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CNN is being accused of blackmailing a pro-Trump Reddit user for posting things it didn’t like

The apparent threat would be extremely unethical.

A person in front of the CNN logo. Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Late on Tuesday, CNN posted an article about the Reddit user behind a wrestling GIF that President Donald Trump recently tweeted, showing the president attacking a man with a CNN logo for a head. CNN’s new article at first seemed to be a fairly standard investigation, describing how it found the identity of Reddit user HanAssholeSolo, who has a history of posting racist, bigoted, and anti-Semitic messages (including pictures of CNN employees with their name, job title, and a Star of David to signify that they’re Jewish).

Then the article got to two incredibly alarming paragraphs:

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.

The two paragraphs, as multiple journalists (including myself) pointed out, read a lot like CNN essentially threatening to dox someone — meaning reveal a person’s private identity — if that person didn’t behave as CNN demanded. The apparent threat quickly took off on social media under the hashtag #CNNBlackmail, with mostly conservatives and Trump supporters calling out CNN for what would be seriously unethical behavior for a major media organization.

Since then, the author of the piece, Andrew Kaczynski, has said the two paragraphs were not meant as a threat. He said that HanAssholeSolo apologized for his behavior on social media — with a post on the subreddit r/The_Donald — before CNN talked to him by phone but after CNN reached out to him through email.

CNN also provided a statement to me in its defense: “CNN decided not to publish the name of the Reddit user out of concern for his safety. Any assertion that the network blackmailed or coerced him is false. The user, who is an adult male, not a 15-year-old boy, apologized and deleted his account before ever speaking with our reporter. CNN never made any deal, of any kind, with the user. In fact, CNN included its decision to withhold the user's identity in an effort to be completely transparent that there was no deal.”

A plain reading of CNN’s article, however, contradicts what the network and Kaczynski are saying. If CNN really intended to withhold HanAssholeSolo’s information regardless of what he did, then why didn’t the news organization say it was withholding his private information simply because he’s a private citizen? Why did it go on to add all the conditions about his behavior? And why did it say it could release the private information with an explicit condition tied to his behavior?

Personally, if I reported this story, it would have been pretty straightforward: “CNN is not publishing ‘HanAssholeSolo’s’ name because he is a private citizen.” Period. The rest of the information in that paragraph is unnecessary, because a media organization simply shouldn’t release a private citizen’s personal information. He shouldn’t have his private information threatened just because the president picked up one of his Reddit shitposts, which he made with the expectation that he would be kept anonymous. (Though it is a truly bizarre turn of events that it’s even possible to write this sentence.)

In journalism, there is a clear line between public and private figures. Public figures are held to a higher standard — since they represent not just themselves but their offices, their industries, and so on. But private figures are given a veil of privacy, since it’s not really in the public interest to get some random person’s private information.

Just imagine if the situation was flipped. Someone with liberal views posts a wrestling GIF of a Democratic politician beating up a man whose head is the Fox News logo. The liberal politician then picks up this wrestling GIF, tweeting it. A background check of this Reddit user then reveals he’s made some ugly comments in the past — about conservative female politicians and journalists in particular.

Should Fox News be allowed to tell this Reddit user that they will release his private information if he doesn’t behave as Fox News wants? Should Fox really be a gatekeeper of what goes up on Reddit and other social media? Should people trust Fox News or any other media outlet with this kind of power?

My guess is many liberals wouldn’t appreciate Fox News doing this. And they shouldn’t.

Doxxing is dangerous because the internet is not proportional

A few people responded to #CNNBlackmail by arguing that it’s okay to reveal some people’s private information in an effort to hold them accountable, particularly for racist, bigoted, and otherwise offensive views.

To be clear, I am not defending anything HanAssholeSolo posted on Reddit. It was bad and wrong, as he admitted in his apology.

The problem here is that the internet is not proportional. People wouldn’t merely react to this guy making some offensive remarks on the internet by making some offensive remarks to him. They would react as the internet has reacted before to these kinds of situations — with potentially thousands of hateful messages, death threats, attempts to get him fired, and harassment not just against him but also his family. Lines would quickly be crossed.

