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The Danger of Doxxing

What is doxxing?

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the term as “publicly identify[ing] for [publication] private information about (someone) especially as a form of punishment or revenge.”

A recent story written by The Washington Post columnist Taylor Lorenz fits this definition to a T. The evidence strongly suggests Lorenz is guilty of using one of the most powerful media companies in the United States to expose the identity of a private citizen, with full knowledge that this public disclosure would likely result in harm.

Lorenz’s story, designed to “expose” the wildly popular, anonymous “Libs of TikTok” Twitter account, did not only expose the user’s name. Although later removed, the original story also published a link to the user’s business profile, including a link to the user’s address.

It is indisputable that the popularity of the Libs of TikTok account is a newsworthy story, but Lorenz’s story fails to explain to readers why the publication of a private citizen’s information is a necessary element of that story.

The Lorenz debacle will likely work to cement current public perception of legacy media. These trends include a plummeting trust in media and a belief among conservatives and moderates that media organizations come with a baked-in bias towards leftist belief systems.

Lorenz’s story offers a prime example of shoddy journalism consumers hate.

Among the numerous ethical rules of journalism is a principle to minimize harm. This principle states journalists should strive to “balance the public’s need for information” with the “potential harm or discomfort” that could result from reporting a story.

This harm need not be physical. Online harassment, as Lorenz herself has discussed, can be emotionally trying. Ironically, Lorenz’s article appears to be written with the intent to maximize damage to a private citizen’s reputation and image.

Although she linked to what she believed were examples of Libs of TikTok minimizing COVID, doubting the legitimacy of the 2020 election, and promoting a “dubious” story about a child sex trafficking ring, Lorenz’s story failed to engage with the actual content of these posts.

Lorenz’s article was chock-full of conclusions and labels stated as facts and often unaccompanied by substantive evidence. The lede begins with a reference to a Libs of TikTok tweet criticizing a woman’s sex education teaching. Lorenz highlights Libs of TikTok’s use of the word “predator” to describe the sex education materials, but offers no insight explaining why Libs of TikTok came to this conclusion.

More examples abound. Lorenz labels some of Libs of TikTok’s tweets as “anti-trans,” while failing to engage with the substance of the tweet to show why they deserve this label. Similarly, she states Libs of TikTok “purported that adults who teach children about LGBTQ+ identities are ‘abusive,’” without providing any quote or evidence to support this claim.

Throughout the article, the reader is led to numerous, universally negative conclusions about the substance and intent of the Libs of TikTok account without any knowledge of the standard Lorenz is using to make these subjective judgments. What is anti-trans? Minimizing COVID? Doubting the 2020 election? Who knows since Lorenz never addresses these questions.

The story was not a comprehensive or nuanced analysis of the content published by Libs of TikTok. Instead, Lorenz interviewed representatives of leftist organizations, highlighted some of the account’s most outrageous tweets, labeled them accordingly and (sometimes) provided hyperlinks with further information.

Given the speed with which many consumers read news articles, this oversight is important. Lorenz has worked in the news business long enough to know most readers do not read through every hyperlink provided in a story. The incendiary nature of the labels she uses demand a degree of substantive analysis that her story lacks.

Releasing the name and address of the account user underscores another critical failure. The name and address of the account’s user provided zero substantive information to the reader. In other words, this information had no news value. This begs the question: if there was no news value, what was the purpose of including personal information? Lorenz attempted to defend herself, claiming the name was included because of the power wielded by the account itself.

However, this fails to address the root of the privacy concern protected by ethical journalists. Libs of TikTok is not powerful because of the name of its account holder; it is popular because its content strikes a chord with the public. Given that the name of the account user was unknown until Lorenz went on a mission to expose this information, the private identity of the person behind the account was clearly irrelevant to its success.

It is indisputable that being labeled “anti-LGBTQ” and “anti-trans,” while being associated with QAnon will likely lead to online harassment. To many Americans, the above labels are repugnant, and given the ease with which bad faith actors can send death threats and hate mail to unpopular subjects, it is easy to see how attaching those specific labels to a person’s name while linking to the individual’s address could easily lead to significant harm.

Lorenz and The Washington Post have participated in the debasement of their profession. Tossing buzzwords and labels into a news article with no substantive analysis of the content being labeled is not the type of journalism that breeds broad public trust. Instead, Lorenz’s article highlights the danger of journalists justifying the abuse of private citizens in the pursuit of progressive proselytization.   

This article originally appeared in the Libertas Institute