Taking Down Bigots With Their Own Weapons Is Sweet, Satisfying — And Very, Very Wrong
Actually, it’s about ethics in doxxing.
By Ijeoma Oluo
My Facebook feed was buzzing with excitement. “Doing the Lord’s work!” One friend declared. “Hallelujah!” Another exclaimed.
They were here to praise a Tumblr, Racists Getting Fired. Coming after the deaths of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and so many others, this site — dedicated to outing the internet’s racists — felt like a few drops of the justice we were so parched for. And we weren’t alone in celebrating: The site quickly exploded, gaining over 30,000 followers almost overnight.
Doxxing for good — as in sharing someone’s personal information online in the name of social justice — has started to happen more and more recently. Bloggers are bragging about the creative ways that they are exposing racists, misogynists and homophobes; Ordinary people on Twitter are calling for the doxxing of those harassing them; Whole sites are dedicated to showcasing the mean, idiotic, and bigoted messages people post online just so us weary travelers can share some cathartic laughter at their expense. Just last week a university baseball player was kicked off his team when his offensive tweet about 14-year-old pitching phenomenon Mo’Ne Davis was blasted online.
Finally! A way to battle all those nameless, faceless hatemongers of the Internet: The “eggs” of Twitter telling feminists that they hope they get raped; The teenagers posting “Happy Nigger Day” on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Finally, people are having to face some real consequences for their hateful and harmful behavior. This is the moment of comeuppance, and boy, is it satisfying.
One reason doxxing feels so good is that it turns the tables. GamerGate, that war on women operating in the name of “ethics in gaming journalism,” has been exposing people’s personal information and using it to silence them almost since the beginning. GamerGate has sent people death threats, inundated target’s employers with calls for their termination, swatted their homes. Many people have been forced into hiding. Men’s Rights Activists have long shared the private information of prominent feminists as a way of harassing and intimidating them.
So now, now we have doxxing in the name of Social Justice and truth.
But we still have doxxing in the name of control and terror. The same tactic being used by two very different armies on the battlefield of the Internet. It raises the question: can the same tool actually be used by both sides? Can we really take a technique that’s been used for years to silence those fighting for justice and use it for good?
It wasn’t long before the inevitable happened to Racists Getting Fired; an innocent person was doxxed. Brianna Rivera found herself on the receiving end of threats and harassment after an ex-boyfriend impersonated her online with posts that made her look like a racist. A few minutes of investigation showed it was fake, but the Internet doesn’t self-correct: People ride the wave of fury and then move on to the next target. By the time a retraction was posted, she had already faced investigations by both her employer and the university she was attending. Even now, people are still sending her hateful messages for her nonexistent bigotry.
Those of us fighting for progress and equality believe that we’re working on the side of good, and most of us are. But when we look at language used around doxxing for “good,” it’s very similar to the language used by those trying to silence us. When the professional troll Charles C. Johnson doxxed “Jackie” — the young woman at the center of Rolling Stone’s retracted story on rape at the University of Virginia — he said he’d done it in the name of justice. He was unapologetic when it was revealed that he had doxxed the wrong woman (he still refuses to admit that it absolutely is not her, in fact, even though the woman he named was never a student at UVA). But even if he had been sorry, would it have made a difference to her? She was still fighting off death and rape threats from hundreds of strangers.
If we say that the ends justify the means, how do we know we’re really on the side of good? We all say we fight for equality and freedom: anti-racists, white supremacists, Democrats, Republicans, feminists, MRAs, LGBT activists, Right-Wing Evangelicals, abortion-rights activists, pro-life activists. What separates us from what we say we stand for and what we actually stand for are our actions.
MRAs who say that they’re the ones truly fighting for equality show their truth when they threaten women with violence. Right-Wing Evangelicals who say they’re protecting their religious freedom show their truth when they work to suppress the religious freedoms of others. But in social justice, the ends don’t justify the means: The means are everything. There is nothing more than what we are actually doing right now. If our pursuit of justice means that a few innocent people are subjected to injustice due to our actions, can we actually say that it’s justice we are fighting for?
