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Ethics in Doxxing?

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@IjeomaOluo is a feminist and a thoughtful writer.

This is a rare combination. Feminism has for decades been an intellectual ghetto inhabited by bad writers spewing tedious jargon (the misogynist oppressor mansplained, sitting at his desk surrounded by about five dozen books of feminist theory). Oluo writes about a Tumblr vigilante site called Racists Getting Fired:

Finally! A way to battle all those nameless, faceless hatemongers of the Internet . . . Finally, people are having to face some real consequences for their hateful and harmful behavior. This is the moment of comeuppance, and boy, is it satisfying. . . .

So now, now we have doxxing in the name of Social Justice and truth.
But we still have doxxing in the name of control and terror. . . .

It wasn’t long before the inevitable happened to Racists Getting Fired; an innocent person was doxxed. Brianna Rivera found herself on the receiving end of threats and harassment after an ex-boyfriend impersonated her online with posts that made her look like a racist. A few minutes of investigation showed it was fake, but the Internet doesn’t self-correct: People ride the wave of fury and then move on to the next target. By the time a retraction was posted, she had already faced investigations by both her employer and the university she was attending. Even now, people are still sending her hateful messages for her nonexistent bigotry.

Those of us fighting for progress and equality believe that we’re working on the side of good, and most of us are. But when we look at language used around doxxing for “good,” it’s very similar to the language used by those trying to silence us. . . .

You can read the whole thing and, while Oluo makes many of the usual simplistic assumptions — e.g., advocacy of “social justice” is synonymous with personal virtue — her skepticism toward the progressive mob mentality is encouraging. Identity politics invariably leads toward a Manichean worldview and the dangerous self-righteous fanaticism summarized in the radical slogan “By Any Means Necessary.”

Because it’s nearly 9 a.m. ET, I’m going to go ahead and click the “publish” button now, but come back in an hour or two, and I’ll expand this.

UPDATE: “Sources close to the campaign said . . .” How many times have you read a phrase like that in a news article and asked yourself, “Who are these ‘sources,’ and why are they speaking anonymously?” The use of anonymous sources is a fine art in Beltway journalism, to which I got a hasty introduction after I arrived in D.C. in November 1997 and became an assistant national editor at The Washington Times. Although I was new to the ways of Washington at the time, I wasn’t one of these ambitious 23-year-old kids fresh out of J-school who swarm to D.C. every year after graduation, hoping to become the next Political Media Superstar. I was a 38-year-old married father of three with nearly a dozen years of award-winning experience in the newspaper business. Arriving in journalism’s Major Leagues, however, required me to learn a whole new game.

Two months after I hit town, the Lewinsky scandal broke — I remember that first teasing headline at the Drudge Report — and for a few days I had a ringside seat while our reporters scrambled to nail down the story that Michael Isikoff’s editors at Newsweek had spiked. Veteran reporters including Frank Murray and Jerry Seper worked the phones like maniacs trying to get that story, and they had the basic facts, they just couldn’t get the kind of confirmed sourcing necessary for our editors to approve it for publication. Four days after that first Drudge tease, the rival Washington Post finally got the story, and then our staff at the Times had to scramble to catch up and “match” the Post‘s coverage.

Here’s the thing: At my previous employer in Georgia, the use of anonymous sources was forbidden by the publisher, Burgett E. Mooney III. It was his belief that a reliance on anonymous sources undermined the trust of readers and that, furthermore, anonymity was often a disguise used to conceal the malign personal motives of sources. With the advantage of hindsight, I see exactly what Burgett saw. There is a certain kind of shabby journalism that simply cannot be done if you insist that every quote and fact be attributed to a named source or an official document.

Certainly, no reporter could ever get away with “sources said” when covering the county commission, the board of education or high-school football. On the other hand, covering politics and policy in Washington would be nearly impossible without “sources said.” However, no editor in his right mind would grant an unlimited license to use anonymous sources.

One of my regular duties at the Washington Times was to work with the legendary political reporter Ralph Z. Hallow. When it came time to take the pulse of Republican Party insiders, Ralph was the consulting physician — some might say, the proctologist — of the conservative movement. Ralph had a huge network of sources whose phone numbers were filed away in his Rolodex of Doom, and he was on a first-name basis with most of them. To watch Ralph work the phones was like watching Joe Montana run a fourth-quarter touchdown drive. He was simply the best at what he did.

