When the Westchester County newspaper the Journal News decided to publish the names and addresses of gun owners, they didn’t just create a firestorm of national controversy and attention; they also set a dangerous journalistic precedent by using a newspaper to adopt the intimidation tactic used by some members of the hackivist group Anonymous, called doxing.
According to the website Know Your Meme:
Doxing, sometimes spelled as Doxxing, refers to the practice of investigating and revealing a target subject’s personally identifiable information, such as home address, workplace information and credit card numbers, without consent. The word is derived from ‘docs,’ which is a shortened term for ‘documents.’
And Doxing is clearly what the Journal News did, releasing personal information about gunowners without consent. The information was publicly available, which is often the excuse of Doxers and the thing that gives them some legal protection. However, for a newspaper to release such information en masse, with no clear journalistic justification, represents a major step back for the ethics of journalism.
However, expect more of it, because it gets attention in a noisy media landscape. The very act of publishing such a list has itself proven to be newsworthy, which is probably why the shameless site Gawker jumped on the bandwagon and published the names of New York City gun owners.
This can also been seen in the current Steubenville rape case story, when an offshoot of Anonymous, called KnightSec, has repeatedly threatened and Doxed people they claim to be associated with the story, including minors and people not actually connected with the case. How did the mainstream media treat these acts? They rewarded KnightSec by running rumors the group was spreading and praising the group for “exposing” the story.
The aim of the tactic is intimidation-a form of bullying that is aimed not just at the direct target but designed to have a chilling effect. If you dox a person who criticizes Anonymous, you are sending a message about what happens to critics. If a newspaper publishes the names and addresses of gun owners, one effect is to make people think twice about owning a gun.
One danger of the tactic is that it creates an escalating, endless cycle of paranoia. After a Time magazine story on the Church of Scientology, the controversial group is alleged to have gone after the journalist’s personal information in an early and well publicized variant of doxing. These “fair game” tactics were a central rationale given by the fledging Anonymous group in 2008 in their famous video that declared war on Scientology for its “campaigns of disinformation” and “suppression of dissent.” Now we have come full circle, and some in Anonymous have become the thing it once claimed to despise, actively promoting disinformation and attacking critics with relish as was shown in the Stephen K. Bannon film Occupy Unmasked.
Dox attacks often result in a similar ironic backlash. As a result of the Journal News Dox of gun owners, a number of employees of the Journal News felt the need to hire security to protect themselves. Many have called for outing the personal information of Journal News employees, an understandable but ultimately counterproductive response that would certainly invoke calls to release the information of the those very information releasers.
Nobody ultimately wins by adopting the tactics and the ethics of the Doxers.