Digital vigilantism after Charlottesville: Get ready for more naming and shaming
'How can we make change and do good in the world? Is it through Twitter?' professor wonders
In many ways, last weekend's rally in Charlottesville, Va., was a chilling throwback to an era most people had hoped we'd moved on from, one in which racists were emboldened to march in the streets, denouncing the lives and rights of others through violence and angry chants, yelling, "White lives matter" and "Jews will not replace us."
But there are some key differences between the events of the last few days and the decades prior: namely, the rise of the internet and the proliferation of social media channels.
This is how news is now broken, how we seek out and share information and organize ourselves, and increasingly, it's a tool for vigilantism. And now concerned, connected citizens are using our new tools, like Twitter, to ensure history won't repeat itself.
Following Saturday's Unite the Right rally, a Twitter account called @YesYoureRacist, called on the crowdsourcing efforts of its more than 360,000 followers to help identify people who had participated in the event.
It's not the first time people have turned to the internet in this way. We've seen this kind of digital vigilantism for almost as long as we've had access to social media platforms, with people taking it upon themselves to solve crimes and seek justice.
In 2013, following the Boston Marathon bombings, users took to Reddit to piece together clues and try to identify the culprit. Unfortunately in that case, the digital collective got it wrong, publicly identifying someone who turned out to be innocent.
'Trial by social media'
That incident left many people questioning the potential risks associated with this kind of crowdsourced investigation or "trial by social media," specifically, the dangers of misidentification when a digital collective untrained in detective work and not necessarily thinking about due process takes matters into its own hands.
Nonetheless, as people grow frustrated by the seeming lack of repercussions for emboldened and overt racist behaviour, it's likely we will see more digital vigilantism, and more support for these kinds of "naming and shaming" campaigns.
Jon Ronson, the author of So You've Been Publicly Shamed, took to Twitter to respond to the weekend's events, and notably to the naming and shaming of rally participants. He said that there is "a big difference between being a white power activist" and making an offensive or misinformed comment online, but also pointed out that this kind of crowdsourcing is not an "exact science" and cautioned the possibility that "innocent people will get doxxed too."
Doxxing refers to publicly posting someone's private information online.
Laurie Petrou, a colleague of mine and the director of the master's program of media production at Ryerson University, had her home address posted online following a tweet in which she stated that she wanted her students "to have a safe place to work in the digital industry when they graduate." She says, "It really shook me … I was targeted because I'm a woman … It meant that from then on, I was reluctant to speak about issues that are often very important to me for fear of that happening again."
"If you publish their phone number, home address, and other credentials like social security numbers, that certainly counts as doxxing," says Gabriella Coleman, the Wolfe Chair in scientific and technological literacy at McGill University and author of Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous. "But when a person is already public, naming them alone does not quite count as doxxing."
These protesters weren't hiding
She adds that perhaps if they were masked, revealing names alone could be considered doxxing. But as others have pointed out, these protesters weren't hiding their identities; they weren't in masks or hoods.
In an interview with CNN, "Yes, You're Racist" founder Logan Smith, who likened the photos that flooded Twitter with images from 1930s Germany, stated, "These people, they're not hiding anymore, they're not wearing hoods anymore. If they're really so proud of their white supremacist belief, then I think that their communities should know who these people are."
Ronson echoed this sentiment, tweeting they "were undisguised in a massively contentious rally surrounded by the media."
As the unofficial arbiter on whether this naming and shaming constitutes doxxing, even Twitter seems to side with the vigilantes this time around.
While the company hasn't commented about this latest naming and shaming campaign, it does have strict rules about the disclosure of personal information on its platform. Twitter's terms of service refer to actions such as sharing intimate photos or financial information. Identifying individuals from photographs taken in public settings like the Charlottesville rally does not violate those rules.
We are far more comfortable when journalists unveil perpetrators.— Gabriella Coleman of McGill University
"Understandably we are far more comfortable when journalists unveil perpetrators, as they have the training and resources for fact-checking," says Coleman, noting that there has been some discussion around the ethics around this kind of naming and shaming campaign.
Still, she adds, "the danger of misidentification is next to nil when there are clear photos of the protesters and hundreds of people who may know the individual and can verify the name." But, as the New York Times reported, that misidentification can and did happen this weekend.
Shaming, says Coleman, seems like a reasonable response, especially when faced with racism of this nature.
Even Petrou, who has found herself reluctant to retweet the posts identifying the neo-Nazis from the Charlottesville rally, says, "If we do not condemn these people for their deplorable actions, we will continue to see history repeating itself, as it is. The question is, with all the tools we have at our disposal, how can we make change and do good in the world? Is it through Twitter?"