Tag Archives: identity

Truth, Lies, and ‘Doxxing’: The Real Moral of the Gawker/Reddit Story (from Wired)

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

The Politics of Queering Anything

Sitting at an academic conference years ago, I was struck by the marginalization of various voices under the guise of inclusion. There were queer panels and race panels and gender panels. In sampling those panels and various other panels, I started to see a trend in the audiences. In short, the audiences attracted to those panels identified as a member of that particular identity group or were allies. And I realized that panels that were not identity-marked tended to not have theories of gender/race/sexuality woven into them. When panels are marked through identity issues, people choose whether or not they should attend based on their identity politics, failing to recognize how critical analyses of race/gender/sexuality are broadly relevant. Thus, in marking panels through identity, this conference fundamentally marginalized the population it was theoretically including.

A few weeks ago, I helped organize a conference; I was one of the program committee members and coordinated three invited sessions. In the wind, I heard that a few folks were disappointed that there were no LGBT-specific panels. The assumption was that queer issues were forgotten. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Not only did all of the panels that I coordinated have queer-identified panelists on them but they all integrated queer theory into their arguments, whether explicitly or implicitly. I purposely left these issues unmarked in my description of the panels because my goal was to make sure that these issues were integrated seamlessly into a conversation without making identity politics the organizing theme of any of the panels.

Don’t get me wrong… I’m a huge fan of creating safe space to have serious conversations about identity politics, but I’m also determined to bring the lessons from queer theory (and race studies and feminism) into broader conversations. Sure – I’d love to call out these frameworks explicitly and have everyone who should hear the concepts come to the room. But, at the end of the day, I prioritize strategy. So I’ve gone out of my way to integrate these frameworks into my own work without ever calling them out explicitly, specifically so that those who are constitutionally incapable of listening to any argument that involves identity politics will accidentally listen to the underlying theories without realizing it, will incorporate the tenets of queer theory into their understanding of the world without realizing that this is where the roots of those frameworks come from.

At the root of queer theory is a very simple practice: questioning what is “normal” or normative, complicating any simple framework by asking critical questions about who is excluded and what is assumed. Anyone who has studied queer theory immediately gets how this framework is useful beyond analyses of sexuality, yet those who haven’t been trained as such see two scary words: queer and theory. Depending on the audience, either word can prompt a serious phobia. But that framework does more than answer questions about sexuality; it allows us to interrogate any supposedly stable system.

My favorite book in the world is Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues. It’s a work of fiction – a novel – that lays out all of the core tenets of queer theory without ever telling the reader that that’s what’s going on. It’s a distinctly queer book, but it’s meant to help those who have theory phobia understand theory without realizing that they’re reading theory. Candy-coated vitamins if you will. One of the lessons I took from reading that book is that, if you want to get a message across, it’s important to recognize people’s anxieties and discomforts at face value and try to present information to them in a way that’s palatable and embraceable. Let them understand through a set of language that they can recognize instead of alienating them with language that terrifies them.

This form of “selling out” is bound to piss off anyone who believes that failing to mark queerness is a sign of weakness, a form of re-closeting, a way of undermining queer experiences, etc. I can totally hear and respect that. But I’m a pragmatist. And I’m more than willing to “sell out” if it means that I can get more people to understand why the core tenets of queer theory can help them understand structural inequality and systematic marginalization. I’m willing to let that go unmarked if doing so helps.

I integrate all sorts of queer theory into my arguments without signaling explicitly that that’s what I’m doing. And I often include queer theory references as “in-jokes” in ways that don’t make them visible to the untrained eye. I recognize that my path has strengths and weaknesses, but I’m also curious how others balance these issues. How do you integrate complex or potentially alienating frameworks into your work so that people can consume them? Or do you refuse to make things palatable? And if so, why? Are you horribly offended by the choices I’ve made?

a few thoughts on name changes & reputation

I’ve changed my name twice. First, I took my (now ex) stepfather’s last name when I was a child. At 18, I started the process to take my maternal grandfather’s name to honor him and to create an identity that meant something to me. The process was finalized when I was 22. And let me tell you, it was a Pain in the F* Ass.

With this in mind, I nearly bowled over laughing when I read that Eric Schmidt told the Wall Street Journal that he thought that name changes would become more common place. The WSJ states:

“[Schmidt] predicts, apparently seriously, that every young person one day will be entitled automatically to change his or her name on reaching adulthood in order to disown youthful hijinks stored on their friends’ social media sites.”

This is ludicrous on many accounts. First, it completely contradicts historical legal trajectories where name changes have become increasingly more difficult. Second, it fails to account for the tensions between positive and negative reputation. Third, it would be so exceedingly ineffective as to be just outright absurd.

Changing one’s name didn’t used to be a big deal. Hell, if you stepped off a boat on Ellis Island and the folks there couldn’t understand your name, it would’ve been changed for you automatically. Children used to get name changes upon arriving in the US simply to make them fit in better. Today, changing your name is a bureaucratic nightmare (unless you’re getting married in some states). You have to inform the local paper of every place you’ve ever lived. Not just once but thrice. At least in Pennsylvania. You have to contact everyone you owe money to, including all credit bureaus. You have to go through loop after loop to prove that you’re not doing it to avoid creditors or escape legal restrictions. If you change your name outside of the institution of marriage, you are assumed to be a security threat. And boy is it annoying. This has only gotten more difficult over time – why would anyone think it’ll get easier?

That point aside, reputation is built up over time. It can be built up negatively and positively. But even when folks have a negative reputation, they often don’t want to lose the positive reputation that they’ve built. Starting at zero can be a lot harder than starting with a mixed record. Most people who have bruises on their public reputation also have gold stars. Just look at various infamous people who have had their names dragged through the mud by the press. Many have been invited to change their names but few have. Why? Because it’s more complicated than a simple name change.

To make matters worse, changing your name doesn’t let you avoid past names. All it takes is for someone whose motivated to make a link between the two and any attempt to walk away from your past vanishes in an instant. Search definitely makes a mess out of people’s name-based reputation but a name change doesn’t fix it if someone’s intent on connecting the two. (Personal humor… I thought when I created zephoria.org that I could separate my digital identity from my reputation as a scholar. My blog was supposed to be pseudonymous. Ooops.)

Don’t get me wrong – we’re in for a really confusing future as reputation gets complicated by digital self-presentations and the mouthing off of our friends. I’m not at all convinced that I know the answer but I do know that name changes aren’t going to solve anything.

The thing is… I’m really curious about this strange depiction of Schmidt’s attitude, especially given his previously strange comments on the end of privacy. How does he see privacy as dead while imagining a world in which reputation can be altered through a name change? Does anyone have any good insights into how he thinks about these issues because I’m mighty confused and I’d love to understand his mental model.