The ethics of doxing and the politics of public shame
Recently, dozens of bishops in the Catholic Church––amid a wave of investigations into alleged sexual abuse of minors––have taken an unprecedented step: They released lists of priests who were credibly accused of abuse. The Vatican instructed American bishops to wait on taking any collective action until the new year, but at least 35 dioceses did so anyway. “We’ve never seen this kind of outpouring before,” said Terry McKiernan, president of BishopAccountability.org, which tracks clergy sex abuse cases. “It’s a dramatic change in how bishops are approaching this.” But few of the lists provide details about the allegations, and some say that various names are missing. The lists do not have the same credibility as names that came out after an “explosive grand jury report [was] released in August by the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office, detailing at grim length the abuse of over 1,000 people by hundreds of priests.” [Campbell Robertson / New York Times]
One bishop who chose to release names said that mistrust in this process was earned, because bishops had proved unable to police themselves. [Campbell Robertson / New York Times] Releasing names of clergy accused of abuse is, by some definitions, a form of doxing. In her 2015 book, “The Internet of Garbage,” Sarah Jeong quotes a security expert, who defines doxing as “the practice of publishing personal information about people without their consent,” which can include “an address and phone number,” or “credit card details, medical information, private emails.” The New York Times’s “Words of 2012” included the definition, “DOX: To find and release all available information about a person or organization, usually for the purpose of exposing their identities or secrets.” [Sarah Jeong / The Internet of Garbage]
Doxing is often associated with democratizing releases of information, like when the hacker collective Anonymous published the name, phone number, and family details of an NYPD officer believed to have used pepper spray on peaceful female protesters during the Occupy Wall Street protests. In a statement, Anonymous said, “You know who the innocent women were; now they will have the chance to know who you are. Before you commit atrocities against innocent people, think twice. WE ARE WATCHING!!!!” Some protesters applauded the dox, but others were unsure about the ethics of releasing such sensitive information that could put people’s safety, and the safety of their families, at risk. [Karen McVeigh / The Guardian]
One could see doxing as akin to a perp walk, a tradition that humiliates and permanently tarnishes the reputation of those who have yet to be convicted. But the cases of priests and police involve abuses of authority, where real harm is caused to vulnerable people, and where the communities-–the Catholic church and police departments, respectively––have routinely failed to hold people accountable. So, too, has the criminal justice system. And no one had taken meaningful steps to prevent the abuse in the future. In these cases, the act of exposing and shaming alleged wrongdoers might feed a certain hunger for revenge, which is never an ideal reason for doing anything, but it also fills a gap left open by institutional failures to act. In these cases, doxing allows communities to voice disapproval for actions, when institutions will not. And more pragmatically, the specter of exposure creates a disincentive for priests and police to commit harm in the future, where otherwise there was near-impunity, as Anonymous pointed out in its menacing message.
But in other contexts, doxing can be pernicious. Last August, a man named Andrew Dodson was doxed after he marched in the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. A Tumblr account called Yes, You’re Racist published a picture of Dodson taken during the march, along with his name, his town, and his place of employment. Logan Smith, who operates the Twitter account @YesYoureRacist told MSNBC, “If these people are so proud to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with white supremacists and neo-Nazis, then I think that their communities need to know who these people are.” After the dox, Dodson was reportedly fired from his job. Then, on March 9, he died. Soon, white supremacists, including Richard Spencer, began to claim Dodson as a martyr to their cause, saying that a massive campaign of harassment had led Dodson to kill himself. Neo-Nazis had found a reason to claim victimhood. (There is no evidence that Dodson died by suicide, and the family did not comment.) [Vegas Tenold / New Republic]
“If he did commit suicide after being doxed, my attitude is: Thank you,” Daryle Lamont Jenkins said. Jenkins, an anti-fascist activist, has been doxing members of the far right for years. He mentioned Heather Heyer, who was killed by a white supremacist in Charlottesville: “He most certainly didn’t care for Heather Heyer, so why should we care for him?” To Jenkins, doxing, public shaming, loss of employment, and even death are the price one should be prepared to pay for racist behavior. [Vegas Tenold / New Republic]
Doxing often leads to brutal harassment campaigns, threats, “swatting,” loss of employment, even, at its most extreme, death. But, because doxing is something done outside the normal processes of adjudication and fact-finding that we find in journalism or legal investigations, it can be wrong. In fact, Dodson himself was initially misidentified as Kyle Quinn, an engineer in Arkansas who runs a laboratory dedicated to wound-healing research. Quinn endured a torrent of online abuse. Those who care about privacy should be concerned about doxing. Most social media platforms, including Twitter, consider doxing a violation of their rules.
Even if the process were error-free, neo-Nazis are not the only people who get doxed. In the 1980s and 1990s, right-wing Christian conservatives published the private information of abortion providers, some of whom were targeted. Today, some members of the far right release private information of journalists because they consider investigative journalism itself to be a form of doxing. One problem is that “our opinion about when doxing is right and wrong,” and “what constitutes doxing,” often changes depending on who is doing it, said Steve Holmes, an assistant professor at George Mason University who has written about the ethics of doxing. “When you support the motives behind a given dox, it is easy to go along with it as a justifiable act.” Holmes urges people to look at doxing case by case. “Perhaps we need a taxonomy of the different forms of doxing,” he suggested. “Doxing can be a political threat, the revenge of a jilted ex, the exposure of toxic ideologies, and it can be the act of a whistleblower. We need a way to differentiate.” [Vegas Tenold / New Republic]
Beyond these questions is the fact that doxing is hardly restorative. It tends to radicalize people on both sides of any issue, leaving little room for conversation, let alone persuasion. Even those who have espoused the most hateful ideologies have, at times, come around. In the case of Derek Black, the son of a grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, his conversion away from white nationalism followed repeated invitations to Shabbat dinner from Jewish friends. It is hard to imagine that kind of thing happening after a person’s family has been threatened and their life destroyed by a dox; often, the only community they are left with is the hateful one.
A year ago, Emmit Walker, a Black music executive, posted a picture of a white woman and called her out for repeatedly questioning whether he belonged in the “first class priority” line at an airport. The post went viral, and the internet seemed to applaud, but he soon regretted it and took down the photo. “This racist stuff is definitely a issue but this is not the solution to that issue,” he wrote. “It brings me no joy… knowing that woman might be going [through] hell.” He added that upon reflection, he should have handled it differently, or not at all, instead of shaming her. [The Sun UK] Journalist Sarah Jeong has herself has been subject to online harassment, and when her former employer, The Verge, republished her book recently, the editor-in-chief noted: “Lost in all of this noise was the fact that Sarah Jeong is an actual person.” This is the fact that, time and again, seems to get lost in the noise of doxing.