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#CNNBlackmail: how Trump's wrestling GIF sparked a debate about CNN and doxxing

CNN tracked down the redditor behind Trump's anti-CNN wrestling GIF. Then things got intense.

Republican Presidential Candidates Debate In Miami Area Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

A wrestling GIF posted to Reddit last week by an alt-right troll has become the focal point of mounting tensions between the president, the media, and internet-bred ideological extremism, which have since prompted the trending hashtag #CNNBlackmail and escalating right-wing backlash against CNN.

On Sunday, July 2, in the midst of ongoing clashes between Donald Trump and CNN, the president tweeted out a video in which he symbolically beats up the media outlet in a wrestling match. Since then, the president’s public battle with CNN has escalated into a debate over how to treat online trolls who spread racist and violent hate speech — a debate centered on what many perceive as a veiled threat by CNN to dox the creator of the original GIF behind the president’s tweet, who was a member of Reddit’s alt-right hub r/The_Donald. As a result, many, including Donald Trump Jr., are accusing CNN of bullying the GIF’s creator, while glossing over said creator’s history of hate speech on Reddit before he came under public scrutiny.

It’s a heavy, complex social debate born of a GIF featuring a decade-old wrestling match — and as apt a metaphor as any for the state of political and social debate online in 2017. Here’s a look at how a seemingly harmless meme transformed into a cultural flashpoint.

Trump tweeted a video that originated from a Reddit community notorious for trolling and hate speech

The tweet in question, which was also retweeted from the official @POTUS Twitter account, shows edited footage of a staged 2007 WWE match in which Trump wrestles Vince McMahon. The video, which includes sound, is an edited version of a GIF that was posted to Reddit’s r/The_Donald community on June 28 by a user called HanAssholeSolo.

HanAssholeSolo, who has since deleted his account, claimed to have created the GIF and watermarked it; it’s not clear who edited the GIF into a video with sound, or how the video then found its way onto the president’s Twitter accounts. CNN reported that a senior White House official clarified the president did not source the video from Reddit, but the outlet noted that to date, no other public source for the Trump-versus-CNN footage has been located.

As many journalists quickly uncovered, HanAssholeSolo had a long track record of posting racist and violent speech to Reddit, including racial slurs, threats of violence against Muslims, and anti-Semitism. The tone of HanAssholeSolo’s comments is typical of the rhetoric found on The_Donald, which is one of Reddit’s largest communities and one of the internet’s primary mainstream hubs of support for Trump. It’s also notorious for its right-wing extremism, and has helped propel alt-right memes, multiple right-wing conspiracies, and ongoing distrust of the media into the mainstream conversation surrounding the president.

CNN tracked down the GIF’s creator in real life. Then things got hairy.

After Trump tweeted the GIF, CNN responded to what it deemed to be Trump’s incitement of “violence against reporters,” while Trump supporters, along with the White House, insisted the GIF itself was satirical and nonviolent, and could not be read as a threat toward CNN or the mainstream media at large.

Yet the fact that the GIF apparently originated from The_Donald, and specifically from a member of The_Donald who’s espoused a racist and violent ideology, prompted public debate over whether the president was promoting violence, however obliquely, with his tweet. Trump has previously tried to distance himself from the alt-right, but members of the movement interpreted the tweet as a show of support from the White House for their racist beliefs.

Using details from HanAssholeSolo’s Reddit account, CNN reporter Andrew Kaczynski tracked down the creator of the GIF in real life. However, the outlet made the decision not to reveal the person’s identity after he made an extensive apology on The_Donald in which he claimed he had grown addicted to trolling and that “This has been an extreme wake up call to always consider how others may think or feel about what is being said before clicking the submit button anywhere online”:

I would also like to apologize for the posts made that were racist, bigoted, and anti-semitic. I am in no way this kind of person, I love and accept people of all walks of life and have done so for my entire life. I am not the person that the media portrays me to be in real life, I was trolling and posting things to get a reaction from the subs on reddit and never meant any of the hateful things I said in those posts. I would never support any kind of violence or actions against others simply for what they believe in, their religion, or the lifestyle they choose to have. Nor would I carry out any violence against anyone based upon that or support anyone who did.

