The Doxxing Dilemma

What do you do when it comes to doxxing someone you know? More importantly, what are the consequences?

Illustrator: Katie Heywood

A photo circulated Facebook after a far-right provocateur spoke at the University of Minnesota. It was a shot of the event’s attendees—a few hundred people in a packed auditorium, mostly young, mostly white, and mostly male. A student activist posted the picture, explicitly asking others to identify individuals in the audience and share their profiles in the comment section, tacitly condoning a mass of online users to direct their condemnation at the individual attendees—in other words, doxxing them.

In the photo, a few dozen members of the crowd had already been identified, sometimes by someone they had had a class with last semester or who had lived on their dorm floor freshman year.

I remember taking another look at the attendees, scanning the group. A familiar face caught my eye: a friend from my hometown, buried among the sea of unknown people. We had grown up together playing sports and we ran in similar circles in high school. We stayed in touch, albeit infrequently considering we went to the same school. I still considered him a friend.

I considered what I should do, what I could do. I had the singular power to expose him, or to not. Likely no one, including he, would know either way. I thought about whether I should give his name, identify him, dox him, and more importantly what would happen if I did.

Doxxing—the act of publishing personal information online that’s used by activists both on the right and left—has become commonplace in the new age of digital citizenship. But doxxing can fuel a mob mentality, where facts are bypassed for the expediency of rage, and criticism can devolve into outright harassment and abuse. It can cause permanent damage to someone’s reputation, whether they deserve it or not, not to mention a horde of trolls willing to say anything, including death threats.

Doxxing—the act of publishing personal information online that’s used by activists both on the right and left—has become commonplace in the new age of digital citizenship.

After the Boston Marathon bombing, internet vigilantes incorrectly identified the culprit of the attack. They mistakenly identified a Brown University student who had gone missing and was later found dead. The amateur digital investigation only contributed to misinformation and general hysteria.

At best, doxxing can be used to hold people accountable for their actions, especially ones that are despicable. Last summer, online denizens outed neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville, costing many their jobs, and rightfully so. Many have pointed out that investigative journalism relies on a form of doxxing to uncover information, however unsavory the details may be. But even at its tamest, doxxing is an invasion of privacy.

And it cuts both ways. It’s a favored tool of alt-right trolls, with some going so far as to publish the personal phone numbers, addresses, and bank account information of their opponents. Feminist video game critics received rape and death threats after their identities were exposed during the GamerGate controversy. Friends of mine now take precaution to cover their face with a hood or bandana to avoid being identified while protesting; there’s even face paint camouflage designed to protect against recognition.

Doxxing is complex, even when it’s focused against those with whom you disagree. And it always has the potential to cause danger and damage against whoever is on the receiving end.

For as long as I had known my friend, he was always hyper-conservative; he certainly didn’t hide his political orientation. We vehemently disagreed and, at times, debated against each other. But we always got along well, despite our differences. He was quiet, respectful, and friendly, the kind of person adults call, “A good kid.”

Yet still, he had willfully gone to listen to a speaker who advanced what I believed were hateful and discriminatory ideas. Again, it was something I wholeheartedly opposed. But does his political viewpoint, wrong as it might be, justify exposing him to a horde of online harassment?

Exposing an individual’s action is one thing, but exposing their personal life, and potentially private information, to the whims of angry strangers online is another.  There is a difference, after all, between accountability and exposure, between standing up for one’s morals and sending another into social humiliation, between rational criticism and mass harassment.

Call-out culture, as it has come to be known, can be a toxic mix of condescension and personal superiority. We feel justified to attack others on the basis of our own correct virtues. On the surface it seems to be sticking up for one’s beliefs, but far too often it manifests as a militarization of morality against those with whom we disagree.

And in this case, what would really be accomplished, other than a cathartic release of vitriol on the part of the critic? I am not sure a wave of messages targeting my friend online would be the best way to change his mind, or even allow him to consider other viewpoints. More likely than not, it would close him off.

Acknowledging another’s humanity isn’t condoning their ideas and doesn’t diminish personal responsibility for one’s actions. Rather, it allows us to recognize the impact of our actions on others.”

This is not to say that exposing what someone has done is always wrong—accountability for your actions is a good thing. Nazis who are exposed as Nazis are merely reaping what they sow. Yet that’s an extreme circumstance. Taking decisive action against those who poise a direct threat to the safety of people, such as a Nazi, is understandable. But private individuals deserve more protection than those who claim the mantle of the public eye.

There’s a dangerous tendency for us to overstep the bounds, ignore nuance, and rush to judgement, regardless of the consequences. We must recognize there are different levels of power—some actions hold different weight, and wrongdoing is a matter of circumstance and degree. Simply put, some people have done far worse things than others. And I’m not sure doxxing is appropriate for someone who merely listens to a despicable speaker.

Perhaps I was simply more sympathetic because he was someone I knew. Granted, it’s far easier for me to see him as a person rather than another stranger with flawed ideas over the internet. There’s a connection between us that made me think twice about my actions.

When it comes to doxxing, using restraint, thinking twice about our consequences, may actually be a good thing. Acknowledging another’s humanity isn’t condoning their ideas and doesn’t diminish personal responsibility for one’s actions. Rather, it allows us to recognize the impact of our actions on others.

In the end, I chose not to expose him. When we talk again, I’ll likely bring it up and we can argue in person, without the danger of doxxing.