Doxxing And Internet Vigilantism.

When I was considering topics I would be writing about for the book in the essays that filled the pages between the in-person interviews, I created a list of what I considered to be key issues, varying from the concrete to the abstract.

If you've read the book, you know that I ultimately settled on the themes of language, media/journalism, activism, and community relationships. My reasoning was simple: Despite accusations I've seen since my book came out (by people who had not read the book, I might add), I had no intention of writing what I didn't know, i.e. as if I was in the protest camp or on the front line. I only wanted to write from what I knew and had experienced as a community member. It was a book about the community by the community.

The first two issues (language and media) seemed important to me because of the larger nationwide conflicts involving activism that wanted to restrict and dictate how we used language, mixed with trends in journalism that I find problematic. All were issues that the community members were often distressed about because of the direct impact they were having on their daily lives. If it mattered to the community, then it was likely going to have a place in the book.

There were other things I could have written about, of course--the protest was long, complicated, full of twists and turns and shifting alliances and with endless viewpoints and perspectives--but I ultimately had to narrow my list down for reader and page limit reasons, and so I used a basic rubric to decide what I would put in the book: Did it help in giving understanding or useful background for the reader when they read the stories from community voices in the book? Did the community interviews segue logically into the essays and articles, or vice versa?

As I'd repeatedly told people, my goal with the book was to give community members a chance to have a voice and to speak clearly without the fear of soundbites or someone trying to trap or misconstrue what they had to say. This was always a community-centered book from the get go.

And so, because of that, many of the items on my list did not make it into the book; for example, in the book, I did not specifically focus on issues of online bullying or doxxing (revealing people's personal information and identities), for a variety of reasons. I did mention doxxing as part of the whole harassment packaged levied against people in the community, but I didn't delve too deeply into its history, current practice, or theories as to why people do it.

I also didn't speak extensively about private security issues for several reasons. I do have an essay that brings up some philosophical and big-picture points, some compare and contrast arguments (e.g. the protest camp had private, unlicensed security, too),  and so on, but that was it. At most, I had an interview with a private security officer with him talking about his experience and answering questions about claims made against law enforcement; that would tie into the community aspect since law enforcement is part of our community.

That doesn't mean I wasn't curious about other topics.

I attempted to connect with a few people whose names were given to me as former security who might have something interesting to share; some of these folks popped up in later articles about security, so I know they were legitimate contacts. I queried a few people whose online behavior and comments piqued my interest. One reached out to me on his own. I read the articles in High Plains Reader and The Intercept and all the other news sources (which mostly turned out to be a regurgitation of The Intercept, a reporting on someone else's reporting). Having seen how The Intercept had fished for anti-security information from community members (as is detailed in the book), and having nearly laughed at some of the High Plains Reader articles for reasons which I hope to elaborate in future blog posts, I saw nothing there that would be useful in the book beyond what I'd already included. Questionable journalists with obviously slanted writing and activist goals, and former security guards with drug problems who leak secrets, are not what I consider a reliable source. Wild claims are wonderful if you can back up the claims with another source who is willing to talk to you.

So ultimately, I decided that covering private security in depth did not fit the rubric of the book nor did I turn up anything that was beyond speculation (which is what you call "facts" without proof or citation of a verified source).

In summation, doxxing and private security (among other topics) were not discussed in depth in the book, but that doesn't mean I hadn't done some poking around in the early stages of writing the book, and even after the book was published (because there's this blog, you know). So here's a taste of some of that poking around...



Theories Of Doxxing/Doxing In Hacktivism


Having spent a few years working in the startup/internet marketing world, I absolutely loathe the use of the word "hack" in any form--hack your life! hack your job! hack your career! keys to hacking your personal success!--just no. The word "hacktivism" is relegated to any future works by Dante as far as I'm concerned.

Yet hactivism is a thing, I guess.

