A Primer on Doxxing
There’s been a lot of controversy in some circles lately around the internet phenomenon of doxxing. So this month’s newsletter is a primer on doxxing (or doxing), which is one of the vectors by which people today are “cancelled.” I will describe what it is, who does it, how it is perceived, and also provide some practical takeaways.
What Is Doxxing?
The term “dox” (for “documents”) originated in the 1990s hacker community. Its meaning has evolved over time, and today there are three basic definitions of doxxing:
- Attempting to severely harm an ordinary person by revealing or highlighting socially unacceptable or embarrassing social media statements.
- Revealing the real identity of a pseudonymous social media account, typically in conjunction with the intent to harm as above.
- Posting someone’s personal information such as home address or cell phone number in order to trigger harassment, create a sense of fear, or expose the target to the potential for physical harm.
This primer is specifically about the first two meanings of the term, which frequently occur in conjunction.
A few notes on particular aspects of this definition.
The purpose of a dox is to severely harm the target, typically by getting him fired from his job, or damaging or destroying his reputation. Absent this intent to harm, merely revealing the identity of an anonymous or pseudonymous account or highlighting certain material is not typically considered doxxing. For example, many people have tried to deduce the real identity of Satoshi Nakamoto, the inventor of Bitcoin, for reasons having nothing to do with a desire to harm him.
The target of a dox is typically an ordinary person, not a major politician, celebrity, or other public figure. For example, former FBI director James Comey had a pseudonymous Twitter account named after Reinhold Niebuhr, but the exposure of this is not typically viewed as doxxing. This is perhaps roughly analogous to the distinction between a public and non-public figure in libel law.
The contents of a dox is usually social media or other online content. Thus, doxxing is typically about what someone has said or believes, not about what someone has done. The exception to this is identifying people who attend events, such as the infamous Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally. This often also typically labeled doxxing. The unearthing of traditional media or non-online content is typically not described as doxxing. When a yearbook photo of former Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam in a racist costume was revealed, this was seen not as doxxing but as traditional opposition research. (Northam was also a public figure). Additionally, posting of revenge porn is not typically considered doxxing but classified as a different form of online harassment.
Please note that these are general principles that do not necessarily apply in every case. There are many variations and gray areas. For example, in online debates, it’s very common for people to dig up someone’s old tweets on a topic as a form of rejoinder to what he is saying now. In one well-publicized case, a Des Moines Register reporter decided to dig into the background of a person who held up a sign at a sporting event asking for people to send him beer money by Venmo. The reporter wrote a piece including allegedly racist tweets the then 24-year-old man had made as a 16 year old. The internet responded with revulsion at this doxxing by journalist and dug into the reporter’s own tweet archives, surfacing a number of offensive tweets. The reporter was fired. Was this also doxxing? In a technical sense yes, but these sorts of “responsive doxxings” or doxxing the doxxer tend to be categorized as turnabout being fair play. They are viewed differently.
Or consider the case of the Libs of Tik Tok twitter account. This person posts clips of Tik Tok and other videos from teachers, doctors, etc. expressing some extreme left talking point, sometimes bizarre. The purpose of this activity appears to be showcasing how a certain liberal set thinks rather than revealing the real identity of or causing harm to the specific people highlighted. But followers of the account have gone after some of the people featured, making it an interesting case. It’s notable that the unrelentingly hostile Libs of Tik Tok Wikipedia page, does not describe this person as a doxxer, but rather as running a “disinformation Twitter account.” Libs of Tik Tok does not seem to be generally classified as a doxxer.
As we shall see, the word “doxxing” also has an inherently pejorative meaning, and thus is only applied to actions people wish to criticize. When they approve of a particular action, even if it fits the definition, they tend not to call it doxxing.
With these caveats in mind, I believe that my description of doxxing is broadly consistent with how the term is generally used.
Who engages in doxxing? The three major groups are activists, journalists, and in-group rivals.
Some activists attempt to advance their cause via doxxing. These can either be activists operating under their real names, sometimes as part of actual organizations. Or they can themselves be anonymous or pseudonymous, as with various Antifa organizations. An example of the activist type would be those who undertook an effort to identify the attendees at the Charlottesville rally. On the right, some of what Chris Rufo does is probably doxxing, when it’s about individuals rather than institutions.
There is also a subset of the journalist community that frequently doxxes. For example, Donald Trump once re-posted a pro wrestling meme showing him beating a figure on whose head the meme creator had superimposed the CNN logo. CNN tracked down the real identity of the creator and seems to have blackmailed him into apologizing and promising not to create future memes by threatening to dox him, writing:
CNN is not publishing “HanA**holeSolo’s” name because he is a private citizen who has issued an extensive statement of apology, showed his remorse by saying he has taken down all his offending posts, and because he said he is not going to repeat this ugly behavior on social media again. In addition, he said his statement could serve as an example to others not to do the same. CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change.
Note that only a small minority of journalists engage in doxxing. The vast majority do not. But journalists are an important category of doxxer. Also, some journalists don’t themselves dox but do serve as megaphones for activist class doxxers, putting their accusations into the public record and leveraging the power of media organizations to help harm the doxxing target.