Consider swatting, when pranksters call 911 and lie about someone doing something really bad, like holding a hostage, to get dispatchers to send police — and particularly a SWAT team — to a victim’s location. This is extremely dangerous, given that it could lead to a shooting. But it’s often done as a mere prank against celebrities and people who stream themselves playing video games — there’s no justification; it’s just for laughs.

Now imagine what people would be willing to do if they had a justification, or at least what they perceive as a justification.

We’ve seen this before. After American dentist Walter Palmer killed Cecil the lion, people on the internet went berserk once they found out his identity. Max Fisher wrote for Vox at the time:

Web users uncovered Palmer's personal information, including about his family, and published it online. They went after his business, a private dental practice, posting thousands of negative reviews on Yelp and other sites. The practice has since shut down. Users also went after professional websites that host his profile, leading the sites to remove his information. On Twitter and on his practice's public Facebook page, people made threats of physical violence.

This should look familiar: It is the same set of tactics that has been used in online harassment campaigns such as the "Gamergate" movement that targeted women in technology, or the seemingly endless online harassment conducted against female journalists. It is a growing trend of internet mob justice, one that often bleeds into real-world harassment with real-world consequences.

This is very different from the consequences of doing or saying something bad offline. An offline situation might lead your friends, family, and peers telling you off and making you feel bad for what you did. It might even lead to you losing your job if you did something really bad. But those kinds of reactions are very different from an internet mob threatening to kill you and harassing not just you but your family, friends, peers, and co-workers.

The media seems to understand this to some extent. For example, it’s fairly common for journalists, including at Vox, to ask for permission to use unverified users’ tweets in articles. The idea is that potentially revealing an unverified user’s identity in an article could put the person at risk for vicious harassment just for stating a different view or, really, for no reason at all — and that’s not okay.

That doesn’t mean people can’t be held accountable. Beyond the traditional (flawed) justice system, Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media outlets should work to root out some of the ugly things we see posted on these platforms. They should especially enforce anti-harassment rules to prevent some of the deluge of insults many people, particularly women and minorities, face regularly on social media. (My last name is Lopez; you can probably imagine some of the anti-immigrant, racist stuff I regularly see on my Twitter feed. I’d like to see these people off Twitter.)

But there is a difference between punishing people through a structured framework — like, say, suspending their Reddit accounts because they broke Reddit’s official rules — and putting their private information out there for the entire internet to decide the punishment. The latter is simply mob rule.

People post a lot of dumb things on the internet that they don’t mean

The other issue here is that people often post things they don’t really mean on the internet — and they shouldn’t have their lives ruined for it.

Sometimes people are teenagers talking about things they don’t fully understand or posting things they don’t truly mean. (Although, Kaczynski notes, the Reddit user who posted the Trump wrestling GIF is a middle-aged man.) Sometimes it’s people’s messy attempts at satire, which instead of exposing the absurdity and cruelty of bigotry end up simply replicating it. Sometimes people purposely make shitposts or otherwise trolly comments that they don’t mean just to get a rise out of people or make people laugh. Sometimes people have mental health issues, are in a bad mood, or get involved in a conversation that got too heated.

I have no idea if any of this applies to HanAssholeSolo. But at the end of the day, almost everyone has posted something on the internet that they’ve come to regret.

Should people really have their lives potentially ruined for stuff like this? Because that is the reality of revealing someone’s private information and attaching it to their posts. Not only will other users often react with disproportionate mob justice, but people’s names will forever be linked — through Google — to whatever crappy thing they posted on the internet, perhaps when they were too young to know better or too upset about something we don’t know about to care.

Look, I would prefer an internet in which none of this happened. It’d be great to live in a world where everyone is nice to each other, and we can all engage in rational, polite conversations about even the most contentious issues. As a regular Reddit user, I could live without most of the shitposts I see, and I definitely wish people didn’t resort to insults and other nonsense so quickly when dealing with others they disagree with.

Short of that, though, it would be nice if media organizations didn’t take part in the kind of crappy behavior that much of the internet already takes part in. CNN, Fox News, and other media organizations should not be threatening people. They should not be even hinting at doxxing people. There is enough of that out there, and media outlets should be held to a higher standard.

Update: Added more details about the timeline of CNN contacting HanAssholeSolo.