Early in the protest, there was a fellow named Caleb (not his real name, and he's not from North Dakota) who I'd noticed was freely providing information about various protesters. I didn't follow his activity on Facebook enough to know if he provided actual addresses or phone numbers, but I did see that he was willing to provide real names and city/state to other Facebook users who asked for them. He didn't seem to have much self-restriction on doxxing.

Here's my opinion on doxxing: it's wrong. Period.

You don't dox people, no matter who they are. As I say in the book, when you put someone's address and phone number out there, it's not like you're asking people to send flowers. You are wanting to put them (or their family) into harm's way, or hoping the fear of harm or economic ruin will silence them. You are attempting to seek vigilante justice through fear. I hate doxxing. I've had it done to me a few times, and I won't do it to someone else.

I could have done it, mind you; whenever I'd see the doxxed information Caleb put out on Facebook, I would use my own basic methods to see if it was correct. I wanted to see if he was playing a game with people. I even messaged Caleb a few times to see how freely he would hand out information and if he had boundaries on what he would gather. He'd made some claims about his work and ability to get information that others could not get, and I wanted to see if that was true. I wasn't really sure about him, and felt uneasy about anyone who would use doxxing as a way to move the needle.

As the protest wound down, and into the months after it was over, I learned that Caleb was switching "sides" and starting to dox (or threaten to dox) those who did not support the protest. Since I wasn't on Facebook as much, I didn't know what had caused the change. But I noticed, in some community groups, that it was a conflict that was heating up. So I decided, after seeing some of the nasty and borderline threatening comments Caleb had left in response to community members, that I would try to suss out his theory of doxxing, i.e. what did he consider a just use of such behavior?



"Hello Caleb," I wrote in a message. "Under what conditions is doxxing acceptable?" I told him I'd been fishing in the past, trying to see how far he'd go as an investigator. I asked him a series of questions. "Do you think there are times when doxxing is/isn't justifiable?" I told him I was doing follow-up material so that he knew I was researching and writing based on his responses.

Caleb sent me a document in which he outlined who he was and his experience in gathering information. He explained how he got involved (online) in the DAPL protest and what he did at the onset of that involvement. For the most part, he received requests to identify people who had used aliases, etc., and he did so. He explained how he made sure his activity was legal. Then he got to my question.

"The large majority of doxing attacks occur when a controversial matter is brought up in society," he wrote. "The list is virtually infinite in the modern world. In these cases doxing is deemed to be socially acceptable, because it provides the general public with the ability to contact the individuals involved, and hold them accountable for whatever perceived wrongs that they have committed."

Caleb noted how it was easy for a politician to ignore calls to his office or business, for example, but calls and excessive contact at his personal residence forced him to respond. "Doxing him applies intense public pressure to his personal life, and will force him to address the American people’s concerns."

Caleb next discussed doxxing that he considered malicious (someone who didn't deserve it), which is when that same information is compiled to target someone for swatting (sending in a SWAT team), cyber harassment, identity theft, blackmail, extortion, and so on.

I wondered, since doxxing is doxxing, how there was much difference in malicious intentions and good intentions, since the end result is often the same. Once you put that information out there, you cannot control what people will do with it. Even if you think that politician, for example, deserves endless phone calls at home when he's with his family because you don't like his politics, you can't restrict it to just phone calls and stop someone from swatting him. It's a judgment system where there are two levels of judgement: choosing to dox, and then, whatever the world wants to do with that information. It's a brutal kind of double jeopardy, a fear you get from the initial doxxing, and then the actual results of whatever people choose to do to you.

Caleb outlined what would be considered illegal (e.g. targeting the President of the United States) as well as posting information that is deemed sensitive personal information that isn't meant for the public to have access to (SSN, bank accounts, medical history, etc.). "If this information is already available to the public, and isn't considered sensitive, then you can legally share it."

Something might be legal, but it doesn't mean it's ethical; I think we all know that. Considering how much of our information--much of what we think is still private--is now online in databases we didn't even know we were in or can control (hello, Equifax), this is a very squishy ethic. There are different types of "publicly available"; some things are publicly available, but not easily so and for a reason.

