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Is it okay to unmask a popular anonymous account?

Loading player On April 26, a red message on a black background appeared in one of the large bright billboards in Times Square, New York, saying: “TAYLOR LORENZ DOXXED @LIBSOFTIKTOK”. To pay for the ad were Tim Pool, a youtuber and political commentator close to the US right, and Jeremy Boreing, CEO of the Daily Wire, a news site of the conservative area.

The offending message is made up of words that may be unknown to the majority of people, not only because they are possibly Italian: many American observers have noticed that probably the vast majority of people who have seen the billboard live in New York did not understand what it is about. reported. The writing, in fact, concerns a relatively niche journalistic controversy that has developed on Twitter in recent weeks, which has then in turn animated a political debate between two different visions of online anonymity.

At the center of it all is Taylor Lorenz, a journalist who recently joined the Washington Post from the New York Times, well known in the industry for her coverage of digital culture and the world of influencers and content creators. It was Lorenz, for example, who published in October 2019 the article that made famous the expression “Ok, boomer”, which in its own way became popular also in Italy, and used by young people to ironically refer to the most

Tim Pool and the CEO of the Daily Wire took out a giant billboard in Times Square today in an attempt to discredit my reporting on Libs of TikTok. https://t.co/p5dNT7Li1B pic.twitter.com/JMNlRqfeH4

– Taylor Lorenz (@TaylorLorenz) April 26, 2022

Libs of TikTok (@libsoftiktok), on the other hand, is a very popular Twitter account (currently has a million followers), which republishes TikTok videos making fun of the progressive (or liberal, hence “libs”) positions of those who have them. published, often on gender and racism issues. In a few months, by attacking and ridiculing that kind of claims defined – often with a derogatory meaning – “woke”, Libs of TikTok ended up gaining a prominent position on the American right on social media, at a time when that of the so-called “culture wars “, That is, the often aggressive clash between different views on civil rights, has become a central issue in the American political debate.

Despite the success of Libs of TikTok, the identity of its creator remained a mystery until April 19, when it was revealed by Lorenz in an article published in the Washington Post. The account is managed by Chaya Raichik, a Brooklyn real estate agent who opened it in October 2021, and in recent months she had been a guest – anonymously – on several podcasts and even Tucker Carlson Tonight, a follow-up. broadcast on Fox News.

According to some commentators, Lorenz violated Raichik's privacy with his article. In particular, having published online the name of a person who evidently had a desire to remain anonymous, the journalist would have performed an act of “doxing”. It is a word that derives from “documents” and which is sometimes written with two 'x', as in Times Square: it indicates “the intentional publication on the internet of private information concerning an individual, carried out by a third party with the intent to humiliate , threaten, intimidate or punish the identified individual “, according to a study that analyzed the phenomenon in 2016.

As the New York Times explained in 2017, the term “doxxing” comes from hacker jargon and was originally used to refer to the publication of sensitive information about other rival groups. The transformation of doxing into a political weapon dates back to the 1910s, and in particular is linked to Gamergate, a controversy that began in 2014 in the world of video game journalism that led to a violent campaign of harassment and intimidation against video game developers, activists and journalists. Journalists, youtubers, trolls and personalities of the American right converged around the Gamergate, giving life to a campaign with a misogynistic and reactionary tone that anticipated in many ways the rise of the alt-right, the “new” extreme right that would have found in Donald Trump his political representative.

Lorenz defended herself from the accusation of doxing by emphasizing the political and cultural weight of the account in question, which would make the unmasking of Raichik different from that of a common user. The article contains a wealth of information that the reporter uses to demonstrate the influence the account has on the Republican Party and the conservative US media system. The piece also focuses on Raichik's controversial past, who, judging by some of his tweets published in his personal account, seems to have participated in the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021.

Lorenz was also accused of hypocrisy, because a few weeks before the story on Libs of TikTok she had told the MSNBC channel about the digital harassment suffered by trolls and journalists. Her experience of her online would have worsened especially since last March, when Tucker Carlson personally attacked her on Fox News for denouncing the treatment many women receive on social media. Other accusations have involved Lorenz's method of confirming Raichik's identity, for example by knocking on the door of her neighbors.

However, according to many media experts, Lorenz's work falls within the bounds of investigative journalism, and does not represent a form of doxing by an activist for intimidating purposes. Tom Jones of the Poynter Institute, a prestigious nonprofit school of journalism, wrote that this is “a controversy that shouldn't be,” explaining that when Lorenz knocked on Raichik's neighbors door he was simply doing his job, making sure to confirm the true identity of the woman behind the account. And that of Libs of TikTok, writes Jones, “was a relevant story that had to be told”.

