If you’re not on Twitter, you may have missed the outrage du jour — the atrocity that’s gobbling up more attention than North Korea’s ballistic missile launch or the horrible ambush shooting of an NYPD officer earlier this morning. CNN investigated and then threatened to identify the anonymous Reddit user, “HanAssholeSolo,” who “claimed credit” for the GIF in this viral Donald Trump tweet:
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 2, 2017
Does that look like a threat? It’s certainly does to me. I have a few thoughts:
First, there is nothing inherently wrong with CNN chasing down the identity of the person who created the GIF. Sure, it’s hardly the most important question in the world, but CNN can spare the tiny bit of effort that it took to find his identity. Trump has tweeted bizarre memes and images before, and it’s worth knowing where he gets them.
Second, CNN isn’t the government, and it doesn’t violate anyone’s rights if a private entity uses simple, legal means to pierce internet anonymity. I’ll vigorously defend anonymous speech from improper government intrusion, but creating an online avatar is hardly a shield from private inquiry, nor should it be.
Third, as someone who’s been subject to a torrent of anonymous online internet abuse — much of it directed at my alleged “cuck” or “beta” status — I find it more than a little amusing to see the hysterical squealing from those same quarters the instant they fear they might be exposed. Sorry guys, but you’re not all that tough.
However, when CNN completed its investigation and found that the poster wasn’t a member of the Trump administration or a pro-Trump journalist or other public figure, it should have either protected the man’s privacy or exposed him as an example of the kind of person who’s polluting the internet with the recent wave of alt-right sludge. Instead, it chose a bizarre and ominous third course — to protect his privacy while reserving the right to expose him if he restarted his “ugly behavior.”
At that point, the CNN story changes from a news story of debatable value into ham-handed blackmail. CNN is positioning itself not as a reporter of internet realities but rather as an internet schoolmarm, threatening an anonymous man with exposure if he dares step out of line. Is his identity newsworthy or not? Does it become more newsworthy if his behavior stays “ugly?”
I think there’s real value in locating and exposing alt-right trolls more broadly. They’ve had an online influence that far outweighs their real-world numbers, and it’s entirely worth knowing who they are and examining their motivations. But that didn’t seem to be CNN’s goal. It went looking for a scoop, instead found a terrified and deeply-misguided private citizen, and then left his future hanging by a thread. Out him or don’t. ”Reserving the right” to do so later seems more like malice than journalism.