The beauty and ugliness of the Internet is the ability of people to give whatever opinion one wants. The World Wide Web is a place where those with pretty much any viewpoint or desire can find others with similar beliefs, connect with them, and discuss whatever topic comes to mind. The invention of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram has the ability to propel people into the spotlight, where they can gleefully bask in the warmth of likeminded individuals or snap at opponents using snark, oaths, or a cornucopia of memes and gifs. Most attempt to do this by wearing some form of mask, as if they were taking part in some sort of costume ball where everyone wondered who their companion was, what just exactly they did IRL (in real life), and if their online personas match how they act around co-workers, friends, or spouses. There are times when the bombastic personalities of the online celebrity are indeed in sync with those away from the keyboard or smartphone screen. There are also times where the characters are just that – characters who are as real as the hopes and dreams of a person who longs for much more than what they actually possess.
It is a brand-new world, warts and all, and one which allows us to express our darkest, most repressed feelings, without fear of consequence or reprisal. One where people can vent their rage, express their anxieties, and profess deep impulses in hopes no one discovers their identity.
One such person is the Twitter user @AmyMek, a woman residing firmly in MAGA-land, who enjoys a wide following from all political ideologies for her opinions on immigration, justice reform, and Islam. She relished the fruits of being famous (over 200K Twitter followers!) while staying behind what she believed was a wall of anonymity. The New York Times featured comments from her while looking at female Trump supporters. San Francisco Examiner attempted to discover her identity in vain last year – speculating she was actually some sort of Russian troll in the vast Russian-Donald Trump conspiracy which vexes some of the most anxious on the left who cannot understand how and why he defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Huffington Post determined something different. The online publication was able to not only track down @AmyMek’s identity (Amy Mekelburg) they also exposed some of her background and family in New Jersey along with her husband’s day job as a senior executive with World Wrestling Entertainment. Her friendship with a convicted murderer came to light. Someone gave HuffPost access to an old high school yearbook, so they could grab her class photo. It’s an excellent piece of journalism and detective work akin to Djuna Barnes or the fictional private investigator Philip Marlowe.
Mekelburg’s husband lost his job with WWE. Her father’s company saw their yelp page inundated with bad reviews. A relative’s restaurant had to issue a statement distancing themselves from her Twitter comments and said it was on her to explain why she had her beliefs. It was a mixture of family drama and mob action – ripping away at any and all border between the online and the real life.
Mekelburg was (understandably) furious at discovering her mask of anonymity wasn’t made of porcelain, but wax which melted as an even brighter spotlight shined on it. She raved on Twitter the article was a team-up between Huffington Post and CAIR while declaring “the truth will come out” about the so-called vicious lies. She also accused HuffPost of doxing because they revealed things she believed were private. Whatever anonymity she had was turned to dust in the wind as HuffPost wielded its own Infinity Gauntlet and went *snap*.
People were quick to come to her defense. Twitchy had a feature where editor Sam Janney refused to defend any of Mekelburg’s tweets but wrote it’s “fascinating is that anyone thinks this is in anyway journalism.”
“If you don’t like what someone posts on Twitter, block them,” Janney correctly pointed out June 3rd. “If they harass you, report them. This isn’t difficult.”
Others were more forceful in their protestation that a grave injustice had befallen the innocent Mekelburg
“Is this the new norm?” Renne Lai rhetorically wrote at TrevorLoudon.com while declaring HuffPost crossed a line. “Amy Mek has a large Twitter following, and she says things that the left doesn’t like. They don’t like Amy. They don’t like that she has a platform.”
“Okay, let’s talk about decency,” Daniel Greenfield proclaimed at FrontPageMag as he urged people to contact HuffPost’s corporate overlords. “Forget namecalling. How about a Verizon owned media group targeting a Twitter user, exposing her full name and location to the terrorists whom she has condemned online because the media group’s reporter doesn’t like the Twitter user.”
National Review disagreed with the article and questioned whether it was necessary action.
“[HuffPost reporter Luke] O’Brien’s editor says he is a “professional journalist,” but journalists do not have the gatekeeper status they once did,” Theodore Kupfer opined at NRO whilst suggesting HuffPost engaged in doxing-as-journalism. “The users they are unmasking — Mekelburg, the once-prolific Twitter user “Ricky Vaughn” — have large audiences, the Huffington Post might reason, and espouse abhorrent political views. Yet plenty of people on the online right have defended the publication of reporters’ personal information for the same reasons. They’re wrong, but to think that the doxxing of anonymous figures on the right-wing Internet won’t meet with a vicious response is naïve in the extreme.”
O’Brien and Huffington Post – ever the victims – are doing themselves no favors by publicly mewling about the reaction to the article. Threats have flown like pies in a diner run by the Ricardos and Mertzes. Twitter accounts have no doubt been reported and re-reported for egregious actions against humanity. The rage is palpable and likely to remain for days.
Yet, did Huffington Post actually dox Mekelburg by outing someone who is enjoying popularity and celebrity in the Internet Age via Twitter?
