At the same time, their outing digitally opens them up to the dynamics of online vigilantism: jeers, threats, and more.
“If you’re going to go out in public and advocate for Nazi ideas, you have to be prepared for people to say, ‘You’re a terrible person,’” said Sasha Costanza-Chock, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology associate professor of civic media. “I don’t think there is much defensible in saying we shouldn’t do that. We might want to preserve the term ‘doxxing’ having a specific meaning, but identifying and mapping extreme-right networks—we should agree that’s reasonable to do.”
Smith’s actions are certainly on the same continuum as doxxing, but not precisely in the same spot, and Costanza-Chock asked, what else is on that continuum? Perhaps the Southern Poverty Law Center’s research into hate groups (or Political Research Associates’ report on the rise of the “alt-right”)? Maybe a local reporter digging into a government official who is secretly in the Ku Klux Klan?
When people say “the solution to hate speech is more speech”—might this fit the bill as the “more speech” part? It’s imperfect, sometimes painful, but ultimately part of the universe of speech that free-speech advocates hope will result in a better society.
But there are established rules and norms, as well as (some) accountability processes for journalists and researchers, which don’t tend to exist among doxxers.
And online searches like this are very prone to error. This sort of thing has been happening for years—and the internet sleuths, as local news stories love to tag them, have often gone awry. Smith has misidentified some of the people in the photos, with predictably bad consequences. A poor tissue engineer at the University of Arkansas got randomly dragged into the mess.
Lucas Wright and Susan Benesch, of the Dangerous Speech Project, write on the project’s blog that searches like this will always encounter similar problems, by malfeasance or actual bad actors feeding false information into the system. “These false positives are inevitable since the strategy relies on imperfect information—yet can seriously disrupt a target’s life,” they write. “As it becomes easier to forge realistic fake videos, such errors will only become more common.”
Costanza-Chock argued that some guide should exist for people wishing to engage in Nazi doxxing that would instruct them on how to do so as responsibly as possible and offer other routes to grapple with their online accounts.
But Wright and Benesch reject the tactic more completely, at least from the perspective of trying to de-radicalize white supremacists. “Disrupting their lives—getting them fired from their jobs, disowned by their parents, or dogpiled with threats on Twitter—may give a satisfying jolt of schadenfreude, but it also cuts them off from the remaining moderating forces in their lives,” they write. “When that happens, they will not learn to love; they will only commit further to the dangerous communities that are willing to embrace them.”
And that may be true. There may be a tradeoff between raising the costs of doing white supremacy out there in the world—and increasing the radicalization of those who Smith and others identify.