Are we trying to take down each individual bigot, each individual racist, each individual misogynist, one by one? Is it our goal to force hatred back into hiding with fears of public shaming? Is the problem really the kid calling you a nigger on Twitter? If our goal is to change an unjust society, to lift systematic oppression, is this focus on individual bigots — many of whom are barely into their adult years — a help or a distraction?
This isn’t to say that I’m advocating turning the other cheek. I don’t believe that you can love the hate out of an anonymous stranger who is telling you that he hopes you die (even if it did work that one time). It’s important to shine a light on the bigotry and oppression in everyday society if we expect change. And I do believe in the power of justice for those who have been wronged.
But it’s naïve to think that those of us fighting for equality aren’t as susceptible to the same zealotry and abuse of power as the groups we are battling.
Freedom of speech also comes with accountability for that speech — but doxxing isn’t about accountability, it’s about silencing. Techniques designed to intimidate people out of the public sphere are wrong, no matter who is doing it. Deciding that we will not stoop to their level and that we will not risk innocent people does not fix racism, sexism, homophobia and the like, but it helps us protect the ideals that we are fighting for.
I don’t believe that this recent trend of doxxing for good has appeared organically. And I don’t believe it’s rooted in malice. I believe that it’s come out of sheer desperation: Right now on the Internet, women, minorities and the LGBTQ community are under siege — targets of a massive, and often organized, effort underway to force us out of public spaces.
All day long people use the anonymity of the internet to harass, threaten, and stalk people in the Social Justice movement into silence. What recourse do we have to protect ourselves and hold people accountable? Law enforcement’s of little help if the threats are made to actual people (while vaguely ominous messages about cops will definitely get you arrested). And while Twitter has now explicitly banned doxxing, they have been slow to recognize the harassment many face on their platform as actual abuse. As Kitty Stryker points out, “We arrest people for tweeting about bombing an airport, so why don’t we take these constant threats against women that seriously?” It’s similar for other social media platforms like Facebook and Tumblr: Showing a woman’s breast on Facebook can get you banned, but a picture of the brutal beating of a gay man coupled with cheering comments is not viewed as harassment — I know because I’ve reported such an image and got exactly that response in return.
This harassment is very real. As we have seen with Elliot Rodger, the young man who wrote online about his hatred of women and eventually killed six people in Santa Barbara, these online threats can be followed up with offline terror. A tweet saying, “I hope you are beheaded and raped” (which I’ve gotten), is just as frightening to get online as it would be to get in your mailbox. Messages sent via paper are viewed as threats, while the same messages sent online are viewed as pranks. But don’t be fooled — the message is the same.
The internet isn’t just a place where we “hang out” anymore. The internet has become a vital part of our society and our economy. The internet is real life; It is us. When people find themselves harassed and threatened off of the internet, their speech is silenced. And that’s why doxxing, of anybody, is wrong.
Harassment and threats must be recognized as the crimes they are, whether they come from MRAs or from overzealous anti-racists. You’ve got to be vigilant in condemning harassment, just as you should if you witness it in the street. We need to stop making excuses for people who get joy from instilling fear in others. We need to stop telling people to “just ignore” trolls and start telling social media companies to pay more attention to them. We need to demand greater accountability from social media platforms on their efforts to keep their products safe. They make money from these platforms and they make money from our patronage. Right now they’re also profiting off of our fear and pain.
Our criminal justice system needs to take these threats to us seriously. We need legal, responsible avenues for holding online abusers accountable. And a system that does little to protect women, people of color, and the LGBT community from online violence needs to change. Social media platforms and our criminal justice system have to step up to the plate to keep the Internet truly free.
(Original photograph: Steve Schapiro/Corbis)