Last week, hundreds of domestic terrorists flooded the Capitol building. They did so while livestreaming their actions. Others snapped photographs. Many of them posted of their actions to various public forums. They were quite proud of their demonstration and wanted the world to see they had taken part. Why not oblige?
There are a few reasons.
First, and most obviously, mistakes can be made. Anyone named James Holmes in Colorado or the surrounding areas could tell you of the trouble they experienced after the “Joker” shooter was identified in 2012. While the Republicans naturally focused on the misidentification of James Holmes as a Tea Party member by ABC News and the Democrats on his misidentification as a member of their party by Breitbart, the simple fact is they were both wrong. It happens with professional journalists, people who are trained in distinguishing fact from fiction, in their rush to present a story. It happens even more often among the untrained on the internet… as the recent article on Buzzfeed highlighting (among others) the person who was condemning Via Getty as having “flunked out of high school and f***s his sister” demonstrates.
There have been hundreds of cases of people harassed into acts like suicide. Nobody wants to learn they participated in one of those, particularly against an innocent.
It’s not simply mistakes, either. People have targeted ex-spouses and personal enemies by misidentifying them and letting others enact revenge, in the internet bullying equivalent of SWATting. Participating in mass attacks against an unverified individual – even with something as simple as forwarding their name – invites a form of electronic frontier justice which is anything but just, because there are inevitably people who will find purpose in their empty lives by destroying those they find offensive. This sort of experience was outlined in great detail in Ben Howe’s The Immoral Majority.
That brings us to the other half of the equation, though: when a person has been definitively identified by journalists and law enforcement. There is a strong argument to be made that once a person has been positively identified and they’re part of the public record, they cannot be doxxed. What they can be, however, is harassed.
As David French can attest, simply being a public figure doesn’t limit many internet harassers. When he was announced as a possible alternative to Trump, he received images of his daughter in a gas chamber, strangers started walking up to his in-laws to suggest that he not run, and people called his daughter’s school to ask if she was present. French had signed up for the attacks; his family had not. 4Chan and 8Chan members are famous for acting in this fashion, participating in broad-based group attacks on those who earn their ire (a particularly common event during the height of the #MeToo movement.) To return to The Immoral Majority, Howe explains how the person who thought he could publicly humiliate a Chik-Fil-A worker for their corporate policy on LGBT rights didn’t simply lose his job but found himself hounded from job to job for years and rendered unhireable. Not just his life, but the lives of his wife and children were shattered; while they tried to stay with him for years, eventually his wife had to divorce in order to give the rest of the family a chance to rebuild.
That said, there’s a value to public recognition of particularly egregious offenders. We have warning systems in place to keep people safe from convicted sexual predators and it’s a reasonable safety issue to know about any brutally violent history of neighbors and coworkers.
We have a method to distinguish between those who have earned special attention and those who have not. It’s called the legal system. That is where attention should be directed. If people believe they’ve identified someone who participated in the Capitol uprising – or any other crime – they should contact law enforcement and get them investigated, and if there is hesitation to do so on the part of the law a reputable member of the press should be informed. Once someone has been to trial, if their names and the information produced in trial are circulated, that’s the expected result of the justice system.
Short-circuiting the law in favor of vigilante action is a sign of a malfunctioning society, which is the opposite of what we should be striving toward.