Gage Skidmore / flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Max Fleishman

It’s never, ever OK to release someone’s personal information

Dear Donald Trump—giving out Lindsey Graham's phone number was the worst kind of trolling.

Feb 29, 2020, 10:59 pm*

Internet Culture

Matthew Rozsa 

Matthew Rozsa

Donald Trump has played many roles in his life: business mogul, author, reality TV star, and politician. But when he publicly released the private phone number of Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), he wasn’t simply engaging in a run-of-the-mill political dirty trick. By violating Graham’s privacy, he assumed a new title common to the Internet era—that of the common, and increasingly dangerous, troll. In so doing, Trump further normalized a behavior that has a history of being incredibly destructive.

In case you were lucky enough to have forgotten it, the story behind The Donald’s foray into trolling is pretty straightforward. First, Trump insisted that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), his party’s presidential nominee in 2008, doesn’t deserve his reputation as a war hero because he had “only” been a prisoner of war; McCain was tortured in a Vietnamese prison for more than five years because he refused to be released before the soldiers who had been captured before him. 

Graham, who is a close friend of McCain’s, responded by calling Trump  “the world’s biggest jackass.” In retaliation, Trump claimed that Graham had begged him for personal favors, reciting his private phone number on national television for the ostensible purpose of proving his point.

Of course, Trump knew perfectly well that by doing this he was inviting his supporters to harass the Senator; indeed, he actually encouraged his audience to “give [calling Graham] a shot.” In the process, Trump engaged in a form of bullying that has become disturbingly ubiquitous online over the last few years—i.e., the practice of encouraging an angry online mob to harass a perceived opponent by releasing that individual’s private contact information, also known as “doxing.” 

Perhaps the most infamous instances of doxing (before Trump, that is) occurred last year, when gamers used the tactic as part of a larger campaign to harass prominent women in the video gaming community. On one occasion, actress Felicia Day was doxed within hours of writing a public statement discussing her experiences with sexism as a female gamer; in another, a video game developer and journalist named Zoe Quinn was doxed so often that she eventually felt compelled to create an “anti-harassment task force” to protect the personal information of individuals targeted by online mobs.

Trump knew perfectly well that by doing this he was inviting his supporters to harass the Senator.

As feminist pundit Anita Sarkeesian (who was eventually driven from her home by death threats) reported, “the harassers launched DDoS attacks on my site, attempted to hack into my email and other social media accounts and reported by Twitter and YouTube accounts as ‘terrorism,’ ‘hate speech,’ or ‘spam.’ They also attempted to ‘dox’ and distribute my personal contact info including address and phone number on various websites and forums (including hate sites).”

This isn’t to say that doxing is solely the problem of conservatives and sexist trolls. In the weeks following the controversial shooting of Trayvon Martin, director Spike Lee tweeted the address of an elderly couple he believed to be the parents of Martin’s shooter George Zimmerman, explicitly encouraging his followers to harass them. 

After it was revealed that the address he sent out belonged to David and Elaine McClain, neither of whom had any relationship with Zimmerman, Lee apologized for the “mistake” of picking the wrong family, although he stopped short of acknowledging that he had been wrong to incite mob activity in the first place. 

Nevertheless, the McClains were ultimately forced to move out of their house as a result of the harassment that Lee’s tweet triggered, eventually suing the director for the psychological damage he had caused as well as the decrease in their property value.

That said, sometimes doxing isn’t political at all. Rapper Maya Arulpragasm, better known as M.I.A., doxed Lynn Hirschberg of the New York Times for publishing an in-depth article criticizing her work. On that occasion, Hirschberg was relatively lucky; M.I.A.’s tweet had intentionally tricked her followers into thinking that the phone number being posted belonged to the rapper herself, so as Hirschberg herself put it, “the messages have mostly been from people trying to hook up with M.I.A.” 

That said, Hirschberg still described the experience as “infuriating” and was adamant that doxing should be viewed as “a fairly unethical thing to do.”

There is an important common thread that links all of these stories. Regardless of the doxers’ motives for violating the privacy of their targets, the victims have always been confronted with very real danger as a result. In the best case scenarios (like that of Hirschberg), the threat was merely getting a call from a horny superfan. In the worst case scenarios (like those of Sarkeesian and the McClains), the actual harassment that ensued as a result of the doxing forced them to uproot their lives and face the prospect of being physically harmed. 

M.I.A.’s tweet had intentionally tricked her followers into thinking that the phone number being posted belonged to the rapper herself.

Because the doxers have no way of knowing or controlling who will see the information they post and what they will choose to do with it, the very act of doxing is intrinsically dangerous.

To his credit, Graham has decided to take Trump’s doxing in stride, releasing a video of himself destroying his old cell phone (a famously antiquated flip-phone) in various over-the-top ways while dramatic music plays in the background. Yet while Graham may be in a position to brush off the harassment caused by being doxed (Yahoo News reported that his voice mailbox became full shortly after Trumps publicized his phone number), the same is not true for everyone. 

Rightly or wrongly, the fact that Trump is a celebrity and presidential candidate means that his actions set examples that his followers could very easily try to emulate. Regardless of what one thinks of his political views, there is something objectively irresponsible about Trump using his platform to promote a form of bullying that has already left so much destruction in its wake.

Doxing is not just an etiquette issue—it’s a public safety concern.

Matt Rozsa is a Ph.D. student in history at Lehigh University, as well as a political columnist. His editorials have been published on Salon, the Good Men Project, Mic, MSNBC, and various college newspapers and blogs. Matt actively encourages people to reach out to him at [email protected].

Photo via Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Max Fleishman

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*First Published: Jul 23, 2015, 4:37 pm