Moral Dilemma: Doxxing for Social Justice
[August 17 update: Doxxing for social justice is in the news again in the aftermath of a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a woman was murdered]
CNN recently became the subject of its own news headlines as it threatened to doxx the creator of an anti-Trump viral video.
The news network tracked down the creator of the video, HanAssholeSolo, and threatened to reveal his identity unless he showed remorse for his alt-right views.
Did CNN cross a line, or is there an ethical justification for doxxing? If there is, can they complain when the tables are turned against them?
Doxxing is the practice of revealing information about an individual to intimidate, threaten, or compromise their privacy. Perhaps the best-known example is the GamerGate scandal, when an anti-feminist doxxing campaign caused many women to go offline or lock down their lives for safety.
But there are also of examples of dubious investigative tactic by journalists who come to vague or incorrect conclusions by deliberately invading the privacy of private individuals.
American freelance journalist and author Leah McGrath Goodman claimed to have identified Dorian Nakamoto as the inventor of bitcoin after obtaining his personal data from a model train website. Nakamoto strongly denied the allegations, and claimed that McGrath Goodman’s report caused harm to his family and his employment prospects.
Doxxing has driven victims into hiding afraid for their safety and hurt their employment prospects.
And the former editor of Politico, Michael Hirsh, resigned after posting the home addresses of alt-right activist Richard Spencer on Facebook. He claims that he wanted his Facebook followers to write him a letter.
Irrespective of your views on the politics in each case, the tactics used are broadly the same. Goodman’s intentions may not have been malicious, but one could argue that she achieved the same net result as GamerGate. She identified a man who has suffered harm as a result.
Tabloid journalists and paparazzi have been using investigative tactics for decades — many of them questionable, and some illegal. The UK’s voicemail ‘hacking’ scandal is a good example of a press that is prepared to invade privacy illegally for a story, but plenty of other paparazzi tactics could be highlighted too.
CNN vs Freedom of Speech
There are uncomfortable parallels between ‘malicious’ doxxing and the CNN threat against the creator of the Trump video. In all cases, the party holding personal data acts as judge and jury against the perceived offender, and has the information that they need to blackmail them. One party has power; one does not.
To put this in context for non-US readers, it’s important to understand the First Amendment, and how this differs to the freedom of expression laws that exist in Europe. HanAssholeSolo had a history of posting anti-Semitic and racist comments on Reddit, but hate speech is not a crime in the United States, providing there are no threats of violence.
We can pinpoint the exact moment where CNN mis-stepped. It knew who HanAssholeSolo was. It spoke with him about his past, and extracted a promise not to “repeat his ugly behavior”. And it concluded its statement on its investigation by saying this: “CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change.”
It’s hard to believe CNN was comfortable acting as judge, jury and exectioner.
This cuts to the heart of the doxxing threat: the right to freedom of expression and privacy. CNN had no right to decide it would reveal the video maker’s identity based on Reddit comments.
Perhaps the statement was just badly worded. It still seems baffling that a publication of CNN’s stature could make such a grave mistake.
Doxxing Has Consequences
Behind every doxxing story is a power struggle. The anonymous vs the named; the accused vs the accuser. The consequences can be extremely serious. Women caught up in Gamergate were — and still are — afraid to leave their homes. Missing Brown student Sunil Tripathi, who was later found dead, was wrongly outed as one of the Boston bombers, causing his bereaved family unimaginable grief.
But CNN muddied the waters by appearing to shift that power balance in its favor by abusing the power that it has.
We all have a right to keep our curtains closed at night. We have a right to communicate privately. Depending on the laws of the country that we reside in, we may have a right to express objectionable opinions, and not to be threatened or intimidated for them. Doxxing is a blunt instrument that reduces everyone to the same level: harasser, blackmailer, privacy violator.
When doxxing is used to police the way people act, or violate privacy for revenge, it crosses from an investigative tactic into threatening behavior. It’s hardly surprising that each side will retaliate. But those that use doxxing as a tool of social justice are using exactly the same tactics as the people they claim to oppose.
Image credit: Josh Hallett on Flickr