SRC ELECTIONS 2018

The doxxing ring

Liam Donohoe looks at the weird world of politically motivated doxxing.

Image: stock photo of a plain white man sitting at a laptop looking agitated. Source: Shutterstock. Image: stock photo of a plain white man sitting at a laptop looking agitated. Source: Shutterstock.

Political discourse is more divisive than ever. Though battles over social attitudes have always been a feature of political discourse, and will continue to be so long as ruling classes have incentives to fan the flames of division, hostilities seemed to have intensified over the past half-decade or so. This is particularly the case in the underground, amid the physical and virtual clashes that make up frontline in the culture war. Both the far-left and right have embraced the internet as much as they have been radicalised by it, using it as a platform for a new kind of political violence.

‘Doxxing’ is typical of this trend. The process, which derives its name from the ‘.dox’ extension, involves disclosing as much damaging information about a political rival as possible, traditionally published in the form of a document. The internet makes this process possible, functioning as both research tool and a platform for anonymity.

While the phenomenon is more common in America, Australia has seen its own doxx-off play out to ferocious extremes in recent years in niche corners of the internet. On the far-left, blogs like SlackBastard and the now private Anti-Fascist Action Sydney catalogue far-right groups, identifying the complex history and overlapping membership of groups like the ‘True Blue Society’, the now defunct ‘United Patriots Front’, and their zombified spawn ‘The Lads Society’. At the same time, right-wing sites like United Nationalists Australia have focused on exposing the identities of antifa (that’s anTEEfa) activists, often under the pretence of self-defence. As a hotbed of Left activism, USyd has seen some of its students caught up in the fray. Ralph Cerminara’s ‘Left-Wing Bigots and Extremists Exposed’ has divulged the identity of activists like Riki Scanlan, Omar Hassan, and Josh Lees, among many others, in a campaign that has resulted in his permanent ban from the USyd campus.

Whereas American doxxing is often a large decentralised research effort involving thousands of tech-savvy users of 4chan, a large imageboard posting website, Australian doxxers rarely have the same sort of support and resourcing. Blogs are often run by a single person, and their audience rarely extends beyond the people who would otherwise attend protests and counter-demonstrations. While some doxx methods, like social media and White Pages stalks, seem obvious enough, clandestine methods are also used. Anonymous tip-offs, leaks from spurned former allies, the meticulous cross-referencing of images from rivals’ protests complement social engineering methods that essentially amount to the political ‘catfishing’ of friends, old neighbours, and the victim themselves, with doxxers posing as someone they’re not just to gain information.

Exactly what information is broadcast varies. Full names are a given, while places of employment, residence, and phone numbers are often included. Especially heinous ‘doxxs’ may spill similar details about a rival’s family and friends, exposing innocent actors in a move more vengeful than pragmatic. While the exposure of identity carries its own inherent harms, particularly to privacy, it’s what that exposure makes possible that’s really damaging:  death threats, firings, family breakdown, relocation, and assault are all common ramifications.

These outcomes are intended. Doxxers are animated by a hatred of their rivals’ ideology, and are persuaded that their desired end—undermining that ideology’s perpetuation—justifies any means. Beyond deterring the expression of particular opinions, the resulting violence may eliminate a dissenting voice. Because of this, for groups on the extreme ends of the political divide, for whom there is only one correct worldview, violence is a strategic necessity more than a focus of moral inquiry.

A glance at these blogs reveals just how violent some of these people are prepared to be.   Ethnically motivated bashings, far-right supporters bringing weapons, including guns, to their rallies, and the occasional murder mean these threats are serious. Though some of these events are covered in the mainstream media, these blogs thread them together with less known incidents to further justify the use of doxxing as a political tool.

 

Artwork: an angry looking man sits with legs on chair and folded arms, a Hammer and Sickle emblazoned ushanka upon his head. Credit: Brendan James O’Shea.

There is something paradoxically intimate about the relationship these political combatants forge through the doxxing process. The process allows groups to have a detailed understanding of their opponent’s lives, with many able to identify their enemies on sight, armed with comprehensive knowledge of their biography and ideological commitments. In that sense, doxxing uniquely adds to one’s understanding of the ‘other’, in contrast with political violence that depends on de-personalisation. This is not to suggest that doxxing deters aggression. If anything, the intrapersonal relationships that form between opponents only intensifies enmity, with perceived failures in the rival’s moral character rigidifying the perception of them as malevolent.

There is no doubt that the rate and intensity of doxxing incidents will only increase as more people shift to the radical ends of politics. Both sides are deeply suspicious of the criminal justice system, and both instead prefer to respond to acts of provocation informally—often through further doxxing. It’s not clear that this mutually-reinforcing cycle will have an end, short of the total elimination of one political stance from public display.

Determining which side initiated or does more to perpetuate this cycle is a chicken-egg-style problem. Despite that, the far-left’s use of doxxing may seem more questionable on account of their general emphasise on the humane treatment of others. In other words, it’s worth specifically considering the legitimacy of the far-left’s use of doxxing precisely because the tactic seems so compatible with the far-right’s outlook as to render useless any effort to discourage their use of it.

Holding the far-left to this sort of higher standard, however, not only assumes a ‘moralistic’ conception of left-wing politics, but also ignores that the far-left has little other option but to doxx. For one, the far-right seems more prepared to resort to violence in order to solve its problems, meaning that alternate ways of trying to engage them (through, say, reason) or deter their use of doxxing cannot work. While this might come as a surprise to some, especially given the way the mainstream media constantly play up the “violent Lefty” stereotype, a number of the more high-profile names mentioned in these blogs have committed serious and proven acts of violence. Though there certainly are real cases of Lefty violence, that there was more reporting of the “violent” hucking of humus at Catholic Society members last November than there has been of the myriad of murders and assaults committed by the far-right tells the story. It’s not just a difference in degree or even frequency, though, but a difference in kind—while plenty of their violence is politically motivated, it is common for violence committed by far-right figures to be entirely separate from their political agenda. Whereas the far-left supports violence insofar as it is necessary for producing social change, many in the far-right accept the legitimacy of violence because physical domination of the other is sanctioned by their view that society is divided between the uber and unter.

There are, however, political advantages to doxxing, beyond the mere infliction of violence.  Doxxing often targets anonymous wielders of influence who operate in the dimmest, most cavernous echo chambers. By exposing their identities and locating their political pronouncements in the context of their personal interest and questionable moral practice, activists can undermine their credibility. Moreover, doxxing even has the potential to generate political discussion. Many online figures are not contactable by virtue of their anonymity, even if reasonable discussion might be possible. In those instances, a doxx may be a necessary first step towards dialogue. And, of course, one might view that the content of the far-right’s views are so deplorable as to justify any kind of response. In that case, the chilling effect doxxing can have and the more direct removal of dissent might both be seen as benefits.

Whatever the case, doxxing is nonetheless genuinely terrifying. There is nothing stopping innocent people from being targeted nor any regulation to ensure that the response is proportionate. The harms of the process cannot be understated, not least because each act of doxxing will beget many more. But guarded support for the strategy in general does not equate to support for every instance, and so insofar as they have any interest (which is probably not at all) the doxxer should, naturally, be very careful and selective about how they go about it. Whatever the case, I’m sure I’ll be even more reserved in my support once my own identity is exposed.