Nearly a century ago, the governor of Louisiana proposed doxing the Ku Klux Klan.
Gov. John Parker was in New York City for a speech in April 1923, just a few months after the Klan’s killing of two white men in Mer Rouge, Louisiana, had drawn national attention to the white supremacist group’s doings in the state. He suspected that local leaders and townspeople knew full well who had perpetrated the attack but kept quiet — maybe because they, too, were in the Klan, operating under the cover of white hoods and robes.
His solution: “Turn the light of publicity on the Ku Klux Klan. Its members cannot stand it. Reputable businessmen, bankers, lawyers and others numbered among its members will not continue in its fold. They cannot afford it.”
This week, roughly 94 years later, internet hoards took up Parker’s call. They voraciously posted photos of people who attended a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and sought to use the online crowdsourcing to identify them.
Doxing, or publishing someone’s personal information without their consent, existed long before the internet. But this week brought an unparalleled flood, showing us what happens when an internet movement that thrived on anonymity comes head-to-head with a rapidly expanding group of online vigilantes.
On the evening of Friday, Aug. 11, modern-day Klan members, neo-Nazis, white nationalists, people on the “alt-right” and others marched through Charlottesville with torches, many chanting “Jews will not replace us” and “Blood and soil,” a Nazi slogan. The following afternoon — after the planned white nationalist rally had collapsed into violence, killing attendee Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of others — Peter Cytanovic and Andrew Dodson, who had come to Charlottesville for the rally, met up with some friends at a hotel in the city.
Cytanovic, a white nationalist and student at the University of Nevada, Reno, already knew the Guardian had published a photo of him shouting at the torch-lit march. But that afternoon, after someone published his name online, his phone began buzzing with notifications. Soon, he had hundreds of Facebook messages, including some death threats. Before long, people were calling his sister and grandparents. “It really got bad for me personally,” he told the NewsHour Weekend.
Dodson, who said he wants to protect white identity in the U.S., was with Cytanovic as he began to see the notifications. They were in part fueled by Twitter user @YesYoureRacist, who posted images of people on Twitter for others to identify. Within minutes, his friend said, “Hey, you’re on the news.” Before long, he too was receiving threatening messages.
“It’s a fascinating machine to see in progress,” Dodson told the NewsHour Weekend. “These are very hardworking people that are using these social media platforms to scrub the internet for all the data on someone. It’s like a giant artificial intelligence or something. This swarm of humans, Googling, in an attempt to destroy someone.”
As they identified Dodson, Cytanovic and others, internet commenters often expressed horror that white nationalists no longer felt the need to cover their faces.
But doing so would have been illegal in Virginia, where a law prohibits wearing masks or hoods to conceal one’s identity. The reason dates back to the Klan, and the frustration Gov. Parker and others felt at the group’s Teflon-like ability to avoid legal consequences for the murders and other violence they committed.
In the Klan’s early days in the late 1800s, members wore a variety of strange costumes invoking folk traditions, racist stereotypes or animals. They wore “gigantic animal horns, fake beards, coon-skin caps, or polka-dotted paper hats; they imitated French accents or barnyard animals … Many early Klansman also wore blackface, simultaneously scapegoating and mocking their victims,” author Alison Kinney wrote in her book “Hood (Object Lessons).”
The Klan mostly dissolved toward the end of the 19th century after state governments and Congress began to crack down. But it was temporary — several decades later, after the 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation” was released to wide popularity among white Americans, people began joining the Klan again, this time donning mass-produced white hoods and cloaks.
But they were a largely ineffective disguise in many small towns, where Klan membership was no secret, according to Eric Foner, a history professor at Columbia University. “We think of the Klan running around in disguise and hoods. They did that, but everyone knew who they were,” Foner said. “People were proud to be in the Klan and they didn’t want to hide that fact.”
Still, the hoods were a form of plausible deniability, giving people the option not to cooperate with law enforcement, said Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT. “In some ways, having everyone meet under hoods gave everyone the ability to say, ‘I can’t tell you whether I was there.’”
As a result, a number of states outlawed wearing hoods or masks in public from the 1920s to the 1950s.
Decades later, white supremacists’ masks took a different form online as anonymity became a central feature of the internet. In early chat rooms and message boards, and among hackers, personal information became a kind of currency — and a show of power, Zuckerman said. Pranksters would sometimes obtain each other’s personal information for sport, other times for nefarious purposes.
Online forums for white nationalists thrived in the early days of the internet. On Stormfront, an online white nationalist forum created by former KKK member Don Black in the 1990s, “People would have consistent screen names. They would hold onto a kind of identity … but they would be very explicit not to share personal information because they knew that other people could see what they were saying,” said Joan Donovan, media manipulation research lead for the Data & Society Research Institute.
