The Huffington Post has a new editorial policy: to publish the personal information of anonymous Internet “trolls” who spread hate. The most recent entry in the genre came last week, in a report by Luke O’Brien, which identifies the woman behind the Twitter account @AmyMek. Her name is Amy Jane Mekelburg, and she lives in Fishkill, N.Y., with her husband Salvatore Siino. All of this information, and more — did you know Mekelburg’s brother runs a restaurant in Brooklyn? — was deemed journalistically relevant on the rationale that Mekelburg’s Internet presence is “prolific and prejudiced.” Prolific: @AmyMek, follower count 200,000, has been followed by such luminaries as Roseanne Barr, Sean Hannity, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Prejudiced, because she tweeted racist content and, when not on the social network, tended to a website called “Resistance against Islamic Radicals,” on which she — buckle up — published the personal information of people she absurdly deemed to be complicit in jihad.
No doubt Mekelburg is odious; O’Brien’s story builds a strong enough case for that. A more contentious question is whether her odiousness justified the measures to which O’Brien went in order to expose her: contacting her husband’s employer, which then fired him, and staking out their house to report on the couple’s Memorial Day–weekend whereabouts. That much of the piece is spent implicitly convincing readers of Mekelburg’s destructiveness — “hate that festers online against any group of people doesn’t always stay online,” writes O’Brien, before comparing Mekelburg to Anders Breivik — suggests the Huffington Post expected readers to ask the question.
Was O’Brien’s story an intrusion into a private citizen’s personal life for the purpose of shaming her before a mass audience, was it an overzealous exposé of a newsworthy subject that went too far by prying into her family members’ lives, or was it a righteous piece of investigative journalism that unmasked an insidious hatemonger? People disagreed. Some who chose the first answer, people we might label right-wing Internet trolls, decided to do something that by now should be decidedly unsurprising: publish the personal information of several Huffington Post employees and their families on the Internet.
Who could have seen it coming?
The dissemination of personal information of previously anonymous persons has a name. It’s called “doxxing,” and it is an ignominious but important part of the modern Internet. Most message boards, from the well-known Reddit and 4chan to the constellation of assorted vBulletin forums and asterisk-chan imageboards that waxed online in the late 2000s, allow users to remain anonymous. Anonymity is a historically essential ingredient of message-board culture, for good and for ill: Without a guarantee that what you post won’t be traced back to your real-world identity, you wouldn’t post certain things. Hence doxxing is generally construed to be an egregious violation of the online social compact — and it remains so for many on Twitter, which represents a cultural successor to and consolidated version of the old group of message boards that once dominated the Internet.
Hacking collective LulzSec is perhaps the most prolific doxxer in history, having published the information of thousands of people on the justification that, hey, it was funny. But not all doxxing is anarchic. It has frequently been deployed as a sort of “check” on people who fall afoul of some standard of judgment. Low-level doxxing of the sort common in the 2000s targeted notorious trolls. More recently it has taken a political valence: In the wake of the Charlottesville protests, several white supremacists were doxxed, and Lou Dobbs published the information of a woman who had accused Donald Trump of sexual misconduct during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Internet battles tend not to be won and lost by deliberating ethics.
What is the line between doxxing and investigative journalism? That is the salient question of the Huffington Post affair. What should we call the decision to identify Mekelburg? The site’s editor, Lydia Polgreen, attempted to draw a distinction: “Doxing is revealing a person’s private information: home address, telephone number, etc. Identifying a popular anonymous troll by name is NOT doxing.” On this view, O’Brien didn’t publish Mekelburg’s address, hence what he did wasn’t doxxing.
This is simply false, as anyone who has spent more than a cursory amount of time online knows: Doxxing is the identification of someone who had formerly been anonymous — in large part because once someone’s name becomes public, their email, phone number, and address are extremely easy to find.
In moral terms, there are clear grounds to distinguish the publication of Mekelburg’s private information from the publication of assorted Muslims’ private information — and from the publication of the addresses of O’Brien’s family members. But even a righteous crusade to unmask someone can go awry: After Charlottesville, innocent people were misidentified as Nazis, and Reddit infamously pinned the Boston Marathon bombing on the wrong guy. O’Brien seems to have made a similar misstep in drawing attention not only to Mekelburg but to her family members.
Regardless, Internet battles tend not to be won and lost by deliberating ethics. O’Brien’s editor says he is a “professional journalist,” but journalists do not have the gatekeeper status they once did. The users they are unmasking — Mekelburg, the once-prolific Twitter user “Ricky Vaughn” — have large audiences, the Huffington Post might reason, and espouse abhorrent political views. Yet plenty of people on the online right have defended the publication of reporters’ personal information for the same reasons. They’re wrong, but to think that the doxxing of anonymous figures on the right-wing Internet won’t meet with a vicious response is naïve in the extreme. The Huffington Post might think a doxxing-as-journalism approach to the online Right is the pinnacle of righteousness, but its obvious consequences make it a reckless escalation in the online culture war.