Over the weekend, a conservative blogger published what he claims is the real name of the alleged victim in Rolling Stone's discredited gang rape story. It's the latest example of what's become known as doxing — distributing personal information about someone online in an effort to embarrass, frighten or intimidate. Doxing has become increasingly common during highly charged news events by aggressive partisans on the left and right.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Rolling Stone's flawed expose of an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia focuses on young woman named Jackie. Over the weekend a conservative blogger doxed her, in other words he published what he claims is her real name. His decision to put that information out there has been denounced, but doxing itself has become an increasingly common practice, and joining us now to talk about it is technology correspondent Steve Henn of NPR's Planet Money.
Hey there, Steve.
STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Hi.
CORNISH: So explain what led to this latest doxing incident.
HENN: Well, you know, when Rolling Stone identified this young woman as Jackie, I think most people assumed that the magazine was using a pseudonym. It wasn't. And later the author said that publicly. And at that point it became trivially easy to track Jackie down. So this guy, Charles C. Johnson - he's a conservative blogger - he says he did just that. Sunday night he tweeted, I'm giving Jackie until later tonight to tell the truth, and then I'm going to start revealing everything about her past. Just three minutes later, after other Twitter users sort of egged him on and asked him why he was waiting, he said, quote, "because I'm merciful and I always give my opponents the opportunity to do the right thing." And then later that night, he published what he says is Jackie's full name and what he thought at least were pictures from social media profiles and other details about her life.
CORNISH: Now, this blogger says what he's doing is journalism. Others call it doxing and they don't use that term in a flattering way. Where does it come from?
HENN: So in the '80s you had a whole bunch of kids doing illegal things online using pseudonyms. So if you were a hacker and you got in a feud with another hacker, you could dox them - reveal their true identity - and that could get them arrested.
CORNISH: Now, how is it used today?
HENN: Well, basically the practice of doxing is like, publishing private or identifiable information about someone online. Typically in order to really shut them up or bully them or intimidate them or embarrass them.
So, Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist who critiques video games was doxed. Her address was published and then she was barraged - and still is being barraged - with threats. In Ferguson, activists doxed people on social media who were making racist remarks in the aftermath of Michael Brown's shooting and then they organized campaigns to get those people fired. And we're seeing this a lot and it seems to happen around highly polarizing issues. You know, the ease of doing research online and then the speed that facts can travel through social media have made this a really potent weapon. And in extreme cases, doxing has become a tool basically to ruin people's lives, to publish enough information about them to force them into hiding, to push them off the Internet - basically to make their lives unbearable.
CORNISH: But is it illegal?
HENN: Well, you know, that depends on what information you get, how you get it, how you use it and whether or not it's true. In 2012, Spike Lee tweeted out the address of George Zimmerman, the man who shot Trayvon Martin. But Spike Lee got that address wrong. He ended up having to settle with the homeowners who lived at that location.
Obviously, publishing accurate information about someone is legal, but if you get that information by hacking into someone's social media account or their bank account, you're very likely breaking the law. And even if you publish stuff that is part of the public record, like someone's address or phone number, you cross a legal line when you start using that information - even if it's accurate - to make threats. Obviously, you know, as Spike Lee found out, the targets of these actions can sue for invasion of privacy, or if you get something wrong, for libel. But, you know, if the person doing this, if the doxer is some loner who's living in a basement, taking them into civil court and suing them's not going to get you a lot.
CORNISH: But it's not just bloggers and Internet trolls who've been accused of this, right? I mean, some very big mainstream media organizations have been accused of it as well.
HENN: That's true. You know, The New York Times recently was criticized, some people said it was doxing former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson when it published the name of the street where he lives.
CORNISH: So how is doxing different from what journalists do all the time?
HENN: Well, you know, that's a great question. Clearly, journalists use public records in many of the same ways, you know, to track down sources, do our work. And we publish some of what we find. But really, there's no mainstream news organization I know of that publishes the name of an alleged rape victim without their consent, or would ever use this kind of information to make a threat.
CORNISH: That's Steve Henn of NPR's Planet Money team.
Thanks so much, Steve.
HENN: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.