Privacy is power. Rip that veil away and you make someone vulnerable to harassment, blackmail, physical violence, or even campaigns of remote torture that can last for years. This is the defining tenet of a practice known as doxxing, sometimes spelled with just one x, which uses information to destroy peace of mind. The term derives from ‘90s hackers who took revenge on one another by posting sensitive personal documents (or “docs”) that robbed the victim of their anonymity, exposing them to further attacks.
These days, white supremacists rank among the most popular targets. As photos from their rallies in Charlottesville and elsewhere circulate social media, armchair detectives attempt to identify and shame select individuals, often with no other lead than a face. When names go public, these people tend to at least lose their jobs, though the consequences don’t always end there. One Charlottesville marcher, Peter Tefft, was disowned by his family. Another, 21-year-old Jerrod Kuhn, was distraught to learn that an anti-fascist group out of Rochester, New York, had plastered hundreds of fliers outing him as a neo-Nazi around the nearby town of Honeoye Falls, where he lives. He claims he’s received death threats, though Peter Berkman, a representative of the antifa organization, says that they have “never at any point suggested that we’re calling for really any action against [Kuhn] or anyone he’s associated with.”
Immediately you can see the Pandora’s-box problem with doxxing as a tactic of righteous resistance: Once a person’s identity and affiliations are out there, you have no control over what other people do with that knowledge. That’s why the old-school doxxers were also given to extortion by threatening to reveal sensitive, hard-to-get phone numbers and home addresses instead of simply throwing them to the mob — in which case there’s no incentive to meet demands. When the information is summarily released without negotiation, it’s a clear invitation to the target’s enemies: Do your worst. Abortion providers, for example, struggle to prevent anti-choice elements from disseminating their personal data online, an implicit encouragement of violence, and have actually fought proposed legislation that mandates such disclosures.
Between the abortion battle, stories of people exposed for being trans or an undocumented immigrant or a sexual assault accuser, and the legacy of Gamergate — which saw anti-feminist trolls place hoax calls that sent SWAT teams to their critics’ homes — doxxing would seem a right-wing strategy firmly in step with the McCarthyist witch hunts of the 1950s.
But two factors, lately entwined by the fire of Charlottesville, speak to the left’s growing interest. The first is a well-publicized effort by the hacker collective Anonymous, in the midst of the Ferguson protests, to reveal the official rosters of the Ku Klux Klan — which some may forget was a colossal failure of bad intel and worse technique. The second is a persistent blurring of the boundary between doxxing and journalistic investigation: Many had their introduction to the doxxing concept when Newsweek controversially reported that the unknown inventor of the cryptocurrency Bitcoin was Satoshi Nakamoto, destroying a deliberate secrecy, and this officially launched the question of how far a magazine can push the privilege.
The ability to hold white supremacists responsible for their beliefs — and scare them into silence — is a giddying prospect that may allow the left to conveniently overlook doxxing’s ethical pitfalls. And the fact that journalists can effectively do it for them, armored by a professional duty to serve the public interest, certainly helps in their justifications. (Let it be repeated, however, that journalists are susceptible to backlash here.) No one could plausibly assert that Chris Cantwell, a major character in the Vice News special on Charlottesville, was doxxed; he gave his name to media producers and spoke freely of his hatred for other races in footage that went viral. Nonetheless, the fallout was exactly as if he’d been dragged into the spotlight against his will. He posted a weepy video in which he expressed the fear that he’d soon be killed by his angry opponents, while the dating website OkCupid deleted his account and banned him.
Again, Cantwell brought this on himself, and the same might be said of other men photographed at the torchlit gathering of fascists in Charlottesville. The problem is that crowdsourcing their names is in no way equivalent to forcing them to speak on the record. Ever since the Boston Marathon bombing, when Reddit sleuths hampered an ongoing criminal case with wildly inaccurate speculation about who the perpetrators might be—causing havoc for the grieving family of an innocent man—we’ve been acquainted with the risks of communal web justice via doxxing. Unsurprisingly, an endeavor to name and shame the Charlottesville neo-Confederates, spearheaded by activist Logan Smith through his Twitter account @YesYoureRacist, accidentally made life hell for engineer Kyle Quinn, mistaken for a rally participant to whom he bears a resemblance.
The best of intentions cannot excuse these screw-ups, but the schadenfreude the left is feeling as they adopt a maneuver associated with the very groups they’re attacking is seductive. No doubt they have a point, too, when they say that standing with extremists while the Associated Press takes your picture is tantamount to doxxing oneself; if your employer picks up a newspaper and sees you in a crowd of neo-Nazis, they’re bound to have an opinion about it. Participation in these events (when they’re covered so extensively) makes you a public figure in a way that tweeting semi-anonymously to a few dozen followers does not. But, as usual, the internet has trouble distinguishing matters of degree, and whether it’s doing more harm than good. To that end, anti-racists are now offering guides to doxxing wisely, minimizing missteps and collateral damage.
Yet as this side aims to regulate or restrain doxxing policies, the alt-right is leaning into the chaos of theirs. Before police identified James A. Fields as the driver of the car that rammed into a crowd of protesters in Charlottesville, killing Heather Heyer, the trolls of 4chan’s /pol/ board announced (after some cursory deduction) that a man named Joel Vangheluwe had been behind the wheel. They were wrong, of course — Vangheluwe’s family had sold the vehicle long ago — but right-wing sites ran the story because Vangheluwe had expressed anti-Trump sentiment in the past, and this narrative was preferable to any truth that would come out later. Plus, it gave them the chance to publish early and call it a scoop. It’s a short leap from here to doxxing the wrong person as a means of sowing disinformation; indeed, it’s not clear that wasn’t the case this time.
Just as the left debates the use of violence in challenging Nazis, they will now have to weigh the established price of doxxing against its unclear benefits: We can ensure that a few white supremacists lose their minimum-wage jobs, but does that cow the movement? Won’t they come back out in masks?
Obviously the extremist right is no less willing to escalate on this front than they are to show up heavily armed at a “peaceful demonstration.” The moral conundrum over doxxing them — assuming you acknowledge one — might be half as important as accepting that they’re bound to regroup for a series of counterpunches. They will anyway, and that is among the strongest arguments for continued doxxing. If nothing else, the bigots of this country can be made to squirm a bit. Still, I can’t help but notice that they fail to renounce their abhorrent views when confronted, condemned, or exiled by workplaces, family, and friends. While defending himself as non-racist, Charlottesville torch-bearer Peter Cvjetanovic had no problem referring to the 14 words, a neo-Nazi slogan.
In making these people, including our president, suffer the cost of endorsing toxic, intolerable ideas, we’d do well to remind ourselves that shame isn’t part of the equation. We ought to aim for something they have.