The dangers of revealing the names and identities of white supremacists
ALEXIS C. MADRIGAL
After Charlottesville, white supremacists’ physical and digital presences—and the tactics used to combat them—are under renewed scrutiny.
There have been attempts, most prominently by Logan Smith, who runs the Twitter account Yes, You’re Racist, to tack real names and identities onto the pictures of people who showed up to rally for white supremacy in the city. Some people have called this “doxxing,” referring to the practice of figuring out the identity of an anonymous or pseudonymous person online and publishing their IRL details, usually to spur harassment.
The technique has been used online for decades. It gained widespread notoriety during the Gamergate saga, when a variety of unsavory far-right-wing figures doxxed women in the video-game media, but people all over the political spectrum have done their fair share. That’s led a lot of reasonable people to declare the tactic verboten, more or less, no matter the target. It’s just beyond the pale.
What Smith is doing, however, is not doxxing as it has been understood. His targets showed up at a public rally. They made no attempt to hide their identities.
The merging of the digital and physical worlds does make things more complicated. One can imagine that the rally participants did not expect national scrutiny before the event. They showed up with a few hundred people and have ended up in pictures seen by tens of millions online. This is a variation on what academics have called “context collapse.” Smith is doing that collapsing, making white supremacists accountable for their views and speech in a greater portion of their lives.
At the same time, their outing digitally opens them up to the dynamics of online vigilantism: jeers, threats, and more.
“If you’re going to go out in public and advocate for Nazi ideas, you have to be prepared for people to say, ‘You’re a terrible person,’” said Sasha Costanza-Chock, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology associate professor of civic media. “I don’t think there is much defensible in saying we shouldn’t do that. We might want to preserve the term ‘doxxing’ having a specific meaning, but identifying and mapping extreme-right networks—we should agree that’s reasonable to do.”
“They will only commit further to the dangerous communities that are willing to embrace them.”
Smith’s actions are certainly on the same continuum as doxxing, but not precisely in the same spot, and Costanza-Chock asked, what else is on that continuum? Perhaps the Southern Poverty Law Center’s research into hate groups (or Political Research Associates’ report on the rise of the “alt-right”)? Maybe a local reporter digging into a government official who is secretly in the Ku Klux Klan?
When people say “the solution to hate speech is more speech”—might this fit the bill as the “more speech” part? It’s imperfect, sometimes painful, but ultimately part of the universe of speech that free-speech advocates hope will result in a better society.
But there are established rules and norms, as well as (some) accountability processes for journalists and researchers, which don’t tend to exist among doxxers.
And online searches like this are very prone to error. This sort of thing has been happening for years—and the internet sleuths, as local news stories love to tag them, have often gone awry. Smith has misidentified some of the people in the photos, with predictably bad consequences. A poor tissue engineer at the University of Arkansas got randomly dragged into the mess.
Lucas Wright and Susan Benesch, of the Dangerous Speech Project, write on the project’s blog that searches like this will always encounter similar problems, by malfeasance or actual bad actors feeding false information into the system. “These false positives are inevitable since the strategy relies on imperfect information—yet can seriously disrupt a target’s life,” they write. “As it becomes easier to forge realistic fake videos, such errors will only become more common.”
Costanza-Chock argued that some guide should exist for people wishing to engage in Nazi doxxing that would instruct them on how to do so as responsibly as possible and offer other routes to grapple with their online accounts.
But Wright and Benesch reject the tactic more completely, at least from the perspective of trying to de-radicalize white supremacists. “Disrupting their lives—getting them fired from their jobs, disowned by their parents, or dogpiled with threats on Twitter—may give a satisfying jolt of schadenfreude, but it also cuts them off from the remaining moderating forces in their lives,” they write. “When that happens, they will not learn to love; they will only commit further to the dangerous communities that are willing to embrace them.”
And that may be true. There may be a tradeoff between raising the costs of doingwhite supremacy out there in the world—and increasing the radicalization of those who Smith and others identify.