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The case of Gawker vs. Donald Trump shows when it’s OK to dox someone

If you want to give Donald Trump a call, it's OK by me.


Feliks Garcia

Internet Culture

Posted on Aug 4, 2015   Updated on May 28, 2021, 5:42 am CDT

If you ever wanted to call Donald Trump for real estate advice, grooming tips, or questions about U.S. immigration policy, for a few hours on Monday, you could have.

Gawker’s Sam Biddle published what they allege is a direct line to the GOP presidential frontrunner “[i]n the interest of open and fair political debate.” The move is in response to Trump recently doxing his opponent, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), by broadcasting his cell number in public. “Since Trump… has decided that opening up a direct, personal channel of communications between his supporters and his primary opponents is a noble campaign tactic,” Biddle writes, “we think it’s only fair and right that Republican primary voters be able to reach out to Trump himself.”

Gawker is no stranger to controversy, so running Trump’s number is well within the media organization’s editorial modus operandi. However, does it cross a line? On one level, yes, sharing a public figure’s information, such as a cell phone number, does seem to violate their privacy. However, if that public figure is a person in a position of power—say, a presidential candidate or real estate mogul—and spouts vicious hate speech and doesn’t afford their counterparts such rights to privacy, it seems only right that they are held accountable. In the case of Gawker Media v. Trump, I rule in favor of Gawker.

Doxing—the releasing of one’s private, identifiable information on the Internet—is a grotesque, heinous action when employed against a marginalized group. The practice reached a critical mass of sorts during last year’s Gamergate uproar after a significant online community of game enthusiasts responded to criticisms of sexism in video game culture by trolling their critics; this practice was taken to a frightening extreme when they shared the personal information of the women speaking out.

In the case of Gawker Media v. Trump, I rule in favor of Gawker.

Victims of Gamergate included Anita Sarkeesian, Brianna Wu, and Felicia Day, all of whom received rape or death threats after their information was made public. Sarkeesian, the feminist commentator who hosted the Tropes vs. Women Web series, felt the onslaught of the violent threats in August 2014, posting some of the threats to Twitter. 

Game developer Brianna Wu, who had been critical of Gamergate, retweeted a meme that included some of her tweets about the movement. Gamers on the forum 8chan reached to Wu’s criticism with a crusade against the developer, ultimately posting her private information on the forum. “I was literally watching the chat room as the site posted my address and the conversation moved to places that threatened my personal safety,” Wu told the Guardian. She was eventually forced to evacuate her home. 

The Gamergate movement was allegedly about “ethics in game journalism,” but the response, in practice, was toxic and dangerous—proving that it was anything but ethical. 

And even when doxing is conducted in the name of good, it can still miss the mark. The hacker collective Anonymous has a rather inconsistent record of doxing—often identifying the wrong person when they target individuals for social media retribution. After the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri last year, the group identified the individual they alleged was responsible, even though that person was later identified as Officer Darren Wilson. As the Daily Dot’s Rob Price wrote, “an innocent man was publicly accused, his details shared online, with no chance to defend himself.”

Internet mob justice can be cruel, but when Anonymous uses their methods to attack a member of a violent hate group, can we blame them?

Before the Ferguson grand jury failed to indict Wilson, unrest was expected to erupt in the St. Louis suburb. A branch of the KKK, the Traditionalist American Knights, distributed fliers throughout the county threatening use of lethal force in the event of protest. Anonymous threatened the white supremacist hate group and ultimately hacked their Twitter accounts— @KuKluxKlanUSA and @YourKKKCentral—with a #HoodsOff campaign that identified members in the area. 

According to the Daily Dot’s S.E. Smith, the group “may have cross a defensible ethical divide” by offering home addresses and information about the KKK members’ families. “While exposing people as members of a racist hate group is indeed an act of service to the public,” Smith writes, “providing information that could make them targets of aggression is not.”

Even when doxing is conducted in the name of good, it can still miss the mark. 

Whether or not doxing is acceptable in these situations boils down to whether or not it’s a matter of punching up, instead of down. Gamergate and Anonymous’ use of the method are striking in their contrast: The former exposed women to violence for simply being critical of a largely sexist industry, while the latter outed members of a national hate group with a long history of racial violence for their threat of lethal force against Ferguson protesters.

Like the Ku Klux Klan, Donald Trump is in a position of power. He’s using his vast platform to vilify marginalized people, and announcing his opponent’s private information was a classic troll move. By making Lindsey Graham’s information public, Trump was arguably doing something arguably very dangerous, considering the potential for doxing to lead to greater acts of violence. Donald Trump didn’t just open the door to harassment. He kicked it down.

Trump, on the other hand, will likely be doing just fine. As Breitbart reported, Donald Trump will hardly see any blowback from Gawker’s move; the website reported that, according to a spokesperson for Trump, that line is “a very old number.” While Gawker doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to ethical violations of someone’s privacy, this was certainly a noble effort to hold Trump accountable—simply by giving him a taste of his own medicine.

For those of you who did call the number, however, perhaps you will get the answers you’re looking for during Thursday’s debate. When I called, my attempts were either met with a busy signal—or a message saying that his mailbox was at full capacity. Thus, if his actions over the past month have proven anything, it’s unlikely any of us are going to get through to him.

Feliks Garcia is a writer in Brooklyn. He holds an MA in Media Studies from the University of Texas at Austin, is Offsite Editor for The Offing, and previously edited CAP Magazine.

Photo via Redrum0486/Wikipedia (CC BY SA 3.0)

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*First Published: Aug 4, 2015, 5:02 pm CDT