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Online Sleuths Are Outing Racists, But Should They?

After Charlottesville, crowdsourced efforts online to identify racists and damage their reputations–or worse–raise complicated questions.

Online Sleuths Are Outing Racists, But Should They?
[Photo: Shay Horse/NurPhoto/Getty Images]

Shortly after last Saturday’s white nationalist march through Charlottesville, outraged internet users took to social media to call out some of the participants in the march.

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Daily News writer Shaun King tweeted photos of suspects in some violent attacks, including names and addresses shared by sources.

“Dear Dan, Before you deleted your Facebook page, I took screenshots of your photos and friends,” he wrote in one post. “You will be arrested.”

And Logan Smith, who runs the Twitter account YesYoureRacist, was one of several to reveal the identities of rank-and-file marchers who carried tiki torches in the white nationalist event. Such revelations led to real-world consequences for some of the marchers: One man was reportedly fired from a Vermont branch of Uno Pizzeria and Grill, and another resigned from a Bay Area hot dog stand after it was deluged with complaints about his behavior.

Internet vigilantism is nothing new—experts point to a case in China from 2006, when internet users tracked down a woman captured on video crushing a kitten to death, as one of the first examples. Police around the world have warned this form of publicly administered retribution can in some cases actually hinder the legal pursuit of justice. They say they need the public’s assistance in catching criminals, but warn that amateur assistance can go too far, notifying suspects of evidence against them and possibly endangering lives if cybersleuths step out from behind the keyboard.

Observers have also raised questions about the ethics of exposing people’s identities they mean to keep secret—what both online activists and trolls often call “doxing”—though many feel this is less of an issue in situations like the Charlottesville march, where participants did little to hide their identities.

“There’s a question, of course, whether taking their picture, putting them on the internet and trying to identify them is a morally good-morally bad thing,” says Mathias Klang, an associate professor in digital technologies and emerging media at Fordham University. “Legally, it’s okay—I think morally, it’s mostly okay.”

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The marchers were parading unmasked in a public place, so they have no expectation of privacy, and while the First Amendment might protect nonviolent marchers from legal prosecution, it doesn’t shield them from social ostracism or criticism from the public, he says.

“They can actually go, you’re an idiot,” he says. “Sometimes I think we struggle with that difference.”

Indeed, some participants were outed as students at public universities, which generally condemned their students’ behavior, while declining to take disciplinary actions citing free speech grounds.

“Based on discussion and investigation with law enforcement, our attorneys and our Office of Student Conduct, there is no constitutional or legal reason to expel him from our University or to terminate his employment,” University of Nevada President Marc Johnson said of one such student.

Not all those identified, though, were actually involved in the rally. A University of Arkansas engineering professor was incorrectly named as a participant—he was nowhere near Charlottesville at the time—and reportedly went into hiding after receiving threats and demands for his ouster from the university.

“The Wrong Guy” Problem

It’s not the first time internet sleuths, looking to locate people identified in illegal or immoral activities, have pointed to the wrong person. After New York’s Shakespeare in the Park produced a Trump-inspired version of “Julius Caesar,” other Shakespeare companies around the country received their share of misdirected vitriol and threats. A few months earlier, misguided amateur detectives looking into what they called “PizzaGate” accused various people connected to Hillary Clinton’s campaign of being tied to a worldwide child abuse conspiracy, culminating in an armed man bursting into a D.C. pizzeria searching for kidnapped children.

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And infamously, after the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing, Reddit users created a forum called r/findbostonbombers. They scoured internet photos of the event looking for suspicious people, and ended up publicly pointing to at least three people who had no connection to the bombing. They included college student Sunil Tripathi, who was then missing and later found dead.

Afterward, then-Reddit general manager Erik Martin issued a statement of regret and reiterated the discussion site’s policy against revealing people’s personal information.

“We hoped that the crowdsourced search for new information would not spark exactly this type of witch hunt,” Martin wrote. “We were wrong. The search for the bombers bore less resemblance to the types of vindictive internet witch hunts our no-personal-information rule was originally written for, but the outcome was no different.”

There’s little doubt that lasting harm can be done to people who are publicly accused of doing something illegal or immoral. And while they may have legal remedies like defamation suits, those are not always sufficient to undo the damage.

“That’s actually not helpful in this case, because what we’re talking about is the social harm that’s being caused by someone pointing you out in the wrong way,” Klang says.

Late last month, Dallas photographer Andrea Polito won a $1.08 million defamation judgment against a blogger she said launched a social media campaign against her, after a dispute over wedding photo pricing. The posts—which she alleges were full of false allegations—went viral, and the photographer was attacked on review sites like Yelp, with one reviewer allegedly even falsely accusing her of transmitting HIV. But despite the court win, which might still be appealed, the photographer told the Dallas Morning News she’s “emotionally exhausted” after the episode, which saw her wedding season bookings drop from between 75 and 100 to just two.

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The Police Want Help From The Public—To A Point

But since the Boston bombing mistakes, internet sleuths hoping to aid fast-moving criminal investigations have generally been more cautious, says Johnny Nhan, an associate professor of criminal justice at Texas Christian University, who has studied the online Boston bombing investigation. That applies even in the wake of the Charlottesville march, he says.

“I didn’t see any crazy activity on Reddit or 4chan or any of those that were very active during the Boston investigation,” he says. “I think it’s really lessons learned from the Boston marathon bombing where they misidentified a few people and really kind of wreaked havoc.”

Still, he says, crowdsourcing can be an effective way of locating particular people, despite the risk of false matches. After all, there’s a reason police have long asked the public to be on the lookout for particular suspects, whether through Post Office wanted posters, nightly news broadcasts of surveillance footage, or text message Amber Alerts.

“The FBI routinely asks for the public’s assistance in identifying unknown subjects and providing tips to law enforcement,” the agency said in a statement to Fast Company. “We value the public’s help and could not accomplish the mission without their assistance.”

While the Reddit leads turned out to be mistaken, convicted Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was only arrested after a homeowner noticed suspicious movements near his boat, where Tsarnaev was hiding, and contacted authorities.

The FBI also emphasized that people “be vigilant and not put themselves in danger if they encounter someone they believe may be dangerous,” encouraging people to contact their local FBI office or submit a tip online if they see something suspicious. And police agencies generally want to keep the public at arm’s length to avoid compromising investigations or incurring liability for civilian missteps, Nhan says.

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If members of the public work too closely with law enforcement, courts may find they’re effectively deputized as an arm of the police, meaning police could be on the hook for Constitutional violations or other potentially serious missteps they take.

“There’s a ton of reasons why they don’t want people involved,” Nhan says.

In the U.K., where amateur pedophile hunters sometimes seek to entrap online sex offenders, police have warned they could unwittingly tip off suspects, or trigger violence if they confront them directly. They’ve also warned of the serious risk of false accusations, which could lead to serious reputational harm and even suicide.

But when investigators are reluctant to share information, members of the public can be frustrated if it seems their tips aren’t being acted upon, which can make them more likely to take to social media or other channels to publicize their own findings, he says. In the Charlottesville case, for instance, many expressed frustration local police didn’t do more to protect the public or crack down on violent, white nationalist marchers.

“The police proceed in a very methodical way,” Nhan says. “I think the frustration stems from the speed at which things happen.”


Read more: We spend billions on the police but have little say in what they do

About the author

Steven Melendez is an independent journalist living in New Orleans.

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