I wrote the following piece for Wired. I’m keeping it here for posterity, but check out the comments over on Wired.
Sitting U.S. President Ford was visiting San Francisco in 1975 when a woman attempted to shoot him. A former marine named Oliver Sipple grabbed the gun, preventing the assassination attempt. When the press began contacting him, he asked that his sexuality not be discussed. While Sipple was very active in the gay men’s scene in the Castro, he was not out to family or work. But Harvey Milk, a famous gay rights activist, chose to out him so the public could see that gay men could be heroes, too.
The cost to Sipple was devastating. The White House distanced itself from him, his family rejected him, and he sunk into a dark depression. He gained massive amounts of weight, began drinking profusely, and died at the ripe young age of 47. Many around Sipple reported that he regretted his act of heroism and the attention resulting from it. But for Harvey Milk, the potential social good from using Sipple’s story far outweighed what he perceived as the costs of outing him.
This is a hard moral conundrum, in part because Sipple was clearly a “good” guy who had done a good deed. But what if he wasn’t? What are the moral and ethical costs of outing people and focusing unwanted attention on them?
Two weeks ago, Gawker journalist Adrian Chen decided to unmask the infamous Reddit troll “Violentacrez” as Michael Brutsch. When Chen contacted him, Brutsch did not attempt to deny the things he had done. He simply begged Chen not to publish his name, citing the costs that publicity would have on his disabled wife. Chen chose to publish the piece – including Brutsch’s pleas and promises to do anything that Chen asked in return for not ruining his life. As expected, Brutsch lost his job and the health insurance that paid for his wife’s care; Chen reported this outcome three days later. Many celebrated this public shaming, ecstatic to see a notorious troll grovel.
Although none of his actions appeared to be illegal, it’s hard to call Brutsch a “good” guy. He had created settings where people could share deeply disturbing content. He enticed people to reveal their ugliest sides. In many ways, Brutsch was a classic troll, abusing technology and manipulating the boundaries of free speech to provoke systematic prejudices and harassment for his own entertainment. He got joy from making others miserable.
Unmasking as a Way to Regulate Social Norms
There are many different reasons to unmask people, out them, or make them much more visible than they previously were. Sometimes, the goal is to celebrate someone’s goodness. At other times, people are made visible to use them as an example … or to set an example. People are outed to reveal hypocrisy and their practices are made visible to shame them.
In identifying Butsch and shining a spotlight on his insidious practices, Chen’s article condemns Butsch’s choice of using the mask of pseudonymity to hide behind actions that have societal consequences. Public shaming is one way in which social norms are regulated. Another is censorship, as evidenced by the Reddit community’s response to Gawker.
Yet, how do we as a society weigh the moral costs of shining a spotlight on someone, however “bad” their actions are? What happens when, as a result of social media, vigilantism takes on a new form? How do we guarantee justice and punishment that fits the crime when we can use visibility as a tool for massive public shaming? Is it always a good idea to regulate what different arbiters consider bad behavior through increasing someone’s notoriety – or censoring their links?
As the Gawker/Reddit story was unfolding, another seemingly disconnected case was playing out. In a town outside of Vancouver, a young woman named Amanda Todd committed suicide a few weeks after posting a harrowing YouTube video describing an anonymous stalker she felt ruined her life. The amorphous hacktivist collective known as “Anonymous” decided to make a spectacle of the situation by publishing personally identifiable information on – “doxxing” – Todd’s stalker. They identified a 32-year-old man, enabling outraged people to harass him. Yet it appears they got the wrong person. Earlier this week, Canadian police reported that Todd’s stalker was someone else: reportedly a 19-year-old.
Needless to say, this shift in information doesn’t relieve the original target of the public shame he felt from Anonymous’ pointed finger. It doesn’t wipe his digital record clean. He has to deal with being outed – in this case, wrongly – going forward.
The ‘Koan’: Technology as Tool and Technology as Weapon
By enabling the rapid flow of information, technology offers us a unique tool to publicly out people or collectively tar and feather them. Well-meaning people may hope to spread their messages far and wide using Twitter or Facebook, but the fast-spreading messages tend to be sexual, horrific, or humiliating.
Gossip is social currency. And in a networked world, trafficking in gossip is far easier than ever before.
When someone’s been wronged – or the opportunity arises to use someone to make a statement – it is relatively easy to leverage social media to incite the hive mind to draw attention to an individual. The same tactic that trolls use to target people is the same tactic that people use to out trolls.
More often than not, those who use these tools do so when they feel they’re on the right side of justice. They’re either shining a spotlight to make a point or to shame someone into what they perceive to be socially acceptable behavior. But each act of outing has consequences for the people being outed, even if we do not like them or what they’ve done.
This raises serious moral and ethical concerns: In a networked society, who among us gets to decide where the moral boundaries lie? This isn’t an easy question and it’s at the root of how we, as a society, conceptualize justice.
Governance and the construction of a society is not a fact of life; it’s a public project that we must continuously make and remake. Networked technologies are going to increasingly put pressure on our regulatory structures as conflicting social values crash into one another. In order to benefit from innovation, we must also suffer the destabilizing aspects of new technology.
Yet … that destabilization and suffering allow us, as a society, to interrogate our collective commitments. The hard moral conundrums are just beginning.
Check out the comments at Wired