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‘Doxxing’ someone, even if he’s a Nazi sympathizer, poses a serious ethical dilemma

  • There has been a lot of "doxxing," or public outing, of people lately, for everything from sexual harassment to being a white supremacist.
  • But when people start to lose their jobs or get harassed and and have to leave their homes, it begs the question: Is it ethical?
  • That depends on a variety of factors, including whether it's done with a proper motive and if the person being outed has already been public in their views.
Peter Cvjetanovic (R) along with Neo Nazis, Alt-Right, and White Supremacists encircle and chant at counter protestors at the base of a statue of Thomas Jefferson after marching through the University of Virginia campus with torches in Charlottesville, Va., on August 11, 2017.
Samuel Corum | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
Peter Cvjetanovic (R) along with Neo Nazis, Alt-Right, and White Supremacists encircle and chant at counter protestors at the base of a statue of Thomas Jefferson after marching through the University of Virginia campus with torches in Charlottesville, Va., on August 11, 2017.

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.

"I appreciate the good that doxxing done right can accomplish, but I do not like the idea of living in a world in which people who have strongly different points of view instinctively respond to each other with vilification and threats rather than with fairness, respect and reason."

And another key point is if the person/people participated in a public event, like the Charlottesville rally, with no effort to conceal their identities. You pretty much give up any right-to-privacy argument there.

Special care is needed especially to avoid false positives, which are inevitable given that doxxers are generally amateurs working with imperfect information.

Innocents have suffered from doxxing gone wrong. In August, a white supremacist protester in Charlottesville wearing an "Arkansas Engineering" T-shirt was mistakenly identified as Kyle Quinn, a professor in the College of Engineering at the University of Arkansas whose work is devoted to wound-healing research. Both men were white, bearded, sturdily built, and associated with the same engineering school.

The former engineering student who had attended the protest apologized, and efforts were made to correct the mistake. But the damage was done and negative information about people is much easier to publish than it is to correct.

Another factor that determines the ethics of doxxing is whether it brings about positive change. Some argue that identifying people likely to cause others harm is an effective way to protect the public.

Others argue that doxxing white supremacists and removing them from established online platforms like Facebook, Twittter and Reddit, will not silence them but rather push them into hidden channels of anonymous communication, like Tor, where they become harder to detect and track.

Doxxing white supremacists might provide momentary satisfaction from a sense of justice served, but it may also cut them off from moderating influences in their personal and professional lives and push them deeper into the bosom of the bias-reinforcing enclave that alone accepts them.

A final question is whether doxxing enhances or diminishes our life together. Gandhi famously urged "Be the change you wish to see in the world."

I appreciate the good that doxxing done right can accomplish, but I do not like the idea of living in a world in which people who have strongly different points of view instinctively respond to each other with vilification and threats rather than with fairness, respect and reason. The world is divided enough already.

Commentary by Joseph Holt, a business ethics professor at the University of Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business. Follow him on Twitter @busethicsdude.

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