The Ethics Of Doxing Nazis

Adapted from Unsplash and Wikimedia Commons
These are dangerous people with poisonous ideas. But is it moral to release their identities to the world at large?

A fter Charlottesville, many people came to understand that white grievance didn’t just gestate beneath feminist or anti-racist articles; the terrifying fury of white men with too much free time didn’t merely throb and bubble in reddit. Instead, it lit up with tiki torches and took to American streets, crying for domination, yearning for others’ extermination.

Any pretense of protesting the removal of a statue was quickly blown out when Nazi chants, flags, and so on dominated every picture from the marches. It’s laughable that protesting the removal of a known racist Confederate general is not, in 2017, enough. No: Instead, in the reign of the sun-gazing President, the world needs Nazis and the KKK marching together, a malignant fraternity of toxic values.

These are dangerous people with poisonous ideas. They want harm, division, hatred. These are not people with legitimate concerns, and it’s precisely this lack of legitimacy that helps fuel their rage. They camouflage their gradual reduction in entitlement to, well, everything, as some kind of rights violation.

They expect the world to still bend the knee, then express fear as we stand up as equals.

Regardless, the question I’m concerned with is whether or not it is ethical to release the identities of these people to the world at large.

“Effective Saturday 12th August, Cole White no longer works at Top Dog.” And so it was that a hot dog restaurant chain announced it would no longer employ a Nazi. And in so doing, it showed greater moral leadership than the President of the United States.

Mr. White (how appropriate) was one of several men identified by social media users as part of the Nazi marches at Charlottesville. Another man was publicly disowned by his family, after they discovered he intellectually masturbated to genocidal beliefs.

In an excellent article for Broadly, Steven Blum summarized a lot of the current doxing fears of white supremacists. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Keegan Hankes told Blum: “It’s hard to get a job, hard to make a living, hard to have a normal social life when all your friends and family know you believe in ethnic cleansing.”

And this is where the moral issue lies. So let’s frame it:

If you know that by revealing a Nazi’s identity, you could cost them their job and their livelihood, expose them to threats, and so on, should you do so?

First, it’s important to clarify two terms: “doxing” and “Nazis.”

Doxing is revealing identifying information about someone on digital platforms — such as blogs or social media. This isn’t only about revealing the true identity behind a pseudonym or someone’s address. As the very smart Noah Berlatsky highlighted, the point isn’t whether data is private or public:

“the essence of doxing isn’t the privacy of the information. It’s how it’s used… Private information can lead to harassment. But public information can do the same thing.”

Berlatsky points out that many people list their names on social media spaces and those names can be traced fairly easily to, say, home addresses. What matters is putting disparate pieces of information together, under the banner of antagonism — regardless of whether that information was secret or just needed a quick Google search.

Second, by Nazis, I mean those who were waving Nazi flags and chanting Nazi slogans, yearning for racial murder and division. I’m also talking about all white supremacists, but Nazis are the most open, obvious example of a group worth opposing by almost anyone you’d probably meet. (Or so we thought, before too many white people began expressing hesitation at saying Nazis are the worst, including the President of the United States.)

There are some considerations to the main moral question to take in, before coming to *spoiler alert* an unsatisfying conclusion.

Mistakes

The main problem with any unauthorized administration of justice is that there are no rules, qualifications, or neutral observers to ascertain the veracity of an accused’s guilt. This means an accusation is sometimes sufficient reason to conclude guilt. Naturally, an accuser would have a barebones justification, such as a grainy picture contrasted with another linked to an identity. But this causes problems, especially in this age of social media and quickly shared images.

Kyle Quinn, an engineer whose life’s work is dedicated to saving lives, was misidentified as a Nazi marcher after Charlottesville. As the New York Times reports:

“Mr. Quinn, who runs a laboratory dedicated to wound-healing research, was quickly flooded with vulgar messages on Twitter and Instagram, he said in an interview on Monday. Countless people he had never met demanded he lose his job, accused him of racism and posted his home address on social networks. Fearing for their safety, he and his wife stayed with a colleague this weekend.”

There were efforts in attempting to rectify the mistake, with people asking others to remove their tweets and posts identifying him. However, it was not nearly as successful as the initial spread.

This reveals a central risk with doxing: It’s much easier to spread information targeting someone than it is to fix a mistake. Information dispersed via rapid-fire social media sharing is often a case of toothpaste squeezing, as there’s no way to put it back. This is especially the case in emotionally charged scenarios, such as the threat of white supremacy.

The main problem with any unauthorized administration of justice is that there are no rules.

It is precisely because of this heated passion, coupled with the inability to rectify mistakes, that the law operates on the basis of neutral judges and judicial procedures requiring sufficient evidence. Such mechanics simply are not part of doxing.

