We’re in an endless cycle of overreach. CNN is out to blow the lid off Russiagate — so it publishes a bogus, badly vetted hit piece on Anthony Scaramucci. Trump wants to gloat over CNN’s misfire — so he posts one of the tackiest, most juvenile things ever published by a U.S. president. CNN wants to play the victim over Trump’s wrestling GIF — so it tracks down the man who created it and all but threatens to doxx him if he posts anything bigoted in the future. The right wants to punish CNN for the doxx threat — so a Republican U.S. senator is suddenly riffing on prosecutable crimes on Twitter.
Deep breaths, everyone. It’s only Wednesday.
(1/2) Troubling. I assume CNN's lawyers are examining GA § 16-8-16 Theft by extortion. If CNN constructively obtained the gif-maker's IP… https://t.co/ChxqocuDgc
— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) July 5, 2017
(2/2) it's a GA crime if they threatened to "Disseminate any information tending to subject any person to hatred, contempt, or ridicule…." https://t.co/ChxqocuDgc
— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) July 5, 2017
The Right Scoop has a copy of the Georgia statute, which makes it a crime to use threats to “unlawfully obtain property of or from another person.” Is your IP address “property”? If it’s property, is it your property or is it your telecom’s? Does CNN even have the guy’s IP? Not all email clients reveal the sender’s IP address to the recipient, after all. Would it be a good use of local D.A. resources to prosecute that case knowing that the First Amendment hurdle will doubtless be high and CNN will claim free-speech martyrdom incessantly from the attempt to punish them? Maybe we can all just continue to goof on them on social media instead, huh?
Here’s CNN’s statement about its doxxing story, by the way. Read it carefully, the way a lawyer would. And undoubtedly did.
— Oliver Darcy (@oliverdarcy) July 5, 2017
The third sentence is key: “The user … apologized and deleted his account before ever speaking with our reporter.” Read that quickly and the idea that the Redditor felt threatened falls apart. He apologized before he even knew CNN was interested in his identity! But … that’s not what it says. It says he apologized before speaking to CNN, not before he was contacted by them. What almost certainly happened is that the guy got an email from a CNN reporter saying something like, “Hi, we’ve done some research and figured out that you’re the person who created the Trump wrestling GIF and this highly dubious anti-semitic image about CNN. Care to comment?” The guy read that, had a panic attack, immediately set about deleting every offensive thing he’s ever posted, and then likely called CNN to say, “Please! I’ll lose my job! I’m so sorry and I’ll never do it again!” So they let him slide.
Is that blackmail? Not if the story ended there, no, as there’s no quid pro quo. If it happened the way I imagine then they gave him no reason to believe they’d withhold his identity if he cleaned up his act. He chose to do that himself, then CNN chose to reward him for it. As long as no reward was promised as an inducement to get him to behave in a certain way, there’s no extortion.
But the story didn’t end there, did it? Here again is what CNN published last night:
CNN is not publishing “HanA**holeSolo’s” name because he is a private citizen who has issued an extensive statement of apology, showed his remorse by saying he has taken down all his offending posts, and because he said he is not going to repeat this ugly behavior on social media again. In addition, he said his statement could serve as an example to others not to do the same.
CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change.
A threat is being made now. CNN’s silence about the Redditor’s identity is contingent upon him keeping his nose clean online, knowing full well that he would have “concern for his safety” if it were revealed. Any more racist JPEGs and he’s potentially toast. If you can explain how that squares with CNN’s ostensible mission as a news organization you’re a more discerning news consumer than I am. The only question for the company here should have been, “Is publishing this guy’s identity newsworthy or not?” Is he, for instance, a public official? Does he have some sort of connection to the White House that might explain how they found his GIF? Did he misrepresent his identity to the public in some material way, requiring CNN to correct that misrepresentation as a matter of public interest? If not, why is his identity relevant?
And if it is relevant, why is “concern for his safety” a reason to suppress it? People are identified every day in newspapers based on mere suspicion that they’ve committed a serious crime. Americans shrug at that (usually) in the belief that criminal charges are matters of public interest even though the accused may be shunned, vilified, or worse after they’ve been identified. If CNN is in the news business, it shouldn’t matter what this guy did after they contacted him or what he might do in the future. If they’re in the business of shaming sh*tposters sporadically to keep them honest, then okay. But that’s not news reportage. As Bethany Mandel says, that’s thought-policing.
In so many words:
If the CNN story was worth publishing, it was worth IDing the guy who made the meme. If he isn’t worth IDing, it wasn’t worth publishing.
— Sonny Bunch (@SonnyBunch) July 5, 2017
People are angry because CNN didn't feel his name worthy of publication, but did feel a public threat of doxing worthy of publication. https://t.co/qosP3Jsdo1
— Patrick Nonwhite (@NonWhiteHat) July 5, 2017
I can’t tell you how many liberals on social media today have willfully misunderstood those points, treating this episode as nothing more than a nasty troll being shamed into behaving himself better online. The issue isn’t whether the Redditor should behave better; the issue is whether a news organization should use its platform to overtly threaten randos for violating norms of civil political discourse. And needless to say, the whole thing stinks 10 times worse than it otherwise would have knowing that the guy is famous for making a GIF of Trump attacking CNN itself. Publicly warning someone that his identity might be revealed in the guise of “news” if he continues past practices of posting alt-right garbage would be bad under any circumstances. Doing it to someone whom the president made famous for anti-CNN propaganda reeks of retaliation. “If Fox News threatened to unmask an anti-Trump loon unless they publicly apologized and stayed quiet, the left would be going nuts,” tweeted Josh Jordan. Indeed. And justifiably.
Via Legal Insurrection, here’s CNN anchor Alisyn Camerota seeming pretty jazzed about how all of this went down. The deeper question here is how high the ethical bar should be for news organizations to “out” online malefactors given how many there are and knowing that safety concerns are a real issue in the hypercharged emotional climates of Internet subcultures. Should posting a racist JPEG anonymously make you fair game for doxxing, especially when you’re apt to lose your job because of it? What about online bullying? What about online bullying aimed specifically at very vulnerable people? Draw a line and enforce it. As Kevin Williamson says, “It seems that either we have an ethic of general respect for anonymity (subject to regular editorial practice) or we don’t.”