A third important category of doxxer is the in-group rival. Whereas activists and journalists typically dox people they don’t know, this type of doxxer targets people with whom he has a pre-existing relationship. For example, a high school student in Virginia had her college admission revoked after a classmate revealed a video of her saying the n-word that he had been holding onto waiting for the right moment to use it against her.
The Impact of Doxxing
The impact of doxxing on the target depends on who the target is and the contents of the dox material.
Dox content that violates social taboos such as racism (against minorities) or antisemitism generally draw swift and severe sanctions. That which involves other material may potentially harm the target, but is less likely to do so. For example, when conservative activists expose anti-white statements or some bizarre gender theory statement or a statement conveying an explicit intention to subvert parents made by an elementary school teacher, the risk of that teacher being fired are far less than those of a white person having been revealed to have used the “n-word.”
A person is more likely to suffer negative consequences from being doxxed if he is a conservative, or some other type of lower status or socially disfavored group. For example, statements that might be ordinarily sanctioned as antisemitic may be overlooked if made by a far left activist who supports the Palestinian cause. While not an instance of doxxing per se, the case of Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar’s statements about Jews is an example. She was criticized for this, but has not yet suffered any significant personal or professional harm.
Taking this further, when a conservative “doxxes” a liberal for expressing a far left talking point, it rarely deserves the label. These people are highlighting online material that, far from being socially taboo, is actually socially approved of by elite culture. Hence in most cases its revelation won’t result in tangible negative consequences to the target. It won’t result in a media pile on. If anything, the major media will run articles defending the target. Many conservative activists who post this type of material appear to de facto assume the people they mention won’t suffer any harm, and are only doing it as a sort of personal brand building exercise within the ecosystem of the right.
People who work for political organizations or other entities that are “hardened” against attempts to force them to cancel people are also less vulnerable to consequences from doxxing. As an example, when in-group rival Alec Dent of the Dispatch attempted to destroy the career of young conservative journalist Nate Hochman via doxxing, his attempt was mostly unsuccessful. Hochman’s primary outlet National Review stood by him. Had Hochman worked for a liberal or mainstream outlet he may well have been sacked.
In short, there is wide variation in the consequences of being doxxed. Those consequences are politically asymmetric, with consequences differing depending on the political orientation of the people involved.
The Perception of Doxxing
Doxxing is overwhelmingly viewed negatively. The term is essentially pejorative. According to the Wikipedia page for the term, “doxing often comes with a negative connotation because it can be a means of revenge via the violation of privacy.”
There are a number of substantive reasons why people don’t like doxxing.
- The risk of misidentifying the target. People have been falsely accused of, for example, being at the Charlottesville rally.
- Material in a dox is often taken out of context and presented in a false or unfair way.
- Doxxing is frequently viewed as an invasion of privacy, similar to recording a conversation between two people walking down the street. Even where public and legal, such activity is typically socially frowned upon. People may lap up celebrity gossip, but they don’t view paparazzi as plying an especially honorable vocation.
- Online conversation frequently occurs as part of subcultures that use transgressive affect in which material is intended to shock, provoke, and offend, and is not intended to be taken as a literal statement of belief.
- Social media mobs tend to overreact to doxxing, leading to grossly disproportionate consequences to the target, just as what happened to Justine Sacco, a normal person with fewer than 200 followers who was fired while on an airplane after a joke she made went viral.
It’s notable how pervasive the uneasiness with doxxing is, even when done over the most socially taboo beliefs. Professor Jared Colton, who studies the ethics of digital communication at Utah State University, said, “Although I wish it were otherwise, the uses of doxing to defeat groups like ISIS or the KKK are not inherently ethical acts.”
Surprisingly, even the attempts to establish the identity of the attendees of the Charlottesville rally received significant pushback. The New York Times seemed troubled by the practice, using phrases like, “Now the online hunt to reveal extremists has raised concerns about unintended consequences, or even collateral damage,” “The ethics — and even the definition — of doxxing is murky,” and “Internet vigilantism has a checkered history.” David Brake, writing at the London School of Economics, highlighted three reasons to oppose doxxing: “Judgements based on social media are easy but can be premature,” “Doxing is subject to error and misinformation,” and “Doxing’s consequences can be disproportionate and life-long.” The New Republic wrote, “Doxxing, even in the most extreme cases, is fraught with ethical complications….doxxing can be an ugly and indiscriminate weapon, even when used in the fight against white supremacy.” Even Vice, known for its “social justice warrior” orientation, was troubled by the practice.
In my view, there seems to be some connection between the way people look at doxxing and the way they look at snitching or being a tattletale. Both involve presenting incriminating evidence to authorities in violation of normative expectations. Even apart from criminal snitching within a gang, there seems to be a strong taboo against being a tattletale. A schoolboy who reported other boys for smoking pot behind the school building would lose status within the social hierarchy of the school, even if he didn’t know the people he was reporting, and even among people who did not know him.
There’s an almost universal, pre-rational dislike of the snitch. Similarly, doxxing triggers an instinctive disgust reflex, even among people who intellectually support the doxxer.
