The Rise of “Doxxing” and Web Vigilantism?

I’ve recently come across several stories of jerks or a-holes (or both) acting badly on social media networks and how these self-same social networks (and the all-mighty power of the Internet) have brought down these trolls. Social media gives everyone a voice. The Internet can give anonymity. Unfortunately, some people will abuse both these things.

First, let’s get to the stories:

A) Hurricane Sandy blew through the Northeast, leaving behind devastation that will take a lot of time and money to repair, not to mention the many lives that were taken that can’t be replaced. Twitter proved to be a real-time source of information and updates as Hurricane Sandy pounded through the East Coast. But one Tweeter, @comfortablysmug, sent out several false tweets about the progress and effects of the hurricane, including a tweet about the NYSE being flooded, which was picked up by news outlets like the Huffington Post and CNN.

B)Reddit troll Violentacrez was notorious for his active role in misogynistic Reddit forums, including encouraging users to post creeper, stalker posts of unsuspecting women. First, that in and of itself is gross, sexist, and just plain, damn wrong. Gawker’s Adrian Chen seemed to agree and revealed Violentcrez’s real identity, a 49-year old man named Michael Brutsch who works as a computer programmer in a financial services company.

In story A) BuzzFeed outed him as a political consultant and he promptly resigned from his position as a campaign manager for a Republican representative.

In story B) Brutsch was fired from his position within 24 hours after Gawker published the expose revealing his Reddit identity.

Web Vigilantism as the Virtual Police?

The Internet gives us a degree of anonymity. Maybe that’s why these jerks felt that they could behave the way they did. It’s still the Wild West in Social Media Land. Who is the sheriff? And who has the right to be the sheriff? Without an easy answer to these questions, web vigilantism may be the arbiter of justice. And “doxxing” is the enforcer of choice.

What exactly is “doxxing”? According to Urban Dictionary, “doxxing” is the act of publishing “personal information about people on the Internet, often including real name, known aliases, address, phone number, SSN, credit card number, etc.” Doxxing takes away the veil of anonymity, giving a face and an identity to a person’s postings, allowing others to publicly shame or punish the person for his or her’s offensive content.

I think both those men acted stupidly and immorally. I know there’s a debate about freedom of speech in these online forums; but at the same time, that freedom needs to be balanced against protecting those who make discriminatory comments and participate in potentially criminal activity under the mantle of Internet anonymity. If someone yells “Fire!” in a crowded space, that’s a crime, plain and simple. Granted, the virtual world has its unique characteristics different from “real life.” But, does that mean harmful activity towards others should be allowed to occur?

It disgusts me so much that people post this type of content, and also worse, that there’s an audience that consumes the type of content that Violentacrez posts. It seems that current laws haven’t caught up with the advances in technology. Until then, the online community will have to police itself.

I don’t have an answer to the issue of web vigilantism, doxxing, maintaining online anonymity, freedom of speech in online platforms, or any of that. My disgust at both those trolls mentioned above may also affect my opinion because I think both got what they deserved. Actions should have consequences, both in the real and virtual worlds. But, I feel like this whole thing can open up a can of worms that will lead to bigger issues that society as a whole doesn’t know how to grapple with yet. GigaOm recently posted an article about the effect of outing and publicly shaming the Tweeter behind @comfortablysmug. It’s an interesting read with a lot of different perspectives about web vigilantism.

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