Authors: Ajay Sandhu and Danial Marciniak
The recent clash in Charlottesville, Virginia between rival protestors over a statue memorialising a general in the Confederate Army have raised long-debated questions about the extent to which members of hate groups – in this case white nationalists – can expect the protections of certain rights and freedoms. The most recognisable of these questions is “to what extent does the freedom of speech protect racist comments publicly stated by white nationalists?” This question has made its way to the US Supreme Court several times, including earlier this year when the justices denied the possibility of a “hate speech exception” to the first amendment. As white nationalists have found a safe haven in the freedom of speech and support from free speech advocates, anti-racist movements have found alternative methods of trying to silence expressions of racism.
In an era of social media, these alternative methods have included “doxing” which refers to the online collection and exposure of private and/or identifying information about white nationalists, often in an effort to critique racism, stigmatise white nationalists, and deter further expressions of white nationalism. As doxing requires the exposure of personal information online, new questions about the rights and freedoms of white nationalists has emerged; to what extent can members of hate groups expect their privacy to be respected? and what are the present and future consequences of denying white nationalists’ privacy? This blog expands on these questions by considering the potential impact of anti-racist doxing campaigns including the risky consequences of denying white nationalists’ their privacy.
Doxing white nationalists
In a recent article published by Broadly, Keegan Hankes of the Southern Poverty Law Centre’s Intelligence Project says that many white nationalists, including some who marched in Charlottesville, are “terrified” of the consequences of expressing their views online. As Hankes puts it, white nationalists recognise that “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.”
In an era of social media, keeping such beliefs a secret is increasingly difficult as Facebook likes, Twitter posts, and Instagram pictures make it easy to for anyone to review and scrutinise white nationalists’ beliefs, preferences, and associations. The consequences are potentially life altering, as an association with white nationalism can be costly for employment opportunities, social status, and even family connections. There are many telling examples to draw from, many of which have been reported in the aftermaths of the events in Charlottesville:
- August Cole lost his job after being identified as a member of a white nationalist group that marched in Charlottesville;
- Peter Tefft was publicly rejected by his family (which earned favourable responses from social media users who celebrate the family’s “bravery”);
- Nicholas Fuentes received several threats from peers for participating in the white nationalist march in Charlottesville, and subsequently left his University;
- Christopher Cantwell, who has become infamous for his starring role in VICE media’s documentary on the white nationalist marches in Charlottesville, has been banned from a dating website.
White nationalists may have been able to stave off some of these consequences in the past by carefully managing their online profiles. According to Hankes, white nationalists are known for scrubbing images and creating alternative social media accounts in an effort to avoid the offline consequences of online racism. However, this attempt at privacy is growing difficult as anti-racists and digital activists have launched doxing campaigns intended to expose white nationalist by publishing their personal details online. Twitter users such as @YesYoureRacist have led #MaskOff doxing campaigns by linking photos of individuals participating in white nationalist protest to their social media accounts in an effort to name, shame, and, presumably, deter expressions of white nationalism. There is little if any consideration of white nationalists’ privacy.
It is not our intention to sympathise with white nationalists or to argue that their message deserves respect in any way. This blog is our attempt to raise questions about doxing as a new method of exposing racism and the long-term implications for privacy and free expression. We argue that doxing is essentially a form of surveillance with the potential to have a chilling effect on expressions of dissent including but not limited to white nationalism. Accordingly, we suggest a deep consideration of several related questions about the impact of doxing.
Does an individual’s privacy depend on their political views?
It seems as if the standards of privacy do not apply when doxing white nationalists, whose hateful ideology is treated as a sufficient reason to collect and expose their personal information. Some might defend this approach by arguing that those who spread hateful ideologies give up their privacy, especially when their views encourage discrimination and violence. The violence of white nationalists at the Charlottesville protests may lend support to such an argument. On the other hand, it is unlikely that the majority of white nationalists encourage violence. Accordingly, doxing non-violent white nationalists implies that privacy can be ignored when targeting individuals whose politics a doxer disapproves of. We ask if this is a suitable standard of privacy; Does an individual’s privacy depend on their political views? if so, who are the doxers in charge of approving or disapproving of particular political views? Furthermore, how do those doxers make their decisions? While the unethical nature of white nationalism is an easy assessment in a society that values equality, such moral judgements may not be as easy when doxing individuals supporting more ethically complex politics. Accordingly, if we enable doxing against white nationalists, should it be acceptable when targeting those voicing their support for abortion or doctors who support a patient’s right to die? How do we determine when doxing is acceptable and when it is not?
Is the anti-racist goal achieved by ignoring white nationalists’ privacy?
Doxing intends to silence its victims, either by enabling a constant stream of threats, eradicating someone’s feeling of safety, or by shaming and creating negative consequences for voicing an opinion that is widely denounced. In the latter case, doxing operates as a form of deterrence as the subjects of doxing lose their social status and those who have similar opinions are given an opportunity to see what awaits them if they express themselves. This form of doxing seems to be more easily available to doxers targeting the alt-right given established campaigns which name and shame white nationalists online. Public shaming may sound like an ideal method of deterring hate speech, however, “terrifying” racists into silence may have unexpected consequences. Through censoring white nationalists, doxers may inadvertently add to white nationalists’ narratives about being unfairly silenced while simultaneously reducing opportunities to publicly debate and challenge racist ideas. That is, instead of directly challenging and discrediting racist ideas, doxing has the potential to push explicit racism into hiding in less popular online forums. The only time racist ideas will be expressed is when they can be sufficiently coded so as to avoid critique. We ask if this is an effective means of combating racism or if it is better to publicly debate and challenge freely expressed racist ideas?
Does the ineffectiveness of doxing give us reason to respect white nationalist’s privacy?
Doxing is often the work of online “mercenaries” who are prone to errors such as mistaken identity. For example, Kyle Quinn of the Engineering Research Centre University of Arkansas recently received a frenzy of online hatred after he was mistakenly identified as a member of the white nationalist protestors in Charlottesville who was photographed wearing an “Arkansas Engineering” shirt. We ask if the unregulated and error-prone nature of doxing gives us reason to respect the privacy of white nationalists? Further, if we support doxing, how can we ensure that cases of mistaken identity will be less likely?
How will doxing affect protests in the future?
The three questions above need to be addressed with an eye towards emerging facial recognition technologies. These technologies are already grabbing the attention of privacy advocates with news of a Russian app that is able to match photographs of random people on the streets with their social media profile pictures. Employing facial recognition technologies, doxers will be able to avoid all the tedious manual labour of searching for their targets’ personal information. Instead, the faces in images from white nationalist marches could be searched within seconds and published online together with reliability scores of the matches. Advanced apps could algorithmically identify an individuals’ social network either to locate more white nationalists or perhaps warn a white nationalist’s network of their peer’s racist politics. Thus, facial recognition technologies have the potential to facilitate quicker and more efficient naming and shaming. Accordingly, we encourage a close examination of the implications of automated doxing and its implications for privacy in public spaces. We ask if anyone should be able to find out what protest or demonstrations others have been a part of, and for years to come? Would this make people hesitate to take part in protests? In addition, does doxing have the potential to undermine participation in protests and expressions of free speech? If so, should we be standing against doxing and standing for white nationalists’ privacy – if for no other reason than to defend the ideal of open protests and free expression.