- Doxxing, although a very controversial subject is one that is especially relevant in relation to the internet today. Doxxing is the publication of an individuals personal information such as their name, twitter handle, facebook page, or email address. Doxxing is such a controversial issue because it is used as a means for both internet justice, and cyber harassment. There have been instances such as Gamergate where doxxing has been used as an intimidation tactic to harass those who publicly broadcast different views, and stop others from coming forward with similar views. On the other hand, doxxing has also been used as a tool for vigilante justice. Because the internet fosters an environment where anonymity is not only possible, but generally the norm; accountability, both socially and legally is virtually nonexistent. Therefore, doxxing is seen as a means of making perpetrators socially accountable for what they do online by removing their anonymity and subjecting them to the social consequences of their actions. Although doxxing is currently considered the most effective means of justice for offenders of cyber harassment, the liabilities associated with the practice create too much room for error with too great of costs. By using the same tactics to out the cyber bullies as the cyber bullies use on their victims, they are fighting fire with fire, only causing more hatred and ferocity to spread across the internet.
GamerGate erupted onto social media and the internet as a whole with a violent fury last August when Eron Gjoni, the obsessive and vengeful ex-boyfriend of female game designer Zoe Quinn, published what has since become known as “The Zoe Post” to a number of blogs and websites that had previously harassed Quinn. This post was “a long post about [her] sex life and private dealings.” (Zoe Quinn, Boston Magazine.) Most notably, it detailed her alleged affair with gaming reviewer and journalist Nathan Grayson, which Gjoni claimed had induced Grayson to publish a favorable review of Quinn’s newly released game Depression Quest. This post soon erupted into countless death and rape threats, harassment, and the doxxing of Zoe Quinn resulting in the release of her address and contact information. The ramifications from “The Zoe Post” caused Quinn to fear for her safety, and eventually leave her apartment due to the number of threats that she received. The harassment and doxxing continued for anyone who attempted to come to Zoe’s aid, or disagree with the attackers. Both Brianna Wu and Anita Sarkeesian were attacked and doxxed during the GamerGate episode, resulting in similar ramifications as in the case of Zoe Quinn.
In this incident, the mob mentality combined with the anonymity provided by many of the mediums used (reddit, 4chan, 8chan) caused what is known as the online disinhibition effect. This is the reduction or even total abandonment of the social restrictions and inhibitions during online interactions that would normally be present in face to face communication. Due to this, many of those involved in the harassment of the three woman and many others felt less inhibited by many of the social restrictions that would normally be in place had there been a direct interaction. This in turn allowed for doxxing to be used not as a tool for social justice, but instead as one for the harassment and torment of anyone in opposition to a given opinion or set of values. Ijeoma Oluo a pro-doxxing journalist for Medium wrote that, “GamerGate, that war on women operating in the name of “ethics in gaming journalism,” has been exposing people’s personal information and using it to silence them.” Oluo goes on to explain that this form of doxxing is not how the technique should be used. The perpetrators exploited this method and used it to both silence their critics and harass those who they deemed “detrimental” to the gaming industry.
The issue that many victims of this form of doxxing are now being faced with is that there are very few legal actions that can be taken. Due to the fact that many of the offenders attack the victims anonymously, a restraining order cannot be filed, nor can legal action be taken against them. In the paper The Appropriation of privacy: Policies and Practices of Everyday Technology Use, it is emphasized that, “Doxxers or vigilantes remain anonymous, while the target is shamed as publicly as possible.” This is one of the biggest issues that victims of doxxing and cyber harassment face. While their information and identity are forced into the public eye, those of their attackers remain hidden, and therefore nearly impossible to demand accountability for. Zoe Quinn is currently facing this issue as she fights in court to have Eron Gjoni reprimanded for his actions and part in the GamerGate attacks. Regardless of the countless restraining orders and gag orders that the court places on Eron, he continues to violate them, both online and offline.
A similar incident occurred when a Newsweek story was written about Dorian Satoshi Nakamoto who Leah McGrath Goodman, the author of the piece, claims to have revealed as the inventor of the online crypto-currency Bitcoin. Goodman insists that through years of research and investigation, she was able to determine the founder of the currency, who had sought to remain anonymous since it’s creation. Nakamoto disputes these claims, and has filed a law suit against Newsweek magazine claiming that, “[His] prospects for gainful employment [have] been harmed because of Newsweek's article. Newsweek's false report has been the source of a great deal of confusion and stress for [himself], [his] 93-year old mother, [his] siblings, and their families.” Regardless of whether or not Nakamoto is the creator of the crypto-currency or not, the fact remains that he wished to remain out of the spotlight, and his doxxing by Leah McGrath Goodman has thrust him into it with no seaming way out. Even if he wins the suit against Newsweek, he will still forever have the association of being the creator of Bitcoin, and all the consequences that come with it.
On October 12th, 2012, Gawker journalist Adrian Chen posted bombshell of an article that revealed to true identity of on of Reddit’s most despicable users. Michael Brustch, better known by his username “Violentacrez”, used the anonymity that the online social news site provided him to create many forums, called Subreddit’s, dedicated to countless deplorable subjects such as misogyny, racism, rape, and scantily clad photos of underage girls. As wired writer Danah Boyd wrote, “He had created settings where people could share deeply disturbing content. He enticed people to reveal their ugliest sides.” After Chen’s doxxing of Brustch, he was no longer able to continue his online activities from the safety of namelessness. Now every action that he took online would be associated with his real name and his real life, and because of that, he would be held accountable for his actions from then on. As a result of his doxxing, Brustch lost his job as a programer at a Texas financial services company, and has received significant backlash from the public and online world alike. Similar to the case of Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu in GamerGate, he has also received multiple threats to his safety and life. Is this different than GamerGate though?