The answer is, quite simply and profoundly, no.
“Twitter is a public venue that is used to discuss matters that are big and small and the Huffington Post article does not cross a line into where it is just throwing out random stuff,” Reason editor-at-large Nick Gillespie told me over the phone. “It’s an interesting story about why a major figure in the Twitterverse and is kind of Islamaphobic Twitter where they’re coming from and who they are. I don’t see that as a bad thing.”
Gillespie is on solid footing in his argument. Mekelburg’s home address and Social Security number were not made public – nor was any financial information like bank accounts or credit cards. Her husband’s former post at WWE is not a secret, the company proudly announced his hiring last year in a news release. Marriage licenses are public records, and high school yearbooks are done to promote the school and its students. Her father’s company was named, yet his own identity wasn’t made public, nor was his business’ location. Parts of her life may have been torn asunder, but it is the consequence of celebrity.
It is an issue Americans have studied and argued on for ages.
“[W]hen free speech and traditional notion of privacy conflict, free speech should almost always win,” Neil Richards wrote in the 2015 book Intellectual Privacy: Rethinking Civil Liberties in The Digital Age. “[Samuel] Warren and [former Supreme Court Justice Louis] Brandeis thought of privacy as a tort action against newspaper gossip causing emotional harm. Their idea that privacy and speech are in conflict has framed how we think about privacy in the legal system and in the wider world…Our commitment to free speech means we must reject their argument in almost all cases.”
Richards believes it’s wrong for governments to collect the data of individuals and is definitely not a fan of data hoarding by Facebook or Microsoft. He is also concerned about the various meanings of privacy writing if “it can mean almost anything, then it will mean almost nothing in practice.”
He notes the anxieties regarding privacies started during the late 1800s when the social activities of Samuel Warren and his wife “appeared in the papers over sixty more times in the 1880s.” The Warrens were quite popular in the Boston scene with Mabel Warren’s friendship with the woman who became President Grover Cleveland’s wife a hot topic in the press.
“Privacy was very much in the air in 1890,” Richards chronicles while also revealing the couple saw a new generation of reporters were threatening whatever societal position they possessed. Warren was friends with Brandeis and used his intellect to put together an argument against Yellow Press. “[T]he core of the injury Warren and Brandeis were seeking to remedy was emotional harm – the offense felt by Mabel when she was mentioned in the press without her consent.”
Sound familiar? These are the same arguments Mekelburg and her allies are now claiming HuffPost has infringed upon.
“When you’re actually following someone’s development in thinking or in journalism or in who they hang out, that’s kind of the definition of good journalism,” Gillespie noted, also pointing out Americans tend to run for the pitchforks or Tiki torches whenever an expose of slightly unseemly information comes out. “To the extent that the right is getting its panties in a bunch, it just shows that conservatives have become the biggest collection of snowflakes south of the Arctic Circle.”
Yet, freedom of press and speech in America is ingrained in our identity, despite all the debate regarding privacy and the press.
“This being the only mode by which the responsibility of the agents of the public can be secured, and practically enforced, the smallest infringement of the right guaranteed by this article, must threaten the total subversion of the government,” St. George Tucker declared in View of the Constitution of the United States in 1803 while looking at the First Amendment. “For a representative democracy ceases to exist the moment that the public functionaries are by any means absolved from their responsibility to their constituents; and this happens whenever the constituent can be restrained in any manner from speaking, writing, or publishing his opinions upon any public measure, or upon the conduct of those who may advise or execute it.”
Mekelburg is a public figure who has enjoyed support via retweet from the President. Her opinions have been shared by like-minded journalists and pundits. She is not someone who uses a locked Twitter account or attempts to hide behind “burner” accounts as now former Philadelphia 76ers GM Bryan Colangelo was accused of doing (that was actually his wife). HuffPost’s expose on her life provides context to why she professes her opinion on Twitter.
It doesn’t mean HuffPost should have published the look at Mekelburg’s life (I do not believe it should have seen the light of day). It is honestly newsworthy to only a select few – much like the countless number of supermarket tabloids suggesting Celebrity X is copulating with Celebrity Y while scoring the affections of Celebrity W. The fact WWE fired Mekelburg’s husband is disappointing because it’s quite obvious he was an asset to their operation. One might guess WWE’s determination that it was best to wish her husband “the best in his future endeavors” is due to their relationship with the Arab World and their legitimate attempts to bring about reform in the region. It was an unfortunate consequence in the revelation of Mekelburg’s identity.
The expose is still journalism, not doxing. There was nothing illegal with HuffPost’s activities, nor should their activities be outlawed. They certainly deserve criticism for the piece – and the chaos it has inspired – but HuffPost’s ability to reveal background on a public figure needs to be protected and defended. It would be a different story if government agents seized the information without or via secretive warrant or if HuffPost teamed up – or was directed by – the government to out Mekelburg. The fact a news entity was able to put together the information through public data, and good sleuthing makes it a different case altogether.