However, getting Ralph’s stories to match the editors’ expectations was often an ordeal, and I was usually the guy who played go-between. About 2 or 3 o’clock, the managing editor would call me into his office and say, “Make sure Ralph backs up his lead on this.” That is to say, the statements made in the first paragraph of the story had to be supported by quotes and — here was the key thing — we needed some of those quotes attributed to named sources. One more than one occasion, we’d be pushing the deadline while Ralph worked the phones trying to negotiate the on-the-record quote necessary to the story. Sometimes, it would be a source he’d quoted anonymously, and Ralph would be trying to coax the source into having his name appear in the story. Other times, Ralph would call a new source — someone he hadn’t previously interviewed for the story — and get a reaction quote from him to back up the general point of the story.

Keep in mind, of course, that this was all legitimate journalism. This wasn’t any kind of scandalous smear-mongering “gotcha” stuff, but solid political reporting. Ralph’s story would include quotes and information attributed to a “Republican pollster,” an “RNC member,” a “former Reagan administration official” or whatever, and these were all legit sources. Still, we couldn’t publish a story whose main premise was derived from unnamed sources, so getting that on-the-record quote to nail it down was absolutely necessary.

Given my firsthand knowledge of the very difficult work required to do reporting the right way, then, what do you suppose I think about some of the reckless nonsense that is perpetrated online by idiots who exploit anonymity as an excuse for acts of malicious dishonest cruelty?

UPDATE II: After spending months on the road covering the Tea Party movement and the 2012 presidential campaign, I came home after the election and thought, “OK, now what?” The political Road Warrior act was fun — doing on-the-scene reporting is what I love best — but it’s a young man’s game and, after getting caught in that damned Louisiana speed trap, it became simply too expensive to continue. So as I was at home recovering from the Fear and Loathing of the 2012 campaign, suddenly the Internet went crazy about a rape in Steubenville, Ohio.

‘Anonymous’ and Steubenville: OnlineLynch Mob Complicates Rape Case

That was the headline on my first blog post about the story, and my main point was summarized thus:

Alas, welcome to the 21st century, where everyone with Internet access can play at being an “investigative journalist,” and every random rumor can be portrayed as a serious accusation which is allegedly being covered up by authorities. This conspiratorial motif and the proliferation of the Amateur Detective mentality online has had consequences in Steubenville . . .

While I am an enthusiastic advocate of New Media and Citizen Journalism, we’ve seen way too many instances of paranoid conspiracy theories and baseless accusations being promoted by dangerous dingbats who don’t have the first clue about how to do basic reporting. Over and over, the Internet has afforded ideological ax-grinders a platform to exploit the biases of True Believers to push wild rumors and false claims that fell apart as soon as they were exposed to careful scrutiny.

As it turned out, the Steubenville story was legit. Two teenagers were convicted of sexual assault, and four school officials were indicted on obstruction of justice charges. One of those officials pleaded guilty to a second-degree misdemeanor. Looking back on that crazy Steubenville protest scene two years later, however, we should ask, “Was that necessary?” Was the outcome of the case significantly influenced by the vengeful swarm of Internet vigilantes and the howling mob of weirdos in Guy Fawkes masks?

Count me as skeptical. I’m aware that the Social Justice Warriors count that as a “win,” but as I pointed out in January 2013, it would be kind of hard to cover up a crime that had already been the subject of a 6,000-word New York Times article. While the SJWs may still be high-fiving each other over Steubenville, I’m still unconvinced that they really accomplished anything that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. Furthermore, I suspect, the general impression created by the Steubenville vigilantes — i.e., that gang-rape is a common occurrence that is routinely covered up by officials — helped lead Sabrina Rubin Erdely and Rolling Stone into the horrible journalistic fiasco of the UVA rape hoax.

Think about this: If you start feeding mob hysteria about “rape culture,” and if crusading journalists set out to validate this fearful climate of sexual paranoia, isn’t it a near-certainty that this effort to “prove” the claims of fanatical True Believers will result in innocent people being falsely accused?

UPDATE III: Rather than to spend all day on endless digressions, let me connect the dots here. Part of what we saw in the Steubenville lynch mob was people with dubious motives, hiding behind the screen of online anonymity, “doxxing” various people they accused either of participating in a gang-rape or covering up for the rapists. You start publicizing the addresses and phone numbers of people and accusing them of complicity in gang-rape, you do so with the expectation that bad things are going to happen those people. But let us ask how different that kind of “doxxing” is from what Sabrina Rubin Erdely and Rolling Stone did to the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity at the University of Virginia?

