinstein whispered—to himself, as far as she could tell—after one of his many shouting sprees at the office,” Ronan wrote. “It so unnerved her that she pulled out her iPhone and tapped it into a memo, word for word: ‘There are things I’ve done that nobody knows.’” The BuzzFeed report’s sourcing is mostly derived from a cache of damning communications between Yiannopoulos and his team, and clearly it was obtained and compiled by someone who recognized its value. Both of these stories depended on sources who fastidiously documented their interactions with Weinstein and Yiannopoulos. In other words, they collected receipts.
Bombshell investigations always involve paper trails. The New York Times’ 1971 report that the Johnson administration had lied to Congress and the public about the scope of the Vietnam War was sourced from an extensive Defense Department study known as the Pentagon Papers. And more recently, WikiLeaks has divulged myriad international dramas by advertising itself as a rogue, untraceable distribution platform designed for mass document dumps. It isn’t uncommon for a person to document their workplace interactions as a way to build a legal case against an abusive employer. But it’s undeniable that otherwise taboo stories like these have found their footing, in part, because of the rise of “receipts culture”—the knee-jerk inclination for anyone and everyone to automatically archive correspondence, social media interactions, audio, and video footage.
Popularized via high-profile celebrity spats and personal online dramas, the ritual of collecting digital evidence has become common practice for nearly anyone with a smartphone. And while online ephemera has and always will be more frequently used to litigate confusing romantic exchanges or shady landlord communications, it is also proving to be an essential part of consequential reporting. When former U.S. representative and onetime New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner accidentally tweeted out a boner pic, someone was there to stealthily grab a screenshot. After he’d promised he had stopped with his upsetting sexual antics, a cache of message screenshots proved otherwise. The pattern continued until he went to jail and lost his wife. Government workers have sought to combat the Trump administration’s dismantling of the EPA by leaking government plans. And in some cases, reporters have illuminated the worldviews of the president’s cohort by dredging up any online imprint possible—even Amazon wishlists.
It wasn’t long ago that the popularity of the screen capture was a novelty. A 2015 Wired article by Clive Thompson credited the digital feature’s rise to the fact that “some of our most intense experiences are online” and called it “photography for life on the screen.” Though it never mentioned the word “receipt”—a term coined by Whitney Houston during an infamous 2002 interview with Diane Sawyer and later popularized on social media—Thompson recognized screengrabs as a type of proof. “Screenshots can also be almost forensic, a way to prove to others that you’re really seeing the crazy stuff you’re seeing.”
At first, that “crazy stuff” amounted to trivial narratives in pop culture. A year after the Wired article was published, Kim Kardashian West released a series of Snapchat videos related to a spat between her husband, Kanye, and Taylor Swift. And with this so-called “proof,” the devastating effect of cold, hard receipts became even more apparent to the public. This was a seminal moment in celebrity gossip, the pinnacle of social media reconnaissance under which sites like Your Fave Is Problematic and Oh No They Didn’t had flourished for so long. Following the blowout, Slate’s Katy Waldman declared that 2016 was “flush with documentation, stupid with hard evidence,” arguing that “the receipt boom registers a shift in our society: Where the powerful once exercised their power with relative impunity, now we might be seeing glimmers of accountability.”
The concept of the everyman digital forensic scientist has become only more natural as household gadgets become more capable. The cloud has made it easy to store screenshot after screenshot of text conversations and embarrassing typos alongside our selfies and cat pics; DVRs have given us the ability to pause and rewind otherwise live events like awards shows and sports games to document their quirks and gaffes for posterity; and Snapchat and Instagram Stories have offered us platforms on which to funnel the documentation of our everyday life. As a side effect, this ritual has also gamified truth to some extent, sometimes warping the narrative of an event for the sake of spectacle. “Like a choose-your-own-adventure novel, ‘receipts culture’ directs our critical capabilities, making the process of public narrative-building feel interactive,” Real Life Magazine wrote in the aftermath of the Kardashian West video. But what matters most is the public’s collective acknowledgement that evidence is important, and that gathering it is now an instinctive, everyday activity. A generation of smartphone owners has unwittingly become the effective citizen journalists about whom early-aughts media theorists had fantasized.
To be clear, neither the Weinstein nor Breitbart stories would have been broken without the dogged months-long investigations by the reporters who authored them. Without their diligence, all the snippets of digital evidence might still be floating around on email chains or in unread iPhone memos, fodder for gossip about powerful cultural institutions and nothing more. Receipts culture has pushed each and every one of us to become a walking file cabinet of digital wrongdoings—some mundane, some petty, and some earthshaking. And though our disparate digital records can rarely stand alone when building a case against someone as blockaded by connections, lawyers, and publicists as Weinstein, Yiannopoulos, Bill Cosby, or Roger Ailes, they are nonetheless helpful starting points. They provide reassuring cover for less-powerful victims who might be vulnerable to legal action, and generate momentum for the release of information that—as we have seen with the Weinstein reaction—can often chisel away at a story until a whole geyser bursts. It’s impossible to know what the next Watergate will be, but it will almost certainly contain a screenshot.
An earlier version of this story misstated Dan Lyons’s role on Silicon Valley. He is a writer and coproducer, not a creator.