When Private-Public Speech Becomes Public-Public Speech

I woke up this past Sunday to a post on Sulia about a Redditor being exposed by Gawker’s Adrian Chen. The user Chen exposed, ‘violentacrez,’ was highly connected in the Reddit volunteer community and creator or moderator of some of the more offensive ‘sub-reddits’ (forums off of the main page that focus on specific topics). In particular he created the now defunct /r/jailbait, chokeabitch, hitler, and others dedicated to pictures of rape, incest, and dead teens, to name a few. Violentacrez (VA) pleaded with Chen to not disclose his name to no avail. Meanwhile, Reddit went nuts in the name of the unrestricted free speech they so proudly champion. The politics subreddit (/r/politics) went as far as banning Gawker articles from being posted, and subreddits supporting VA were created. They did not (usually) endorse what VA was posting, rather his right to remain anonymous in doing it.

Chen, to the /r/politics moderators, is a villain for ‘doxing’ VA. Doxing is a hacker term for the discovery of someone’s true identity and disclosure of personally identifiable information (PII). A news article about a doxing by LulzSec explains that it involves the “exposing personal information on a victim to the public…. The standard dox on a person can include all relevant personal details, such as name, address, phone numbers, date of birth, Social Security Number, social networking information, usernames, passwords, images, and anything else that is related to them in an identifying capacity.” Doxing violentacrez was done by a lone journalist without hacking any accounts and released only his name and age. Notably, Chen had several opportunities to tell his readers where VA was employed, his phone number, and usernames but chose not to. All we knew about VA after reading Chen’s article was his sex, name, and that he had a family, was some kind of programmer, and lived in Arlington, TX. Most of that information was supplied by VA during his (probably NSFW) ‘Ask Me Anything’ appearance in his own ‘Ask Me Anything’. Given everything we don’t know about him, and the things that were filled in from other sources, is it really a fair claim that Chen ‘doxed’ VA? Considering what’s at stake, it is hard to answer that question in the affirmative, yet his supporters in the Reddit community have been pretty clear about calling this a dox.

Assuming the Redditors are correctly calling this a dox, and assuming they’re appropriately angry about it is it wrong? Doxing can be used for many purposes. Vicious exposure to throw government agencies off an unjust case is one use. Disclosing PII as a way of publicly embarrassing the organization and exposing weaknesses in its electronic infrastructure is another. Anonymous lead the PII of BART riders in a puzzling response to police suppression of speech. This all indicates Reddit isn’t internally consistent on the issue. Many of those instances were roundly praised on Internet communities including Reddit as brave attacks on the powers-that-be. When it hits home, it is nothing short of defamation. It is an assault on the Reddit community and its standard of free speech. In no other corner of American, at least, would pointing out a creep who harasses innocent women and publicly promotes rape, incest, and domestic violence be considered unfair, nor would hundreds of people rush to said creep’s defense (First Amendment cases aside). Does VA have a right to hold those beliefs and advocate them publicly? Absolutely. Likewise, a journalist like Adrian Chen has a responsibility to hold people like VA responsible for their actions.

What is most startling is the ignorance and hypocrisy of Gawker’s banishment for exposing VA. Essentially, the /r/politics moderators’ argument is that doxing VA in real life (IRL) was wrong because it might harm him IRL. The retaliation: banishment of Gawker. The moderators like freedom of speech as long as the probability of it hurting Redditors IRL is low. This is fine except that Gawker’s Adrian Chen exposed someone who in some cases glorifies real harm IRL and in others does real harm IRL. What’s more startling is that Redditors, some of the most technically savvy individuals on the Internet, still believe they can remain anonymous in the age of big data and that things posted to a public, online forum should somehow not be thought to represent them IRL. Redditors seem to live in a world that is somehow above criticism and one of the best parts of free speech: holding public figures responsible for offensive or harmful things they do or say in public.

Greg Boone is the former Director of Multimedia at gnovis and the webmaster. He is interested in the intersections of technology and society. The guiding question of his research is what is the role of science and technology in society, and what consequences do they have for democracy? Greg has been podcasting since he worked for KGSM Radio at Gustavus Adolphus College, his work can be found at http://harmsboone.org and http://internationalunderground.org.