Last week, in Trump’s continuing saga of inappropriate, borderline illegal shenanigans, the President tweeted a short wrestling clip that had been doctored to show Trump crushing his opponent, CNN. The CNN logo was plastered on the face of the wrestler being pummeled on the ground outside the ring. After throwing some punches, Trump walks away looking smug. Outrage was quick, widespread, and bipartisan. Presidents don’t intimidate the press.
That day, CNN appeared to take the high road, issuing a written response that in spite of Trump’s “juvenile behavior … we will keep doing our jobs.”
Unfortunately, that tact totally changed this morning. In an act of misguided sensationalistic vigilantism, CNN announced that they had tracked down the creator of the doctored wrestling clip – a Reddit user and troll named HanAssholeSolo. As if that wasn’t enough, journalists apparently contacted the person behind the account and, in effect, coerced a public confession and apology from the user. To use CNN’s own words:
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.
I had to re-read that last sentence a couple times to let it sink in. It’s bad when someone seems like a bigger bully than Trump. And CNN just crossed the line with its threat: “to publish [this Reddit user’s] identity should any of that change.”
CNN’s explicit threat to dox someone is utterly confusing and deeply troubling on multiple levels.
For starters, CNN is a news agency, not a behavioral correction facility. To be perfectly clear about this, there’s zero evidence that this user has done anything illegal. He published a satirical video of the current US president and a major international news outlet. In my opinion, that’s a protected use of first-amendment rights. Now, apparently this user also made some racist and anti-Semitic posts. As reprehensible as I find his views, last I checked, being a bigot isn’t illegal. In fact it might even get you elected president these days.
The point is, that CNN has decidedly left the world of journalism. In the excerpt above, CNN is saying: “Watch out. If we don’t like what you’re saying online, we’ll dox you and destroy your life.” Since when is CNN the arbiter and enforcer of right and wrong?
Equally troubling is the fact that CNN would even consider doxing a private citizen’s identity. People have died as a result of being doxed. In the immediate aftermath of the Boston Bombing, vigilantes on Reddit wrongly identified Sunil Tripathi as one of the bombers. A manhunt ensued, driving Sunil to commit suicide. Doxing is a dangerous game to play, particularly around emotional and politically charged topics. CNN may not have released the user’s identity (yet) – but they’re setting up a precedent that says it’s ok for powerful news agencies to threaten people with doxing for what they do or say online, basically undermining the freedom of expression they’re supposed to uphold.
On a purely pragmatic point, this whole episode is frustrating because it distracts from the actual news. What’s the real story here? President Trump, an elected official, overtly threatens the free press? Or some troll posted offensive stuff on the internet?
There is no defense for CNN’s behavior. Threatening to dox someone is NOT an acceptable journalistic practice. It hurts people, it subverts free speech, and it distracts from the real issues. We’ve come to expect all this from Trump. But we should expect more from CNN and other news organizations. They’re supposed to be champions for free expression and integrity, not hitting below the belt with threats to private citizens.