Fallout from modern protests: naming and shaming online

The resulting vigilantism, as well-intentioned as it may be, could end up hardening the views of those it is targeting and creating a 'surveillance society.' Charlottesville is just the latest such campaign. 

Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Peter Cvjetanovic (r.) chants during a demonstration at the base of a statue of Thomas Jefferson after marching through the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville, August 11, 2017. Mr. Cvjetanovic is one of several protesters who has been publicly named online after his participation in the rally.

When hundreds of white supremacists rallied in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend in their largest public appearance in decades, it put faces to ideologies that have become increasingly high-profile over the past year.

Names are now being put to those faces. In response to the rally – which descended into violence in clashes with counter-protesters that left 19 injured and one counter-protester, Heather Heyer, dead – various online crowdsourced campaigns have been trying to publicly shame and punish individual protesters.

Some observers have long-criticized such online shaming campaigns as little more than mistake-prone mob vigilantism energized by social media. The Charlottesville campaign has not only repeated the mistakes of previous public shamings – including missed context and misidentifications – but it has raised additional concerns that this campaign, as well-intentioned as it may be, could only harden the views of some of the individuals it is targeting.

“Historically every society sanctions people who violate the boundaries of what’s normal and acceptable,” says Alice Marwick, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of North Carolina (UNC), Chapel Hill.  “This is just the latest form of that shaming.”

“These are very potent tools, and they’re being used for an enormous variety of social violations,” adds Dr. Marwick, who researches social media and society. “For neo-Nazis, many would agree it’s socially unacceptable behavior. That’s quite different from shaming a woman wearing yoga pants.” 

Indeed, online public shaming has ranged from the benign (like Facebook groups shaming people for bad parking jobs), to the predatory. For example “doxxing” –  when a target’s personal information, like their home address and phone number, is made public – can lead to direct threats to the lives of targets and their families. Gamergate activists, for example, doxxed and threatened female video game critics.

Immediate consequences

The post-Charlottesville campaign does not seem to have reached that extreme. But there have been consequences for some self-described alt-right protesters – and for some people who weren’t even at the rally last weekend.

Soon after the dust settled in Charlottesville, Twitter user @YesYoureRacist began posting pictures of alt-right protesters and crowd-sourcing other users to find out their names and workplaces or universities. His was one of many efforts to identify and publicly shame protesters.

-       Peter Cvjetanovic, a University of Nevada, Reno, student, was one of those identified.

-       Cole White, another protester, resigned from his job at a Berkeley, Calif., hot dog restaurant after being identified.

-       Peter Tefft, of Fargo, N.D., was repudiated by his family after being spotted giving television interviews at the rally.

These campaigns have also highlighted the risks of an online manhunt conducted by amateurs with itchy Twitter fingers. Most notably, a University of Arkansas assistant professor named Kyle Quinn was mistakenly identified as having been one of the torch-bearing protesters. He was flooded with vulgar messages on social media and accused of racism, and his home address was posted on social networks before the mistake was discovered, the New York Times reported. @YesYoureRacist also apologized for mistakenly placing Joey Salads, a YouTube star, at the rally. The Twitter user posted an old photo of Mr. Salads wearing a swastika armband, a photo that had been from a different event.

'Doxxing' seen as justified post-Charlottesville

Doxxing has been used by both the right and the left. While Gamergate trolls left some feminists fearing for their lives, some progressives have criticized public shaming from the left, including the social media hounding of Rachel Dolezal, the civil rights activist who had faked being African-American.

“The great thing about social media was how it gave a voice to voiceless people,” wrote Jon Ronson, author of “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” in the Guardian. “We are now turning it into a surveillance society where the smartest way to survive is to go back to being voiceless.”

“Because this is something that can be used by every side, whether it’s justified is going to depend on your political position,” adds Marwick. “People on the far-right frequently target feminists, supporters of Black Lives Matter, and claim that they’re terrorists and are stifling free speech.”

The Charlottesville campaign has yet to reach that level of vitriol. Social media users have even stressed not posting sensitive personal information. Most experts who spoke with The Monitor think the campaign has been morally justifiable so far.

“I think there’s value in naming those people,” says Jen Golbeck, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Maryland, College Park. “I don’t think it carries the threat that someone is going to come to your house and hurt you or your kids.” 

Furthermore, naming and shaming the protesters may be as much a response to the past 12 months – which have seen the self-described alt-right become increasingly outspoken, fueled in part by perceived support from the White House – as to Charlottesville specifically. “After half a century,” the Southern Poverty Law Center wrote on the cover of its 2017 Intelligence Report, “the radical right enters the mainstream.”

“People feel kind of powerless” against the rise of the alt-right, says Dr. Golbeck, and identifying individual members can “have an impact and … get in the way of this group of neo-Nazis and white supremacists becoming more successful.”

“What social shaming shows is people feel very angry about the increasing social acceptability and normalization of these positions,” adds UNC's Marwick, “and social shaming becomes a way for people to fight back against that.” 

The campaign could backfire

Whether identifying its adherents is striking a blow against the self-described alt-right is an open question, however.

George Hawley, a political science professor at the University of Alabama Tuscaloosa and author of the upcoming book “Making Sense of the Alt-Right,” notes that the doxxing of white supremacists began around the turn of the year, with some of the movement's once-incognito leaders – including “Mike Enoch” (actual name Mike Peinovich) and “Millennial Woes” (real name Colin Robertson) – becoming household names.

“The result wasn’t a decrease in alt-right activity,” says Dr. Hawley.

The same may be true for the Charlottesville protesters, Hawley believes, and being publicly named could even cement their alt-right ideologies.

“Once someone is outed they don’t really have anything to lose,” he says. “So one thing that might result from doxxing is that someone who might have been engaged in far-right activism as an occasional hobby or dalliance may turn to be more aggressively involved, be more open, and create more content.” 

As doxxing efforts have ramped up against the alt right “this intermediate category seems to be shrinking,” he continues. “People are deciding to either be totally upfront or stay 100 percent anonymous. What I don’t know is what direction more people are going towards.”

What’s more, being publicly shamed may directly reinforce a feeling of victimization that is already pervasive within the alt-right. 

In the wake of Charlottesville, however, the public naming and shaming of white supremacists and neo-Nazis is hard to criticize, say some observers, even for those who have spoken out against such shaming more generally.

Asam Ahmad, a Toronto-based poet and community organizer, criticized “call-out culture” among progressives in a 2015 article as something with “a mild totalitarian undercurrent” with similarities to the prison-industrial complex and its preference “to banish and dispose of individuals rather than to engage with them as people with complicated stories and histories.”

This week, in an email response to The Monitor, he wrote: “Every single white supremacist deserves to be publicly shamed and face the consequences of their actions.”

Others are taking a wait-and-see approach. “While I think in this instance it’s perfectly morally defensible,” says Tom Spiggle, an employment lawyer and a former assistant US attorney general, "we’ll have to see what the next iteration is, because it could be for something I don’t support.”

This story was corrected to reflect the fact that Richard Spencer, president of the National Policy Institute and a white nationalist, has not been doxxed.

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