The State of Exception
Most people seems to be ethically troubled by doxxing and see it as at best applicable only in extraordinary or extreme cases (e.g., doxxing purported Nazis). In other words, while doxxing is generally wrong, it is permissible under a state of exception.
The state of exception is is a well-recognized concept. The Covid-19 pandemic, for example, led to declarations of a state of emergency that empowered government officials to take extraordinary actions. Some of these figures were criticized for abusing or over-extending the state of emergency, but everyone recognizes the need for some type of emergency powers in a state of war, during natural disasters, etc.
States of exception apply in social environments as well. The boy who would be stigmatized for snitching on other boys for smoking pot would likely be treated very differently if he reported a rape, for example. During World War II, even the mafia cooperated with the government to provide intelligence about spies at America’s ports, to avert strikes, and even to help plan the US invasion of Sicily.
In the political realm, presidents and governors typically have the explicit power to declare a state of emergency. They decide when the state of exception exists. But how do we determine if a valid state of exception exists in the social world? Because there is no authority, states of exception are recognized by general assent.
One famous example is that of Gary Plauche, who shot and killed the man who had kidnapped and molested his son. Many people thought he was a hero. Few outside of the killed molester’s own family seem to have outright condemned him. The legal system seems to have ratified by this view when he was allowed the plead no contest to manslaughter and be sentenced to probation.
The only cases I can think of where there is a generally recognized state of exception for doxxing are those of responsive doxxing as with the case of the Des Moines Register reporter. I can imagine other scenarios in which the techniques might be accepted. Again, identifying the real person who goes by “Satoshi Nakamoto.” Or unmasking the identity of a pseudonymous social media account implicated in a major crime. But these cases would not be what most people would considered doxxing, and would probably not be labeled as such. The word “doxxing” is inherently pejorative; when something is seen as acceptable, it’s not labeled as doxxing.
All this suggests that people relying on a state of exception to justify their actions in doxxing are not likely to meet with general assent.
In light of the overview above, how should we think about doxxing at the personal level?
First, think about what you believe. Lots of things can get you in trouble in this world, and there are three things that are all simultaneously true.
- There are things that won’t get you in trouble today, but in a sane society would get you in trouble.
- There are things that will get you in trouble today, but in a just society shouldn’t get you in trouble.
- There are things that will get you in trouble today that probably should get you in trouble.
People should avoid believing in things falling into categories one and three. If we are going to get cancelled in a doxxing, we should make sure it’s for something in category two.
It’s easy to get caught up in the fray or the game theory of the Internet. But we can’t lose sight of the supremacy of substance. We must discern what is true and align ourselves with that. Character trumps tactics every time.
Second, recognize that doxxing is now a common tactic, and don’t set yourself up to be victim. It seems to be common, particularly on the political right, to have a pseudonymous “alt” or “sock” account on social media. It is far easier to identify the person behind these accounts than most people think. Very few people are capable of avoiding leaving clues as to their identity. Even our writing style is fingerprintable, and with today’s AI, likely easy for people with resources to trace back to the source. I personally do not have any alt accounts and publish everything under my real name. (I previously used the pseudonym “The Urbanophile,” the lover of cities, but it was widely known to be me).
For those tempted to engage in doxxing, there are some additional considerations.
First, recognize that doxxing has a stigma attached to it. Even those who nominally agree with the position and goals of the doxxer are likely to be turned off by the tactic. A claim of a state of exception may be accepted by a doxxer’s inner circle or activist community but is unlikely to gain general assent. So, someone who believes there is a genuinely exceptional circumstance that justifies doxxing should be prepared to pay a personal price in order to carry through with it. That price is likely to be in the form of status penalties similar to those of the tattletale or snitch. If you are tempted to dox someone, you should count the cost of doing so in terms of the potential short and long term consequences to yourself, which may be significant and substantial.
Second, it’s easier for people on the left to be successful with doxxing, and less likely that they will receive mainstream opprobrium for doing it. Even so, as with the people who doxxed the attendees of the Charlottesville rally, a miasma is likely to attach to the practice. Journalists even at mainstream publications who dox, for example, don’t seem to be perceived as prestige writers but rather occupants of a sort of journalistic low rent district.
Third, given the consequences of most doxxing allegations, no one should ever be doxxed without a high level of proof. One might think of the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard in criminal law, or the evidence that would be necessary for a mainstream news organization like the New York Times to publish. Incorrectly calling someone a white supremacist or similar insult could possibly expose you to legal liability. This is especially true if the target is a private citizen and not a public figure.
As an example here, the real identify of the far right Internet figure “BAP” is widely known. But no major media outlets have published it to date. I can’t say for sure why they have not. But I have never actually seen any proof of his identity presented online, so perhaps reporters haven’t actually been able to substantiate his identity to a high enough level of confidence to allow them to publish.
I hope you found this overview helping in understanding the doxxing phenomenon. Hopefully you will not find yourself in the middle of a doxxing situation yourself, but the next time you see people hurling accusations of being a doxxer at each other, you’ll know what they are talking about.