.... I do not advocate violence against the press and the meme I posted was in no way advocating that in any way, shape or form

.... So to the members of this community, the site, the media (especially CNN), and anyone offended by the posts, again I apologize. This is one individual that you will not see posting hurtful or hateful things in jest online.

The apology was generally embraced as a sincere one:

In response to the apology, CNN stated that while it was respecting HanAssholeSolo’s role as a private citizen, it “reserves the right to publish his identity” should it become clear that the apology he made was insincere:

CNN is not publishing "HanA**holeSolo's" name because he is a private citizen who has issued an extensive statement of apology, showed his remorse by saying he has taken down all his offending posts, and because he said he is not going to repeat this ugly behavior on social media again. In addition, he said his statement could serve as an example to others not to do the same.

CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change.

CNN’s detractors are arguing that its response is tantamount to blackmail

HannAssholeSolo’s apology has since been deleted by The_Donald moderators in apparent support of the idea that the apology was made under duress because CNN threatened to expose his real-life identity. This is a theme that has inflamed members of The_Donald, engulfed right-wing media like Breitbart, Infowars, and the Drudge Report, and prompted the hashtag #CNNBlackmail to trend on Twitter.

The front page of r/The_Donald was a sea of CNN backlash Wednesday.

Many members of the media and the public have also been quick to decry CNN’s decision, while others have argued that ferreting out an anonymous internet user’s identity is not doxxing so much as investigative online journalism.

However, the threat of outing an anonymous person’s identity has long been seen as a form of harassment and intimidation; in fact, many CNN detractors on 4chan and other alt-right hubs responded to the perceived blackmail with a doxxing of their own, reportedly circulating a list of addresses for Kaczynski and members of his family, as well as for other CNN reporters. And on the (literal) Nazi website Daily Stormer, the notorious internet troll weev has reportedly threatened to expand the doxxing even further:

Others have noted that members of the alt-right have been decidedly less concerned about doxxing when feminists are the ones being doxed, rather than racist Reddit trolls.

The debate over CNN’s actions has obscured the original issue

As the debate over CNN’s actions has escalated, HanAssholeSolo’s defenders have been quick to ignore or excuse the history of violent hate speech that ostensibly prompted CNN to try to identify him in the first place.

The most significant excuse in that regard is the emerging rumor that HanAssholeSolo is a 15-year-old boy. The rumor was apparently started by an anonymous 4chan user and has been repeatedly debunked by Kaczynski, who says he spoke with HanAssholeSolo over the phone and that he is an adult. Yet major alt-right influencers, including Donald Trump Jr., have circulated it.

Several members of the media and other public figures have pointed out that “infantilizing” HanAssholeSolo allows his defenders to write off the many racist and violent things he’s previously said online by repeating the refuted claim that he’s just a boy.

Others have attempted to return to the original argument, which circulated before HanAssholeSolo’s violent Reddit comments surfaced, that the GIF was really just a juvenile meme and has nothing to do with the rest of his Reddit history. This thread has led to some serious derailment of the public discussion surrounding Trump’s original tweet, including a joke comparing CNN’s reaction to the wrestling GIF to the Holocaust, made by NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch.

As the outrage and inflammatory rhetoric continues to spiral outward, what’s getting lost in the backlash to CNN’s response is the initial reason for concern: that Donald Trump tweeted a meme with an apparent link to the alt-right. It’s a move that, no matter Trump’s intentions, suggests to members of the alt-right that the president supports their beliefs, and emboldens them to keep spreading those beliefs through the toxic discourse hiding behind seemingly frivolous memes.

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