In the case of Michael Brustch, doxxing created accountability for his actions which he had previously avoided. In having the ability to conceal his identity and hide behind his computer screen, Brustch did not believe that he would be responsible for his online actions. Had his identity been known prior to his doxxing, he would have experienced many of the same consequences that his doxxing brought forth. In the case of GamerGate however, the victims of the attacks of the “hate-mob”, as Zoe Quinn called them, were doxxed solely for their disagreement with the misogynistic mass of male gamers. It was not to create a form of accountability, but instead to harass and torment.
Although doxxing is currently one of the only ways to create accountability for peoples actions on the internet, there can be many unintended consequences that go along with it. One of the most famous cases of a mistaken doxxing occurred in the aftermath of the Amanda Todd suicide. Amanda Todd was a Canadian teen who committed suicide weeks after posting a horrifying video to YouTube where she used flash cards to detail how she felt an anonymous stalker had ruined her life. In the wake of her suicide, the social activist hacking collective known as “Anonymous” decided to make an example of Todd’s stalker by doxxing him. In theory the intent of this plan was good. By releasing the personal information of Todd’s believed stalker, they made him accountable for his actions and the death of Todd. However, it was later discovered the the 32 year old male that “Anonymous” had doxxed was in fact not Todd’s stalker; Canadian police later arrested a 19 year old male for the crime. In this case, even the shift in information didn't alleviate the public shame felt by the original target. Going forward they will still have to deal with wrongly being outed.
Another well documented case of the negative effects of a positively intentioned outing occurred before the internet, and the term doxxing itself, even existed. When President Ford visited San Francisco in 1975, a woman attempted to assassinate him. Former marine Oliver Sipple jumped into action and grabbed the gun, stopping the attempted assassination. When the press came to him to cover the story, he asked that his sexuality not be discussed. Although Sipple was an active member of the gay community in San Fransisco, he was not out to his family or at work, and as a result wanted to keep his sexuality out of the public eye. However, Harvey Milk, a famous gay rights activist and politician, saw Sipple as a way to show the public that gay men could be heroes too. The effects of Milk’s public outing were devastating to Sipple. His family rejected him, the White House began to disassociate itself from him, and he sunk into a deep depression. After gaining immense amounts of weight and acquiring a drinking problem, Sipple died at the young age of 47. Because Sipple did not feel he was ready to be fully out of the closet, but was still forcefully outed to the public, he spiraled into self destructive habits that eventually resulted in his untimely death. This was a violation of his privacy and personal information much in the way that the doxxing of many on the internet is. Although in this case it was to highlight something positive that he had done, and generally the doxxing of those on the internet is to create accountability for negative actions, he still experienced the negative effects.
Doxxing is currently relied upon so heavily in the online word because there are currently very few if any regulations and laws that can effectively traffic and create accountability for peoples actions online. Another reason that doxxing is depended on to such a degree is that not only does it create accountability for actions that are considered criminally culpable, but also for ones that are considered simply heinous or wrong. For example, if someone was publicly racist, homophobic, or sexist, they would be accountable at their job, school, or with their peers. However, if someone is constantly posting hateful messages online from behind the safety of their computer screen, they are no longer accountable for this. While cyberbullying laws and regulations generally don't have standing in cases like this, doxxing causes people to be accountable for what they say and do online.
Part of the reason that more laws and regulations pertaining to cyber harassment have not been passed is that, as Ijeoma Oluo of Medium Magazine states, “Messages sent via paper are viewed as threats, while the same messages sent online are viewed as pranks.” This idea is extremely dangerous because it creates the perception that cyber harassment is not serious and is therefore treated as such. Another dimension to the lack of laws pertaining to online activities is that as stated in The Appropriation of Privacy: Policies and Practices of Everyday Technology Use, “US government regulation is unlikely given the Supreme Court’s consistent characterization of internet speech as protected.” This essentially means that the constitutionality of free speech extends to the internet. Although this makes sense in that one should not be criminally prosecuted for the expression of their opinions or ideals online, they should still be subject to public perception. Without this public scrutiny, a simple expression of ones opinion can turn into a hateful attack. A second reason that government intervention is virtually nonexistent is that there has not yet been an effective transition of criminal stalking and harassment statutes to the online world. As Nancy Leong and Joanne Morando argue in their paper Communication in Cyberspace, “statutes criminalizing behavior such as threats, stalking, and harassment generally require that the speaker “communicate” with the target.” This is easily established with a direct phone call or contact; however, “the Internet, along with various social media platforms and apps, have enabled other forms of directing abuse at targets in which “communication” cannot be defined simply as direct messages from one person to another.” (Nancy Leong, Joanne Morando; Communication in Cyberspace). In order for any progress to be made into regulating or effectively criminalizing cyber stalking and cyber harassment, there will need to be an improvement in incorporating the definition of communication into laws pertaining to threats, stalking, and harassment, as well as the development of new laws that can better detect and punish hazardous online behavior.
For the time being, doxxing remains the only viable option to create responsibility for the actions of those who harass others under the veil of anonymity; however it is not a problem free or sustainable solution. There are currently too many issues with false accusations or misrepresentation associated with doxxing. This subject is further made controversial by the countless threats and retaliations that the accused persons are subjected to. Although government regulation is not a solution for the foreseeable future, private institutions can take more responsibility for what their users post and do. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter could define “certain categories of speech as unacceptable in their Terms of Service, allowing for individual accounts which violate these terms to be removed.” Even though this isn't a perfect solution, it provides some regulation through which cyber harassment can be restrained.