I pressed Caleb to describe who he considered fair game for doxxing. "I might also ask you to flesh out why a 'perceived wrong' is a legitimate reason for doxxing, instead of a 'proven wrong'," I asked, "particularly in a society with a legal system that says we are innocent unless proven guilty. My angle is that doxxing is a form of judgment/punishment (vigilante) that circumvents that legal approach and requires no proof other than perception. Do you think this is a good direction society is heading if it takes to vigilante doxxing based on perceptions which, as we all know, can be wrong?"

"Doxing is fair game on both public officials and private citizens. By making your views, beliefs, etc seen/heard on the internet, you automatically become a target," he replied. "According to the courts, the only difference between doxing a public official and a private citizen is the security concern." He acknowledged that doxxing was clearly vigilante justice. "It relies only on the individual attacker(s) believing you to be guilty in the court of public opinion. This is definitely not a good direction for society to be heading, because it makes anyone and everyone a target to be harmed."

"So, your only restraint, personally, when it comes to doxxing, is of legal issues, i.e. avoiding a felony, and not of personal ethics, i.e. possibly setting up a citizen for potential harm? Is that a correct statement?" I asked. "Do you believe, should the idea of speaking anywhere online opens you up to doxxing becomes the norm, that it is a good thing towards freedom of speech, or no? Do you not think that people should be free to speak, as long as they do not threaten people with harm, freely without fear of having a home address be made easily public, or do you think the price to pay for a private citizen in voicing an opinion is to put their address out? I ask, because historically, you would not have the home address of an editorial letter, for example."

I again asked him if what he was describing was how he personally operated.

He said that his only real restraint was to follow legal laws and contracts. "I definitely believe that doxing is harmful to freedom of speech, because it makes citizens afraid to make their voices heard out of fear of public retaliation. I believe that people's right to freedom of speech should be protected, and that doxing should be illegal in any and all cases." He pointed out, however, that it can't really be made illegal and that ultimately, it was the public's responsibility to protect their personal data.

This is a near impossibility in this day and age, of course, when companies collect data on you whether you give permission or are aware of it or not. I remember reading a 2006 article about how AOL made "anonymous" search information public and people's specific identities were figured out quite easily. I mean, just ask Shia Lebouf how easy it is to hide from the internet when it wants to find you.

"Do you have any qualms about doxing police officers or private security employees? If not, could you explain why and when it'd be appropriate?" I asked, prodding a bit further to see how far Caleb's ethics would take him on this matter.

"It depends on the situation. I have done so before, in order to ensure that justice was done and that they were held accountable for what they did wrong," he said. "And as you know, by 'wrong' I mean perceived wrong, because they were lucky enough to get it swept under the rug in their corrupt state, so they never had a chance to stand trial for what they did. Sometimes social justice through hacktivism is the only justice that you can get. True, it may seem like a douchebag thing to dox them, but when they are so corrupt that they get away with acts of pure evil, what other option do you have besides letting the world know who they are and what they did?"

"When you say "corrupt state", what state are you referring to? North Dakota?" I asked.

"A lot of various states, and North Dakota has been one of them for a long time, since far before the protests ever occurred."

The human state of existence is currently corrupt; I'm not sure why Caleb thought geopolitical boundaries made any special difference. One thing I was noting in our conversation was what I see in folks who are attracted to far left and far right groups, such as the Oath Keepers. This fit in with the Thomas Sowell concept I wrote about in my book, regarding constrained and unconstrained vision:

Thomas Sowell, an economist and social theorist, spoke of a conflict of visions between the unconstrained vision and the constrained vision. According to Sowell, unconstrained vision believes that people are basically good and are frustrated by any institution or system that would restrict what people do. There is a perfect solution that will create collateral damage, but that damage isn’t concerning since it is being sacrificed for a greater good. They believe that people can be perfected morally, and followers allow those perfect folks to be decision-makers for all of the rest of us.

[...]

