Since the violent rally in Charlottesville on August 12, 2017, images of those who participated in the march have been shared and spread by activists and ordinary citizens alike. Captions read, “Is this racist your neighbor?” and “Does this Nazi work for you?”
Those sharing the photos and videos are doing so in an effort to renounce racism on the part of those who, they presume, are white supremacists. But regardless of their intentions, is this practice, known as “doxing,” ethical? Or at least legal?
“Doxing is document tracing online and outing personally identifiable information of others,” says Braden Perry, a regulatory and government investigations attorney with Kansas City-based Kennyhertz Perry, LLC.
Simply put, it’s the process of acquiring and publishing details about an individual without that person’s consent. Using social media, doxers can reach large populations, and tools like facial-recognition technology help put names to faces. It was doxing, for example, that CNN used to find the Reddit user who created the infamous Trump wrestling meme.
Following the Charlottesville rally, Twitter account @YesYoureRacist grew from 64,000 followers to nearly 400,000. The expanded size of the account provided, essentially, a huge online shaming forum on which to share photos of rally participants, while identifying their names, places of employment, and other information.
The account’s creator, Logan Smith, told the Associated Press, “I’m a white Jewish man. So I strongly believe that white people in particular have a responsibility to stand up against bigotry because bigotry thrives on silence.”
This sharing is one way that people like Smith fulfill the desire to fight back against racism. For example, when a photo of Cole White, a white nationalist who participated in the rally, was doxed with information about his employer, White found himself out of a job, a result that Smith would consider a victory.
Is doxing legal?
“Doxing is perfectly legal unless the unmasking of supposedly classified information is in effect,” says Robert D. Sollars, a security professional who specializes in security operations and workplace violence.
Trolling on social media for information is legal and has been going on for some time. “Employers have done this for years as a way of background checking employees and prospective hires,” says Sollars.
So outing participants in a white nationalist rally is legal. But before doxers celebrate too loudly, they might consider that the tactics they use can easily backfire.
“By mining social media, skilled searchers can easily find out the names of children and spouses, where they attend school or work, their health issues, and items that most of us would want to remain private,” Sollars cautions. “This occurs even if the individual never mentions anything on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.”
Sollars explains that investigators actually provide this type of mining as a service to employers and the government. “It is perfectly legal to do as long as the information is not used to harm, incite violence, blackmail, or do something equally nefarious.”
Doxing can be a form of stalking or illegal harassment under some state and federal laws, according to attorney Steven Weisman, professor of media law at Bentley University. But such laws likely don’t apply to doxing responses to Charlottesville.
“Using publicly available and non-private data to identify and publish the names of white supremacists who were photographed publicly demonstrating in Charlottesville would not be a violation of doxing laws,” Weisman says. “There is no expectation of privacy when a person publicly takes part in a demonstration and if non-privileged sources were used to obtain the name of the person.”
Mark Grobowski, a communications law professor at Adelphi University, cautions that there are some caveats. “If you attempt to blackmail a person with the photo (e.g., “Pay me money or I’ll show your boss this photo”), or if you misidentify the person in the photo, or if you portray the person in a false light (e.g., you claim that an innocent passerby was participating in a rally), then you could face legal repercussions.”
Is doxing ethical?
The thornier questions about doxing are not about its legality, however.
Stephen Kent is a spokesperson for Young Voices, a nonprofit organization that seeks to develop “pro-liberty thought leaders in journalism, policy, and academia.” Kent describes doxing as a direct clash between generational mores. “Sharing someone’s identity using publicly available information is legal but violates a sensitive social norm of digital natives today.”
Nevertheless, he gives the Charlottesville doxers a pass. “I do not think doxing someone participating in such a demonstration is an unethical violation of that person’s privacy to identify that person,” says Weisman, “particularly because someone who deliberately inserts themselves into a public demonstration has no reasonable expectation of privacy.”
Gordon Coonfield, a communications professor at Villanova, suggests that there is a significant difference between doxing someone to cause them harm and doxing someone to prevent it.
“Doxing an advocate of racial equality is an implicit—and often explicit—call for violence against them,” Coonfield said in an email to the Associated Press. “Doxing a white nationalist is a call for accountability. Compelling individuals to be accountable for their words and deeds online or off is not a threat to freedom of expression. It is the foundation of freedom of expression.”
Still, as Whitney Philips eloquently argues on Motherboard, the ultimate ethical question might be this: Does doxing actually do any good? Or does it just provide more publicity and a narrative of victimization for people whose beliefs you are trying to discredit?
Or maybe the overarching ethical query it’s this: Do I really want to hurt someone whose views I find abhorrent? “That’s a tough question because we love to treat people we dislike in damaging ways,” says psychologist Lynn Johnson, author of Enjoy Life: Healing with Happiness. “We have a notion that they deserve it, but I would disagree. Why not treat those we dislike the most with the greatest compassion and charity? Should we not be the change we want to see in the world?”
“The highest ethical standard is reversibility,” adds Johnson. “Also known as ‘the Golden Rule’ (do to others as you would have them do to you), it occurs in every culture.”
An end to anonymity
“In the wake of Charlottesville, white nationalist demonstrators are reminded that their freedom to assemble doesn’t come with a right to anonymity,” says Kent.
“Nowadays, with voting records available online, images of home addresses searchable on Google Maps, employment histories posted on LinkedIn, friends and family listed on Facebook and so forth, there’s an abundance of readily available information on the average American,” says Grabowski.
“Social media can be medicine or poison when it comes to holding individuals accountable,” says immigration attorney Renata Castro Alves of the Castro Legal Group. “Images speak louder than words, but some pictures don’t tell the whole story. The First Amendment ensures freedom of speech, not freedom from the consequences of speech, and doxing represents just that.”
(image courtesy of Wikimedia)