Was It Right for Anonymous to Dox the KKK?
Is the public disclosure of someone’s membership in an organization — indeed, a racist one — a proper display of dissent? Do the ends always justify the means?
Late on the afternoon of November 5, 2015, the hacker collective known as Anonymous released personally identifying information exposing the identities of hundreds of alleged members of the KKK. In describing its reasoning for the release, it claimed that the KKK:
"...generally oppose[s] interracial relationships, homosexuality, and illegal immigration and historically express[es] this ideology through acts of terror. We want to remind you: This operation is not about the ideas of members of the Ku Klux Klan. This is about the behaviors of members of KKK splinter cells that bear the hallmarks of terrorism."
Anonymous spent the last 11 months gathering the information contained within the data dump; it argues that the release is about terrorism. “We defend free thought and free speech. The anons responsible for this operation will not support *acts* of terrorism and *acts* of hate inflicted upon the public. The KKK is part of an important cultural landscape and history in the United States," the release on Pastebin reads. “We need to make room for important, blunt, honest, public, productive conversation. Violent bigotry IS a problem in the United States. This is not a colorblind society. It [is] deeply divided on racial lines.”
Dubbed Operation KKK, the published data consists mostly of the Facebook pages of suspected (or allegedly confirmed) members of the KKK. Known as doxing, the goal of the data dump was to stimulate conversation around racism in the United States. “We hope Operation KKK will, in part, spark a bit of constructive dialogue about race, racism, racial terror, and freedom of expression, across group lines,” the disclosure reads. “We consider this data dump as a form of resistance against the violence and intimidation tactics leveraged against the public by various members of Ku Klux Klan groups throughout history.”
Assuming that resistance can be expressed online, the discussion then becomes one of determining if doxing is a legitimate form of resistance. Is the public disclosure of someone’s membership in an organization — indeed, a racist one — a proper display of dissent? What if the exposed data contained home addresses, email addresses, phone numbers, etc.? Would that matter? Is the seeming vigilantism of the release overridden by the end goal? Equally controversial is the discussion around which groups can use doxing as a form of demonstration. Can only anti-racist ones? Anti-government groups? Gamergate trolls? Can we dox anyone for any reason?
Rebecca Watson, writer at Skepchick.org, argues that doxing is simply a tool, and as such, is an amoral act. What gives it meaning, what determines its “goodness” or “badness,” is the context in which it's used. "I’m frankly tired of the black and white thinking that goes along with any discussion of doxing, as though an aggressive act is inherently evil regardless of who the target is and who the perpetrator is,” she writes. “Doxing is one of those acts that can be used for good or for ill. Like punching.”
To make her point, Watson describes an incident between famed astronaut Buzz Aldrin and conspiracy theorist Bart Sibrel. Sibrel, a filmmaker, claims that the Apollo moon landings are fake. In fact, he’s made four films on the topic. In September 2002, Sibrel confronted Aldrin outside of a Beverly Hills hotel and insisted Aldrin swear on a Bible that he had indeed walked on the moon. After Aldrin refused, Sibrel called him “a coward, and a liar, and a thief” and Aldrin punched Sibrel in the face. The clip is below.
To Watson, circumstances matters. To determine whether any act, including doxing, is appropriate, you must consider context:
"I'm a nonviolent person. I think violence rarely solves any problems and more often only makes them worse. I’m anti-war. I’m anti-gun. And in many cases, I’m anti-punching. But god damn, did Sibrel ever deserve that punch. Had it been the other way around — had Sibrel followed Aldrin around, harassing him for a minute, before Sibrel punched Aldrin in the face — I would vehemently condemn the act. Does this make me a punching hypocrite? No: It makes me a person who understands that for some acts, the context matters in determining whether it’s a good or a bad thing.”
Like punching someone in the face, doxing can only be judged by the circumstances in which the act occurs. Had Sibrel punched Aldrin, we would have immediately said it was wrong. But, when Aldrin punches Sibrel, most of us view it as Sibrel receiving his comeuppance. He deserved it.
In the case of the KKK release, I’m not sure it really matters. By most accounts, the data is not that impressive. Much of the dumped material comprises information about already known members of the KKK. These are people who previously had publicly acknowledged their involvement in the KKK and other white supremacist groups. But the KKK data release does give us an opportunity to examine our thoughts around doxing and its uses (or misuses). Like most things, there isn’t a bright, shining line between when it is appropriate to use and when it isn’t. Like most things, context matters.
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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:
"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."
Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.
Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.
The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?
Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression
In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.
It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.
Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.
Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.
The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.
It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.
In their findings the authors state:
"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.
Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."
With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.
Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner
As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:
- Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
- Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
- Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
- Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
- Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
- Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
- Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.
It's interesting to note the authors found that:
"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."
You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.
Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:
- 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
- 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
- 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
- 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
- 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
- 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.
Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement
Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:
- Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
- Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
- Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
- Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
- We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
- If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.
Civic discourse in the divisive age
Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.
There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:
"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.
Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."
We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.
This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.
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