Lately we've seen a whole lot of "doxxing," or outing people publicly, for everything from sexual harassment to being a white supremacist.
But when we start to hear about cases like Tony Hovater, who was featured in a New York Times story as "the Nazi sympathizer next door" and then lost his job and had to move out of his house, it begs the question: Is doxxing ethical?
The answer depends on whether the doxxee, like Hovater, willingly revealed his or her identity. It also depends on whether the doxxing is done competently and with a positive moral purpose.
In August, anti-fascist doxxers outed certain white nationalists who participated in the protest in Charlottesville, Virginia. One white nationalist lost his job as a result of the exposure. White nationalists, in turn, doxxed a number of anti-fascist protestors and threatened them and their families.
Was such doxxing ethical? That depends in part on motive, which matters greatly in ethics.
Revealing the name of a child molester living in your neighborhood or a person who has sexually harassed or assaulted women in the workplace in order to protect future victims is morally better than outing the person just to cause them pain.
Whether doxxing is ethical also depends on whether it is done thoughtfully or not. More thoughtfulness is badly needed in the age of social media. As University of Chicago Law School Professor Eric Posner observed in a Slate article, "The major effect of social media is that it enables people to broadcast an opinion — or, more accurately, a gut reaction — to the whole world, instantly, without pausing to give it any thought."
For doxxing to be ethical, it also must be done competently, with due care. That is especially important since most doxxers, unlike journalists, operate without established training, norms and guidelines. They also operate anonymously rather than with a byline that readily identifies them and makes them accountable for what they write.