Sowell’s constrained vision views people as naturally selfish and prone to looking out for number one, no matter what their good intentions might be. Because of this, a strong system of tradition and rule of law are necessary to keep things in check. Compromise is required, because perfect solutions don’t exist. Folks with this mindset like logic and “empirical evidence”, putting trust in systems, traditions, and structures that have stood the test of time. This view of life does not believe people can put aside their self-interest, and therefore requires a system of checks and balances to counteract that. Note how important organization, structure, and law and order are to people in this scenario, and how agonizing it is to see the rule of law spit on.

People with unconstrained vision are attracted to these extreme groups and seem to have a tendency to believe they rightfully ought to judge and mete out justice without too much concern for collateral damage.

"Are you a member of Oath Keepers?" I asked.

He said he wasn't, but that he'd heard about them and had considered being a member "Why were you curious about that?"

"Things you have said sound similar to what they advocate. I do not support their movement," I said.

He admitted he supported a lot of their causes, but didn't want to join officially in case it might hurt his current career.

"While our legal system is not perfect, it is better than vigilantism, and it is the system of authority in place. Oath Keepers have much language indicating they are judge and jury, with no system of checks and balances or outside input," I said. I mean, Joe Blow might think my Constitutional rights are being infringed, but I might wish he'd keep his nose out of it and not "right my wrong."

"Well whenever our justice system fails us, we have no other option for justice besides using social exposure. True, it sucks that we are being forced to use such harsh measures, but the government is obviously showing absolutely zero interest in weeding out the problems, so we have to do it ourselves," he said.

This kind of thinking ought to give anyone pause. Who defines the problems? The level of appropriate "weeding"? Who gets to do the sentencing? Social exposure is a odorous mixture of shame, peer pressure, fear, and ultimately, compliance through reduced freedoms of speech. This is a move not towards justice, but towards anarchy or (gasp!) fascism.

"Do you worry about collateral damage? (innocent family members of doxxed targets, business owners of doxxed employees, etc.) At what point do you create as big of a problem in seeking this kind of justice since you create another kind of injustice in its wake?" I asked.

"As with any war, there is always collateral damage, we just try to keep it to a minimum. True, some people go REALLY far (as I admit to doing before), but that usually only occurs in the most serious of circumstances," he said.

Minimum collateral damage is still someone's pain. Who decides what are the most serious of circumstances? Do we KNOW we have all information necessary to make that determination? And are we assuming we are in a constant state of war?

This was a problematic conversation for many reasons, but I think Sowell's concepts are a good starting point for considering what drives people to dole out "justice" online and why they think they have the right to do so.


Great Opportunities For Journalists

I think it's interesting how people easily point out what a good journalist should chase after.

Everybody wants to be Woodward and Bernstein, I guess, except that those two journalists were out digging where no one else was. When it comes to this protest and private security, the field is so full of diggers looking at the same patch of ground that you'll trip over someone who's trying to be the most woke.

A great opportunity for journalists is to dig where no one else is. It's shocking how there are no great opportunities for journalists to follow the protester money and see who spent what and which organizations pocketed a pretty penny or the timing of the protest and the players involved who got lots of publicity. Just shocking how that's not a story. /sarcasm

For me, however, there was information worth pursuing by speaking to the people in the community in a genuine way, and I considered that a great opportunity for a writer (I do not consider myself a journalist).

At some point in our conversation, Caleb asked me if I had been tracking case updates, and if I would be adding it to the original website. "To keep everything fair and unbiased," he said. I chuckled a bit, as if there was any shortage of the protester's story being told, as if that unfairness abounded.

"I updated some of the timeline somewhat after the camps were gone, but do not follow things as much anymore at this point. The timeline is registered with the US copyright office so I don't intend to change it much and will likely leave it as is as a reference but also as a digital artifact from the event," I said. I said I'd be putting some extra material on this blog, but didn't have plans to do so in perpetuity. "I have little interest in the players involved, and their subsequent legal results, now that the book is finished."