Of course, the most pertinent response is that Professor Quinn’s case is an outlier. There are more hits than misses when it comes to people being doxed, responders might claim. The other men who’ve lost their jobs, for example, indicate that the techniques, while not foolproof, are effective — if not very effective — in identifying the right people. Even proper administration of justice through police and court systems are not beyond reproach, weighed down by their own issues and often breaking the lives of many innocent people. Indeed, legal administration in the U.S. sometimes leads to innocents’ death, thanks to the death penalty in some parts of the country.

Furthermore, many who dox are aware of the dangers of mistakes. The question, then, is whether that means doxing should never occur or whether doxers should simply use better mechanisms when they dox. For example, instead of relying on their own judgement, doxers could have an informal collective that verifies their claims before posting. Fact-checking is always important, especially in situations that could put someone else at risk.

It’s hard to imagine doxers would disregard mistakes, since identifying the right person is the entire point behind doxing. Whether we agree with doxing or not, it’s safe to assume those who dox want accurate information, since they would lose credibility in their goals if they consistently had the wrong people. It’s in no one’s interest for doxing to fail.

However, this only brings us back around to the main question of whether doxing can ever be good.

The Power Of Fear

After writing an opinion piece about race in video games at the height of the Gamergate harassment campaign, my name spread through the various online channels that to this day generate abundant hatred. When obsessive trolls dug up my education history, going as far back as high school, it was frightening.

As noted above, the fact that all this is easy to find didn’t negate what it meant to see such information being distributed in circles obsessing over me and sending me death threats. It was more effective at instilling fear than any badly written threat or images of nooses I was being sent. The simple display of my schools, alongside fee amounts, rattled me more than most of what I’d received.

I’m hardly the only marginalized person who has been a victim of this tactic by those with more power. The internet has, to a large extent, been the great equalizer, as those in positions of privilege are forced to at least know of others’ concerns they otherwise could always ignore. But it’s also reinforced hatred that’s always been there.

This moral distinction is important; if doxing is going to be used, let it be used against those who want to see me and my loved ones dead, erased, undermined. As I pointed out in a post about punching Nazis, if we had to choose, I’d rather we had a world where Nazis were afraid rather than their targets. And, after all, doxed Nazis are more afraid of losing their jobs and social ostracism than anything.

I am, however, concerned that they will receive death threats, as often happens when one’s profile and identity is marked out online. Whether they are Nazis or not, I am uncomfortable with any mechanism that increases the chances and spread of death threats.

There is, however, another objective to doxing that is much easier to get behind.

Creating A Hostile Environment

Many view doxing as an effective mechanism for public shaming. It’s often written about in that context — but I think this misses the point.

Few of these doxed white supremacists were silent beforehand about views that are widely regarded to be noxious; if they were going to feel shame, they likely would’ve felt it already. It’s hard to see how anyone with enough Nazi conviction to willingly march with torches and reveal their face to numerous news media could be shamed into undoing their beliefs.

What doxing can do, however, is make the environment in which targets operate more hostile to their views.

We should want more environments to be hostile to Nazi beliefs.

It’s problematic, of course, when this framework is applied to me and other marginalized people. My stalkers didn’t share details about my education to shame me for my anti-racism views or belief that marginalized people deserve justice; they did it to tell me they knew me, that they could see into parts of my life that were closer to home than a Twitter account or email.

But while it’s dangerous when those fighting for equality are subjected to such hostility, when applied to Nazis, this tactic becomes effective and even moral. Put simply, we should want more environments to be hostile to Nazi beliefs.

Again, this isn’t about shaming Nazis into disbelief (making them rethink their ideology would be great, too, but that’s not the immediate goal of doxing). This is about creating an awareness in them that their views are not welcome, that they are not welcome, while they chant about eradicating and seeing Jewish people, people of color, and so on vanish. Doxing appears highly effective at producing such an environment, as many white supremacists are conveying fear among themselves about it.

So does that mean doxing suspected Nazis is always ethical? Not necessarily. And this is where that aforementioned unsatisfying conclusion comes in: I don’t know whether I support doxing and, even now, I am uncertain about whether it is a moral act. Doxing is, after all, imperfect, unregulated, and leads to false positives, and it can and has caused innocent people to fear for their lives.

That said, if it can be shown to have a significant effect on creating hostile environments to Nazis, with mechanisms for double checking to prevent mistakes and retraction upon mistakes’ occurrences, doxing could be a tool for those who feel powerless against a rising tide of white supremacy.

The ethics are complicated, as always, but I hope by engaging with the issue in a moral way, we gain clarity on these tools we use for justice — even while the world apparently turns to hot piss.

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