In the early 2000s, those forums spun off into 4chan and 8chan, where white supremacist groups flourished and everyone was automatically assigned the username “anonymous.” Meanwhile, online activists had already begun publishing the names of white nationalists, usually on their own websites as an attempt at vigilante justice.
Daryle Lamont Jenkins was one of them. In 2000, his website, One People’s Project, began publishing the names of accused neo-Nazis. “I just wanted to know, what ever happened to the Klan after the civil rights movement?” he said.
In turn, white supremacists also published the names of anti-racist people or others who they wanted to harm. Hal Turner, a white supremacist and public personality, was sentenced in 2010 to three years in prison after he posted the addresses of three federal judges online and threatened to kill them after they ruled in favor of a local handgun ban in Chicago.
In 2006, the YouTube channel Vigilantes, led by someone who went by “CircaRigel,” was created to publicize the personal information of racist YouTubers. Within a couple of years the Anonymous collective was doing the same thing — first with individual white supremacists, and in 2008, with the Scientology leadership, a move that brought them national attention.
Then, in 2011, Google announced the launch of reverse image search, making it possible to find a person’s social media accounts or other online presence by searching for an image of them.
By then, doxing had become more widespread, as Anonymous in conjunction with Occupy protesters began doxing policemen who were accused of being violent toward the Occupy encampments, Donovan said. Anonymous’ Tumblr posted the phone number for New York police officer, Anthony Bologna, who was captured on camera pepper-spraying an Occupy Wall Street protester.
And in 2015, an online harassment campaign known as Gamergate posted personal information for women involved in technology and gaming.
But this most recent episode of doxing, post-Charlottesville, “feels qualitatively different,” said Whitney Phillips, a professor at Mercer University who has studied online trolling. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
What happened online after Charlottesville showed the collision of anonymous online space with the public face of white supremacy, Zuckerman said. “There’s a whole lot of conversations in that space where people don’t disclose their identity. They are their online persona. They are not necessarily taking off their mask and they are interacting primarily under that pseudonym. They realize that taking off that mask is a risk and a danger,” he said. “When you assume you’re going to a rally filled with people you know mostly under those pseudonyms, maybe [you think] those rules apply.”
Phillips said she often hears the misconception that anonymity online can encourage antisocial behavior such as racist and hateful speech. But she pointed to another idea expressed by Steve Reicher, a social psychologist and professor at the University of St. Andrews: that anonymity leads to a state in which people show a stronger adherence to group norms. As white nationalist groups siloed into their own online spaces, they may have exaggerated group members’ devotion to group ideas, she said.
Several months ago, a pro-Trump Twitter user who is affiliated with the “alt-right” accused Zuckerman of working for George Soros, a prominent donor to liberal causes and a common target of “alt-right” groups. Zuckerman, who works at MIT, responded — and eventually they moved the conversation to Gmail, where Zuckerman’s signature shows his phone number and office address.
The Twitter user was shocked, Zuckerman said, taking it as a “highly trusting” move that Zuckerman would provide his personal details. In a show of good faith, he sent Zuckerman his details too, leveling the playing field. “It was almost like an Old West [movie], I came in and put my gun on the table, and his response was to put his down as well,” Zuckerman said.
Zuckerman said he doesn’t want to see anyone being harassed, but that doxing could be effective against people who are just beginning to explore white nationalist ideas. “I hope it will be a successful tactic in helping filter people out of this movement who are exploring the identity, but who may not understand just what a hateful and horrible thing they’re doing,” he said.
This past weekend, a sparsely attended “free speech” rally organized by right-wing groups was eclipsed by thousands of counter-protesters in Boston. Brianna Wu, who was herself targeted during Gamergate and is now a Democratic congressional candidate in Massachusetts, drew a direct line between doxing after Charlottesville and scarce attendance at that rally.
1/ I believe there's a correlation in our success at identifing white supremacists in #Charlottesville and the lack of them in Boston today.
— Brianna Wu (@Spacekatgal) August 20, 2017
On the flipside, publishing white nationalists’ names could also reassure them that they can voice their beliefs more now than ever. Having his name published, Cytanovic said, was “relieving to a degree, that I can’t hide my political beliefs anymore.”
As widespread and cross-political alarm grows over the influence of fascism and white supremacy in the U.S., Donovan said more people than ever are using the internet to administer their own version of justice.
“We as Americans know that this has the capacity to spread. And the way you stop it from spreading from town to town is that you band together and try to find the vectors that are doing this kind of organization,” she said. White nationalists in Charlottesville may have “felt really safe to come out without masks on, and I think they’re discovering the reason why the KKK put masks on in the first place.”