Andrew Kaczynski of Buzzfeed is looking into the identity and motivations of a pseudonymous Twitter user who's been spreading incredibly irresponsible and potentially dangerous false Hurricane Sandy rumors, thus bringing up a subject that's been coming up a lot lately: "Doxxing" -- that is, the act of publishing a pseudonymous user's real life identity and identifying details. danah boyd has a very good introduction to the topic on Wired that cites two extremely well known, recent cases of doxxing, one a Gawker article which outed a troll on Reddit, the other a stalker on YouTube whose actions contributed to a woman's suicide. danah weighs the moral dimensions each situation exposes:
By enabling the rapid flow of information, technology offers us a unique tool to publicly out people or collectively tar and feather them. Well-meaning people may hope to spread their messages far and wide using Twitter or Facebook, but the fast-spreading messages tend to be sexual, horrific, or humiliating... When someone’s been wronged – or the opportunity arises to use someone to make a statement – it is relatively easy to leverage social media to incite the hive mind to draw attention to an individual. The same tactic that trolls use to target people is the same tactic that people use to out trolls.
I think about the topic of pseudonymous identity a lot, because Second Life and other online worlds mainly involve users known only by their avatar pseudonyms, and would prefer not to connect their in-world activity with their real life identity. Generally my policy on that is this:
I only associate someone's real life name with their SL avatar in print if and only if it's important to the news story I'm writing, and they give me their explicit permission to do so -- or if the SL-RL connection has already been displayed on the Internet elsewhere. (A simple Google search of [real name] + [SL name] shows whether or not that's the case.) Generally, someone's real life identity isn't crucial to a story, but there are cases when it matters. (For instance, when an SL user dies in real life, and I absolutely need to confirm this is true.)
However, all this is different from "doxxing", since that's the involuntary outing of someone's real life identity. For various reasons, I don't do that on this blog, and don't ever plan to do so. However, much larger blogs like Gawker and Buzzfeed have already made that decision for themselves, which will probably establish a more general precedent.
Is there ever a good or advisable time to doxx someone? As danah notes, that's still a very difficult ethical conversation, but it's one we're now destined to have.Tweet