While you’re thinking about an answer to that question, ask yourself this: Why Phi Kappa Psi?

It is now generally agreed, I believe, that whether or not Jackie was ever actually raped by anyone, she was not raped at Phi Kappa Psi in September 2012. So, if Jackie was going to fabricate a gang-rape, why did she decide to blame it on Phi Kappa Psi? Why not Sigma Nu or Alpha Tau Omega? How does a fake victim decide who to blame for her gang-rape that never happened? (“Grab its leg.”) Maybe if Phi Kappa Psi’s defamation suit goes to trial, we’ll get some answers to questions like that, but I expect Rolling Stone and other defendants will make generous out-of-court settlements before it gets that far.

What we already know, however, it that the liar Jackie was very concerned about protecting her privilege to lie anonymously about Phi Kappa Psi, and Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s spectacular journalistic failure stemmed from her willingess to protect Jackie. This was one reason why Erdely didn’t bother to interview the three friends to whom Jackie first reported her alleged rape. If Erdely had interviewed them, she would have learned that their version of events did not match Jackie’s story, and she also might have figured out that this alleged rape was connected to Jackie’s “Haven Monahan” catfishing scheme to make Ryan Duffin jealous.

Oh, but Jackie had to stay anonymous, you see.

What about the proprietors of “Racists Getting Fired,” the Tumblr blog that prompted Ijeoma Oluo’s second thoughts about “doxxing” as a weapon of social justice? Aren’t they anonymous, too? And isn’t their anonymity a way for them to avoid responsibility for their actions? Given the way that site was used for an ex-boyfriend’s personal vendetta against Brianna Rivera, how is it different from “revenge porn”? For that matter, doesn’t Ijeoma Oluo realize that her entire narrative about “doxxing” and “harassment” is a myth?

One reason doxxing feels so good is that it turns the tables. 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 almost since the beginning. GamerGate has sent people death threats, inundated target’s employers with calls for their termination, swatted their homes. Many people have been forced into hiding. Men’s Rights Activists have long shared the private information of prominent feminists as a way of harassing and intimidating them.

Dude, check the record. “Doxxing” did not begin with GamerGate. It is a tactic pioneered by Internet hackers, especially those associated with the Anonymous conspiracy that flourished circa 2010-2012. The fact that there is an obvious overlap between videogame enthusiasts and hackers (rather than a “war on women”) accounts for the use of “doxxing” against various people who have made themselves a nuisance to gamers. As for the allegation that “Men’s Rights Activists” (MRAs) are engaged in “harassing and intimidating” feminists, this is just a way of using a label to create guilt by association. Dean Esmay and Paul Elam are MRAs. If they criticize a certain feminist by name, and that feminist is subjected to illegal harassment, the guilt is on the perpetrators of the harassment. Yet it is a fact that feminists tried to shut down an MRA conference last year, effectively hounding them out of the hotel where the conference had been scheduled. So if feminists are harassing MRAs, are we surprised that the MRAs return the favor?

The real question, however, isn’t necessarily about who threw the first punch in the fight, but rather who is responsible for specific criminal wrongdoing. In other words, Paul Elam might call a feminist a despicable liar, but if somebody then targets her for an actual death threat, it’s the person making the threat (and not Paul Elam) who is responsible. In a larger sense, however, when we encounter this kind of conflict, we have to ask which side is responsible for turning an argument into a take-no-prisoners fight to the death. Here I think feminists simply do not wish to be held responsible for their own deliberate aggression. Every day — every single day for the past two years at least — feminists have been pushing this “rape culture” discourse that demonizes all men as responsible for an alleged epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses.

It seemed to me at first that this was simply a carry-over from the “War on Women” rhetoric of the 2012 campaign. When it persisted, however, I recognized that one reason activists kept beating the “rape culture” drum was in preparation for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. There was a clear partisan political agenda behind this, and the Democrat operatives pushing this agenda didn’t give a damn about actual facts.

https://twitter.com/rsmccain/status/587574437928689664

You can think for yourself, or you can be a puppet on somebody else’s strings. I’m glad to see Ijeoma Oluo asking questions about the ethics of “doxxing.” Perhaps if she keeps asking questions — if she is willing to look at facts and not be misled into accepting partisan mythology — she will eventually begin to doubt the “social justice” gospel that has deformed the souls of so many in her generation.

First published at TheOtherMcCain.com



 

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