I then answered his concerns. "While [the book] certainly won't be mistaken as supporting of most of the protest as far as some of what happened to landowners and private citizens, you might be surprised at the take on the entire event, and what people actually had to say.  My goal for this book--and I have said it repeatedly--was to give the people in the community of Bismarck and Mandan a voice, and that is exactly what I did. They deserved that."

I told Caleb that I really didn't have any particular plans to do any more deep dives like I did the months I was writing the book, being honest about how the book had consumed me and that I was very happy to let go of all of this if I could. "My identity is not found in this event."

It was clear, though, that Caleb was angling for the private security angle, too, just like all those other journalists out digging in the same spot. "The NDPISB is charging, fining, and suing multiple companies now, and multiple companies are now refusing to comply with FBI formal record requests. It would be a great opportunity for a journalist to dig into. The NDPISB is refusing to allow TigerSwan to pay a fine, they are insisting on carrying the lawsuit to court in October."

"Is there any proof that PISB has evidence beyond claims made by media or protesters? People say a lot of things," I said, trying to see if there were verifiable sources, which are a unicorn in this supposed age of information.

"Yes, a lot of the employees chose to provide evidence in return for reduction of charges in their cases."

I asked which employees, and he said that he was referring to the employees of various security companies. I then asked about the sources he had in regards to this angle.

"Have you read the PISB board meeting minutes?"

I noted I had read quite a few, pointing out the observations I'd made in the book regarding them. Ever curious, I pushed forward. "How do you know about all these inside employees speaking to authorities? Are they talking to you in addition to elsewhere?"

"The PISB released a lot of names that were easy to track down for comments," he said. He had contacted those listed in the board minutes directly, he said. "They are in a lot of hot water. A lot were lucky to just get fines, probation, and a bar from the state." He then pressed again on whether or not I'd be talking about it so that no one could "call you out for being biased."

I snickered and replied that I was "unconcerned about anyone calling me whatever they want. I've always said what my book was to be (a voice for the community)."

"I’m just saying that it would hurt your reputation as an author if you intentionally left out additional facts. Even I learned that in college," he said.

One of the things I learned in college, where I studied art, was about perspective and limited angle. "Key word is intentionally. No one book can cover every angle of a story in entirety. I am not concerned over my reputation." I asked him when his book would be coming out, a book that seemed, from our conversations at least, to be mostly focused on private security. As long as you don't plagiarize, I'm all for people taking on the challenge of writing a book.

He said he wasn't sure; he didn't want to get caught up in the court cases. "I already had people threaten me for releasing personal information on specific people involved with security there."

Whoops. Doxxing is a boomerang, I guess.

He went on to say that if he thought the "courts can handle it", he'd keep his mouth shut but if they let them off, he would turn to social justice.

"What if you're wrong?" I asked. I like to ask that of people when I get the sense that maybe they haven't considered that to be a possibility.

"I only act on facts. For example, if the courts dismiss legitimate charges against the security because of some legal loophole that the government uses, then I will use social justice. The laws in our country are failing us every day, so the people have to take care of things themselves now," he said.

You know what it looks like when people think the law did them wrong and they have to fix things themselves? They cut fence and go on private property and say that the fifth generation farm family behind that fence has no business being there. Guess we saw how that worked out for everyone here, hence the brutal spiral of vigilante justice.

I can't even begin to express all of my concerns, but here's one: when you have a protest in which there is so much shifting sand and so many changing alliances and obfuscation and gamesmanship and distrust, isn't it better to rely on a stable and systematic justice system no matter how imperfect it is? Otherwise, vigilante justice tends to be as unpredictable and convoluted as the confusion from which the supposedly unjust incident stems.

Vigilantism says "I alone know the truth and will mete out justice" which, as we'd seen during the protest, was not reliable. People changed minds, changed sides, realized they'd been had--depending on the day you spoke with someone would determine who deserved punishment. That's no way to build or perpetuate a society. It's a pretty good way to tear one down, though.

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