When Donald Trump stood on a South Carolina stage three weeks ago and reeled off Senator Lindsey Graham’s phone number to a tittering audience, he no doubt believed he was engaging in some bold statement, a grandiose, nonconformist but of performance.
Alas for Trump, he’s not exactly a pioneer here: Small-time hackers, message-board flamers and other low-life Internet bullies have made exactly this sort of grand “statement” for more than 20 years.
In Internet parlance, it’s called doxing: the strategic outing of an opponent’s real name, home address, or other private information, published with the intention of inconveniencing, frightening or straight-up endangering them.
But lately, it seems, the dox is society’s immediate, unthinking reaction to any character or news event with which it doesn’t agree. In the past three weeks alone, vigilantes have doxed Walter Palmer, the Minnesota dentist who shot Cecil the lion; Brian Encina, the Texas police officer who arrested Sandra Bland; and more than 300 employees of Planned Parenthood, which was purportedly hacked.
In a predictable karmic twist, even Trump himself got the dox treatment: Gawker published the candidate’s personal phone number on August 3, only too “happy” to add it “to the body of public knowledge.”
“Doxing is not a new thing — far from it,” explains Whitney Phillips, an expert in online trolling and an assistant professor of liberal studies at Penfield College of Mercer University. What is new, Phillips says, is this counterintuitive concept of “doxing for good”: exposing other people’s personal information “as a stand against ‘bad’ behavior, or as a sort of public service.”
The big question, of course, is whether doxing “for good” ever actually does any.
To understand what makes this question so very complicated, you have to first know a little bit about the history of doxing. Phillips cautions that the tactic is a tool: Like a switchblade or a Kalashnikov, it’s not inherently evil — though it’s used for evil more often than not.
The earliest recorded instances of doxing, before “doxing” was even the preferred term, went down in Usenet newsgroups and online bulletin boards, where rabble-rousers wielded real names and addresses like weapons against more vulnerable users.
Later, in the mid-’90s, “dropping docs” — short for documents — became trendy among rival hackers: Not only was digging up an opponent’s identity a good show of skill, but publishing it could also potentially do serious harm to someone, up to landing them in jail.
By the time 4chan and its band of lunatic pranksters emerged from the edges of the Internet in 2003, the dox was well-established as the ultimate “life-ruin tactic”: the absolute height of malevolent Internet prankery. 4chan’s /b/ board, and later Anonymous — the hacker collective it spawned — rejoiced in a good, life-ruining dox, the kind that sent victims scurrying for cover.
Anonymous doxed Hal Turner, the white supremacist radio host before setting their sights on a range of minor Internet personalities. In 2008, seeking greater laughs and infamy, they doxed the senior leadership of the Church of Scientology.
In hindsight, experts say, that episode may have changed everything.
“Like most previous raids, many expected this hearty ‘f— you’ would run its course and then peter out after a few days of brutal and playful shenanigans,” the anthropologist Gabriella Coleman wrote in her seminal history of Anonymous.
But the raid didn’t peter out: On the contrary, the Scientology scandal struck a rare chord with the mainstream, launching a tidal wave of international press attention. Within days, there were anti-Scientology protests in 127 cities. And overnight, Anonymous — a fringe group of puckish Internet provocateurs — had become “hacktivists.”
You gotta admit: The neologism had a nice ring to it. Even better, anyone with a moral ax to grind could claim to be part of the movement. Since Anonymous is a very loose collective, with no leaders or official membership, joining is as easy as saying you’re in. And as Anonymous became associated with progressive activism, lots of non-hackers were interested.
“I don’t want to say there was ever a watershed moment,” Phillips cautions. “But as Anonymous began to work with progressive causes, social justice campaigns and events also began to integrate its tactics.”
Doxing was chief among these tactics and Anonymous deployed its full strength on the Steubenville high school football players accused of rape in 2012; many pundits say there would have been no action taken in this case if it wasn’t for Anonymous.
They then went on to dox the man accused of bullying Canadian teenager Amanda Todd to death.
And the police officer who they said shot Michael Brown in Ferguson.
Sometimes Anonymous doxed the wrong people; increasingly, the people would dox on their own, no longer dependent on Anonymous’ skills. Doxing no longer requires a large degree of Internet savvy. We all release so much information online under our real names that, at least for a rudimentary dox, the detective work is as easy as a reverse domain look-up, a public-records check or a quick Google search.
Doxing Walter Palmer was so simple, in fact, that even the actress Mia Farrow got into it the game: “CecilTheLion -Gentle protector of 6 cubs. Loved by many. Killed by Dentist Walter Palmer,” she tweeted casually on July 29, with a screengrab of Palmer’s home address.
There you have it, in black-and-white plaintext: The pinnacle of Internet justice.
A year ago this week, at the height of Ferguson’s meltdown, a 14-year-old hacker named David obtained the name, home address and Social Security number of the police officer he believed had shot Michael Brown.
It was a masterpiece of a vigilante dox, a proud fulfillment of the exhortation to only “dox the powerful.” It was also 100 percent, entirely, totally mistaken. David not only had the wrong guy, but he felt absolutely no remorse for any harm or collateral damage that resulted from the actions he’d taken.
“Even if someone has done something objectively terrible, doxing is a problematic response,” Phillips sighs. “You can get information wrong. You can harm people who have nothing to do with it. Your actions can have further repercussions than you expect.”
In short: “Anything that relies on the mob mentality is a powder keg.”
It’s not just that the mob tends toward error and disproportionate responses, either: A group of highly motivated, partisan people can convince themselves that almost any sort of dox qualifies as a strike for the “right” side: Just ask the dozens of journalists who were doxed for merely covering divisive stories this year, or the gamers, designers and critics whose deeply frightening cases are currently in the hands of the FBI.
According to the strain of logic popular in those doxers’ IRC channels and message boards, they’re not actually harassing anyone: They’re just “watching the watchers.”
Incidentally, that’s the basic justification Trump used when he handed out Senator Graham’s phone number in late July: “Your local politician, you know?” he quipped, implying the move was some kind of pro-social, pro-government-transparency strike.
There’s no dressing up a dox, though — even a dox intended for good.
“Even when they come from a good place,” Phillips said, “they open too many cans of worms.”
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