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Digging for dirt in the digital age: the trouble with journalism and doxing

By Collette Snowden, Senior Lecturer, School of Communication, International Studies and Languages, University of South Australia

Even before the march in Charlottesville turned violent, images of white supremacist demonstrators were posted on social media along with requests to identify them.

Many were named by Twitter and Facebook sleuths, complete with details of where they lived and worked. Some have reportedly lost their jobs or “gone into hiding”, while others have been disowned by their families.

Their public exposure is an example of doxing – the ferreting out of someone’s identity by following digital trails of documents, recorded appearances, images, social media posts, website visits and comments.

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Doxing has a complicated history, but the type of identity-seeking that occurred in the wake of Charlottesville was once mostly the work of the media.

Audiences used to rely on journalists’ skill and the editing processes to ensure that reported information was checked and verified. Mistakes were made, of course, but nowadays the process is increasingly outgunned and outpaced by the speed at which the crowd can work.

Doxing challenges traditional journalism. Its investigative role is circumvented, if not entirely usurped, by people disclosing information online quickly, if not always accurately. New hybrid journalism models, linking citizens and journalists, offer a way forward.

Should journalists report doxing attempts?

When it comes to emerging stories, there’s no contest between media organisations and the swarming power of people online. But in these events, journalists often assume a passive role.

When major news events break today, media organisations often rely on the public to provide information and material that would not otherwise be available. The 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami was one of the first global news events. It showed it was possible to construct and report news by aggregating and sharing crowdsourced material.

These days, journalists are damned if they report information obtained by doxing, and damned if they don’t. Because of the crowd’s enthusiasm for it, contemporary journalism is faced with a choice between speed and accuracy.

Journalism can either run with the crowd as a story unfolds, or hold back to check and verify. The former risks inaccuracy, errors and misrepresentation; the latter risks loss of audience attention.

Problems with doxing

Doxing creates problems that traditional journalism needs to grapple with, both practically and ethically.

Without meticulous factchecking and verification, it is frighteningly easy to misrepresent or falsely identify people.

In the same week as Charlottesville protesters were “brought down” online, an American man was wrongly identified and arrested for pushing a woman into the path of a London bus. He was forced to hire bodyguards after receiving death threats. Most people are unlikely to have similar resources.

There have also been disturbing incidences of digital vigilantism, including false identification that put people’s lives at risk following terrorism incidents.

In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, for example, requests for help to find the suspects lead to people being incorrectly accused as the public eagerly investigated on Reddit forums.

What should we do?

Ironically, the problems created by doxing, hacking and online vigilantism make competent data-driven journalism even more necessary.

In the contracting and fragmenting environment of contemporary media, however, even the largest organisations don’t employ enough staff to do intensive online investigative work.

A lack of investment in training, and even resistance to the need for digital competency, has created a skills gap. Most journalists lack the IT skills to access data in the same way hackers do (not to mention the fact that they are required to abide by the law).

Crowdsourcing journalism offers a way forward between random doxing and organised information retrieval and analysis.

It’s a hybrid model that combines traditional journalism practices, including legal and ethical knowledge, with the swarming power of people online and forensic IT and data management.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Panama Papers project, run by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, is one example of data-driven journalism.

The exposure of an international network of financial dealing linked to criminal syndicates and corruption is an indication of what can be achieved. But the Panama Papers was more in the traditional mode of investigative journalism. It was a long, slow process that required painstaking analysis of more than 11.5 million documents.

The Guardian has also been a pioneer in the development of crowdsourced and data-driven journalism, with projects like The Counted, which tracked people killed by the police in the US.

Less structured forms of journalism based on digital information-seeking include Wikileaks, and other less controversial ventures such as Grasswire, which describes itself as an “open newsroom”:

We’re a community of over 1,200 people from all over the world who care about honest, accurate news. We source, verify, write and edit unbiased news stories that matter. Most of us aren’t journalists or writers or editors. Few of us have ever met in person.

Online, everyone knows what breed of dog you are

In 1993, The New Yorker published a cartoon featuring two dogs, one sitting at a computer saying to the other: “Online, no one knows you’re a dog.” It captured the innocent period when it was possible to be anonymous online, and became one of the earliest internet memes.

In 2017, not only is it possible for the internet to know that you’re a dog, but it can quickly find out what breed of dog you are, where you go for walks, and whether you’re registered.

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In this environment, we need the watchdog of journalism more than ever to ensure that digital vigilantism, and erroneous and false information, are quickly identified and replaced with accurate information.

The danger for journalism is that it loses sight of its own role and gets swept away by the audience’s desire for instant information, rather than taking a slower, methodical route to truth. Models of journalism that recognise the power of the internet, but preserve the best practices of traditional journalism, offer a solution.

The Conversation

Collette Snowden does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.

Originally published in The Conversation.