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Image: Getty

The Ethics of Doxing Nazis on Social Media

Whitney Phillips

The important question is: does any of this help?

Image: Getty

Because 2017 is a clown car of human misery, the question of the day is whether or not it is ok to name and shame fascists on social media.

The best argument against outing Charlottesville marchers is the possibility—and, already, the actuality—of misidentification. Being misidentified online, for any reason, is always a problem; it strips a person of their ability to consent to what happens to their name and likeness, and can follow an individual through their personal and professional lives long after a controversy has passed. Being misidentified as a Nazi, truly one of the worst things a person can be, is particularly serious.

Also serious is how easily online vigilantism can be hijacked by bad-faith actors looking to sow discord for discord's sake, or even to deliberately frame an opposing party. Say, white nationalists looking to discredit antiracists by deliberately misidentifying march participants. This is the lesson I've taken from nearly ten years of studying these kinds of cases: the more chum is floating in the water, the warier the public should be of strangers taking stands on the internet. And when in doubt, just stop moving.

On the other hand, the best argument for outing marchers is that participants chose, of their own volition, to march in a highly publicized white supremacist rally, faces uncovered, as countless iPhones gleamed in the tiki torch light. They were the ones who outed themselves publicly. Having their personal information publicized further is a natural extension of that choice.

Plus, this argument goes, being a damn Nazi ("Nazi" here used imprecisely and defiantly, as marchers were a far motlier crew than just self-described Nazis; however, by my estimation, giving Nazi salutes and chanting Nazi slogans, or simply choosing to publicly associate oneself with those who do, forfeits one's right not to be called a Nazi) is a qualitatively different thing than saying an offensive joke on Twitter, which has been the source of many a vigilante intervention. It is a qualitatively different thing than having a political outlook that others might disagree with. Being a Nazi, associating with Nazis, or simply hanging around while other Nazis do their thing, is a public health issue. It is an ideology literally predicated on exclusion and violence. It is fundamentally undemocratic, and fundamentally dangerous. Fuck them and the grand dragon they rode in on.

Both arguments are, I think, quite compelling. They are also surface phenomena. Because while the immediate question might be "to dox or not to dox," or at least, "to RT those who have doxed or not to RT," there is a bigger question to consider. Particularly for white people of good will, that question is, am I being a good ally, does any of this help.

This is the moment, for white men in particular, to lower your microphones, let someone speak with theirs, and when it's needed, to give them yours.

In the specific case of naming and shaming Nazis, the first issue to consider is how the media narrative has been framed. In the immediate aftermath of the march, the focus of many of these stories has been the misidentification of participants. Understandably so, as that is the strongest argument against vigilantism more broadly. Other stories have focused on the impact these actions have had on participants, for example firings and other immediate social consequences. Still others have questioned the practice of doxxing under any circumstance, on the grounds that it contributes to mob mentality. Each of these points is absolutely worth discussion, in this case and more generally. That said, they all do the same basic thing in response to Charlottesville: They frame the fascists as the protagonists of the story. They make it about them.

To be clear, we cannot and must not ignore the photos of screaming, dead-eyed white supremacists currently ricocheting across social media. But we also cannot and must not approach these images with a fetishized gaze, in which our sight is restricted to those within the frame. The optics and iconography the protestors employed, from the Nazi salute to the Confederate flag to the various echoes of Klan rallies, have a long, violent, traumatizing history in this country.

Because of this history, literally building on this history, marchers were perpetuating symbolic violence before they raised a single fist, before they swung a single tiki torch. The targets of this violence, the context for this violence, the ways in which this violence has destroyed so many lives for so many generations—that is the true core of the narrative, and is something that is too easily lost when the lede is preoccupied with what happened to one of the screaming, dead-eyed, pasty faces featured in those images. There are other faces—nonwhite faces, women's faces—far more deserving of having their stories told, and futures fretted over.

Railing against specific white supremacists—whether or not you choose to identify them or amplify existing information—certainly isn't mutually exclusive with other forms of protest. We can all do many things at once, our brains are pretty big. That said, to stand up to forces of bigotry, to look these forces straight in the eye and say not a fucking inch, it's not enough just to bellow condemnation, and certainly not enough to keep talking mostly about white people. This is the moment, for white men in particular, to lower your microphones, let someone speak with theirs, and when it's needed, to give them yours.

The other question to consider when deciding whether to name and shame Nazis is whose interests you'll be serving if you do, particularly if you cannot verify with 100 percent certainty that the person you're naming and shaming is, in fact, guilty as charged. If you identify the wrong person, you are doing the white supremacists' work for them. If you identify the right person, you may still be doing the white supremacists' work for them.

Let's be humans for a moment. It is undeniably satisfying to think that the Charlottesville marchers will have to face the consequences of their choices. That they will face judgment and condemnation. It is infuriating to think that they wouldn't, and irresponsible to even propose letting them off the hook.

At the same time, amplification of these kinds of images and videos is good for the fascist cause. It raises their cultural visibility, provides a warped confirmation of their cry-bully martyrdom (this is the entire basis of the "on many sides" argument), and helps cohere an even deeper sense of the collective fascist us.

This certainly doesn't mean we sit back, say nothing, and assure ourselves that this too will pass. It won't if we do. We are in danger if we do. But there are bigger questions to ask, here, and deeper ethical depths to plumb, above and beyond the immediate, understandable impulse to click the RT button. If it wasn't apparent before this weekend, it is now clearly time to start taking that dive.

Whitney Phillips of Mercer University is the co-author of The Ambivalent Internet.