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What was the network thinking?
On July 2, Trump tweeted a GIF—edited footage from his real-life 2007 Wrestlemania appearance, with the CNN logo superimposed on the head of his in-character adversary Vince McMahon—with the hashtags #FraudNewsCNN and #FNN. It became his most popular tweet of all time, drawing ire from sides of the aisle for its juvenile tone and apparent endorsement of violence against journalists, especially in the wake of the Ben Jacobs/Greg Gianforte assault.
The GIF was created by a user of Reddit’s The_Donald, a controversial forum for the president’s most fervent supporters, which first gained national notoriety for rigging online debate polls in his favor during the 2016 election.
The user, HanAssholeSolo, was initially ecstatic that Trump used his GIF. He was dubbed a “meme master” on the site and became something of a minor celebrity. “Holy shit!! I wake up and have my morning coffee and who retweets my shitpost but the MAGA EMPORER himself!!! I am honored!!” the user wrote.
This is not the first time the president has drawn Twitter fodder from the community, once retweeting an old Rosie O’Donnell tweet r/The_Donald had surfaced.
But the user has changed his tune considerably since then. He deleted his Reddit account and issued a lengthy apology for the GIF and other posts, but—in a classic heel turn—critics contend that CNN was twisting his arm.
Over the holiday, CNN’s investigative unit KFILE spoke with the user behind the GIF, which led to his public apology, which was published on both CNN and in a post on Reddit.
First of all, I would like to apologize to the members of the [Reddit] community for getting this site and this sub embroiled in a controversy that should never have happened,” he wrote. “I would also like to apologize for the posts made that were racist, bigoted, and anti-semitic. I am in no way this kind of person, I love and accept people of all walks of life and have done so for my entire life. I am not the person that the media portrays me to be in real life, I was trolling and posting things to get a reaction from the subs on reddit and never meant any of the hateful things I said in those posts.
In its article, CNN announced it would not disclose his name “out of fear for his personal safety and for the public embarrassment it would bring to him and his family.” But CNN included this curious snippet.
CNN is not publishing “HanA**holeSolo’s” name because he is a private citizen who has issued an extensive statement of apology, showed his remorse by saying he has taken down all his offending posts, and because he said he is not going to repeat this ugly behavior on social media again. In addition, he said his statement could serve as an example to others not to do the same.
CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change.
Almost immediately, people pounced on that phrasing, claiming that the news organization was threatening to dox HanAssholeSolo. Many on Twitter and Reddit saw it as blackmail.
Infowars’ Paul Joseph Watson, a longtime CNN foe, led a fervent charge.
Should a news organization that blackmails children be allowed to have White House press access? #CNNBlackmail— Paul Joseph Watson (@PrisonPlanet) July 5, 2017
The media thought they had scored a huge victory identifying that CNN meme poster. It blew up in their stupid faces again. #CNNBlackmail— Paul Joseph Watson (@PrisonPlanet) July 5, 2017
Doxing, or the public release of private information, is a complicated issue. Some believe a right to privacy is absolute, while others argue that outing someone creates necessary public accountability.
CNN’s curious decision did not sit well with virtually anyone. The alt-right jumped up all over it as another way to discredit the network. The_Donald is organizing a petition to contact CNN advertisers, and Donald Trump Jr. has lent his support to the cause.
But members of the media on the left were equally uncomfortable with the network’s choice of words.
Uh. CNN shouldn't reveal this guy's personal information regardless of whether he did any of this stuff. pic.twitter.com/XC47MDXg3L— German Lopez (@germanrlopez) July 5, 2017
This sentence should stop at "because he is a private citizen."— German Lopez (@germanrlopez) July 5, 2017
Someone's life shouldn't be ruined just because the president picked up one of his shitposts. (Amazing I can type this sentence, though.)— German Lopez (@germanrlopez) July 5, 2017
Problem is the internet is not proportional. This person was a jerk, sure, but revealing his ID would lead to death threats, job risks, etc.— German Lopez (@germanrlopez) July 5, 2017
I can't emphasize how bad this is on CNN's part. This is basically "don't post stuff we don't like or we'll dox you." Extremely unethical. pic.twitter.com/5bJZIZasH0— German Lopez (@germanrlopez) July 5, 2017
Andrew Kaczynski, the author of the post, denied that the way CNN handled the matter was in any way blackmail.
CNN specifically choose not to reveal this guy's identity and to say we threatened anyone is a total lie.https://t.co/f02hLaVRqu— andrew kaczynski (@KFILE) July 5, 2017
The threat is the part where you say you'll renege on the deal and reveal his identity if he doesn't behave https://t.co/OBY8EssJLO— Mathew Ingram (@mathewi) July 5, 2017
This line is being misinterpreted. It was intended only to mean we made no agreement w/the man about his identity. https://t.co/9FL6EvTikx— andrew kaczynski (@KFILE) July 5, 2017
The issue is complicated by the fact that the user has tweeted anti-Semitic imagery before, specifically about CNN and its reporters—a point that, before his article’s language was called out by Twitter, Kaczinski tweeted about.
This was someone who shared an image of CNN reporters' face with Stars of David next them.— andrew kaczynski (@KFILE) July 5, 2017
Like this one? (For education and exhibition purposes)— ☢️Thousand Limbs☣️ (@RLodbrk) July 5, 2017
Regardless, after brewing over the evening, the matter has hit the mainstream, with Fox News effectively declaring that CNN was “the most trusted name in blackmail.”
This was a real graphic Fox showed this morning: "CNN the most trusted name in ... blackmail?" pic.twitter.com/B4nae2CrEF— Lis Power (@LisPower1) July 5, 2017
There may be only one way to settle this: in the ring.
Update 11:01am CT, July 5: CNN issued a statement regarding the article, saying that any assertion that its reporters made a deal with HanAssholeSolo for threatened him in any way was false.
CNN statement on the HanAssholeSolo story pic.twitter.com/mf2tilu9UB— Steven Perlberg (@perlberg) July 5, 2017
CNN also refuted a rumor that had been percolating among right-leaning circles on Twitter that the meme creator was a 15-year-old boy. According to CNN, he is an adult male.
David Covucci is the Layer 8 editor at the Daily Dot, covering the intersection of politics and the web. His work has appeared in Vice, the Huffington Post, Jezebel, Gothamist, and other publications. He is particularly interested in hearing any tips you have. Reach out at [email protected]
Austin Powell is the former managing editor of the Daily Dot. His work focuses on the intersection of entertainment and technology. He previously served as a music columnist for the Austin Chronicle and is the co-author of The Austin Chronicle Music Anthology.