However, Lorenz's was not the only controversy of this kind in recent months: last February, BuzzFeed journalist Katie Notopolous published an article revealing the names of the founders of the “Bored Ape Yacht Club”, the NFT line. most widespread and most valuable in the world. Even in this case, in fact, many exponents of the so-called “crypto world” had accused the newspaper of doxing but, as noted by the Quartz website, “the identities of the founders would not remain secret for long because their company documents were public and easily identifiable. “. The people in question were also very interesting from a journalistic point of view, precisely because they were leading a company that was valued at five billion dollars and was collecting further investments from prestigious investors.

In addition to any political ulterior motives, the controversy over doxing and journalism reveals a cultural divide in the idea of ​​online anonymity. The voluntary publication of personal information on the internet is a relative novelty in the history of the web: for years, before the advent of social media, users preferred to use fictitious nicknames, pseudonyms and identities to browse online. Sites like Facebook – whose founder Mark Zuckerberg has been battling online anonymity for years – have accustomed many people to presenting themselves with their identity, encouraging the publication of personal information and content, with the promise of a better, more transparent digital experience. and safe.

Not everyone agrees. According to researcher Danah Boyd, for example, forcing users to use their names, as Facebook has done since 2014, is “an abuse of power”, as well as an element of risk for some professionals or minorities. For some people, in fact, online anonymity is the only guarantee of personal safety “.

Elon Musk has also recently spoken out on the matter. In the same days when he was working on buying Twitter, the entrepreneur promised to “defeat spam bots” and “authenticate every human being” in the social network: that is, probably make sure that all accounts are managed by people, eliminating those manipulated. by software.

And authenticate all real humans

– Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 21, 2022

Musk seems to consider the end of anonymity, at least towards the platform (he did not say that the identity of the people behind the accounts should be public), as a fundamental element for a better digital experience. According to some, however, the abuses of the system by a minority of users (trolls or more organized groups) would not be easily resolved with the end of anonymity. There are studies that have instead supported the opposite, trying to demonstrate how an anonymous environment can favor – in some conditions – a more civil debate.

Facebook itself, where real identities are encouraged and widely used, has shown how racist, homophobic or violent users are willing to be even using their name and surname, and maybe literally putting their face on it. A 2016 study by the University of Zurich found that “trolls are increasingly using their full names online. Consequently, the ban on anonymity would do nothing “to avoid abuse and harassment campaigns such as Gamergate.

When it comes to anonymity and antisocial behavior online, one of the most cited examples is 4chan, a forum known for its influence in digital culture. Anonymity on the site is the norm: each user is simply “Anon”, or Anonymous, a feature that inspired the name of the organization of the same name of hackers and activists, born right in the pages of 4chan. The forum has played a controversial and influential role in the history of the web, inspiring many of the most popular memes online but also serving as a breeding ground for trolls and extremists. The political connotation of 4chan has only increased with the Gamergate, giving a political direction – of the extreme right – to the most chaotic and radical fringes of the site.

Beyond these extremes, “the dynamics of 4chan suggest ways in which anonymity can be a positive feature for communities,” according to a study carried out by researchers at MIT and the University of Southampton in 2021. The “disinhibition” guaranteed the absence of identity “can be beneficial”, as well as “encouraging the experimentation of new ideas”. This is suggested by the many reflections on the negative effects of online self-censorship linked to the fear of public repercussions, what are often called “shitstorm”, the waves of indignation and blame directed en masse against a person, but also for different reasons the phenomenon of adoption by many people of “finsta” (from “fake Instagram”), alternative accounts to the public and personal one, where you can share or follow content with a small and selected circle of people.

In a debate on the subject published by the Guardian, commentator Jamie Bartlett noted how a hypothetical abolition of anonymity would create “the worst possible world: the trolls will be able to get around it but poor Aunt Liz will end up with a sterile political culture without no privacy. If you outlaw anonymity, only outlaws will have anonymity “.

However, the recent controversies surrounding doxing do not always seem to have anonymity and people's rights at heart. After the reaction to Lorenz's article, many recalled how Libs of TikTok had published personal information about some ordinary people, doing what is more universally considered doxing, given the irrelevance of their names (or home addresses). As Atlantic commentator Kaitlyn Tiffany wrote, the term doxing 'has been used to describe so many situations – with varying degrees of sincerity and accuracy – that its original usefulness is faded. If before the term defined a category, today it expresses an emotion. Anyone who feels doxed will say they have been doxed “.