Last month, the Wisconsin Supreme Court heard arguments in a case involving John McAdams, a Marquette University professor who doxed a graduate student instructor with whom he disagreed.
McAdams felt the graduate student mishandled a conversation with an undergraduate student. Instead of expressing his concerns directly to the student instructor in a face-to-face conversation, the professor published her name and contact information on his personal blog. He also promoted the blog post to local media, increasing the reach and exposure of the woman’s contact information.
The graduate student received hateful, threatening messages as a result — more than 100 direct communications — including comments that she should be raped or killed. She feared for her safety, and the situation escalated until she no longer felt safe on campus. The constant psychological stress and fear eventually led her to withdraw from Marquette University and transfer to a different graduate program.
When we talk about online attacks, we’re no longer just talking about scammers. A growing number of people are using social media platforms to harass, bully and attack private individuals. Approximately 41 percent of Americans have experienced online harassment, according to Pew Research Center.
Doxing is a particular form of this harassment in which a victim’s private information is publicly released with the intent of exacting revenge, seeking justice or intimidating the individual.
“Doxes comprise a wide range of information, from simply publishing someone’s full name, to posting their home address and social media accounts.”
I’m a professor at New York University, where my colleagues and I led a study on doxing in which we analyzed 1.7 million messages posted to 4chan, 8chan and pastebin (sites where doxes are commonly posted). We found that doxes comprise a wide range of information, from simply publishing someone’s full name, to posting their home address and social media accounts, to sharing other forms of sensitive, identifiable information (like their Social Security number).
Many use doxing on social media networks to expose those with whom they disagree. In 2014, Gamergate, a case in which several women in the gamer community received threats after their addresses and contact information were posted online, marked one of the first highly publicized doxing incidents.
The doxes we studied often cited justice or revenge as reasons why the victim deserved to be hated, harassed and exposed. And these attacks caused real, negative consequences for the victims, the most common of which was increased social isolation and anxiety as they attempted to hide from online bullies. Doxing has even resulted in death, either from the victim’s suicide or from deadly standoffs in which armed SWAT teams were duped into responding to factitious emergencies.
Unfortunately, doxing can happen to anyone. It even happened to me; following the release of our study, my colleagues and I experienced doxing firsthand. Our physical addresses and links to our social network profiles were posted online, prompting threatening messages.
“The more time we spend online, the more information we willingly share with the world, information that can be manipulated and twisted to incite personal and physical harm by a mob of cyberbullies.”
Our exposure to doxing’s consequences further confirm the need to educate internet users about the practice, its grave implications and ways to mitigate the issue. The more time we spend online, the more information we willingly share with the world, information that can be manipulated and twisted to incite personal and physical harm by a mob of cyberbullies.
Marquette thoroughly and thoughtfully examined the McAdams case. A group of his peers found he’d violated university conduct rules by subjecting the graduate student to harm. Though his position as a tenured professor entitled McAdams to academic freedom, it did not, the faculty hearing committee noted, entitle him to harass co-workers or students. McAdams was suspended. A lower court in Wisconsin upheld Marquette’s faculty senate decision, and the case was then presented to the Wisconsin State Supreme Court.
Fortunately, doxing’s impact is being recognized, and solutions are in development, including anti-harassment efforts by social media networks, services that inform people when they’ve been doxed and, when necessary, law enforcement notification tools for when victims are at an elevated risk for danger. These are good first steps; however, as the internet’s reach grows, addressing and preventing doxing have become increasingly important.
Doxing is more than just a few internet trolls. It is a deep, harmful level of online harassment that results in very real and very severe consequences. Universities must create a safe environment free from harassment for employees and students. Schools, as well as businesses, organizations and individuals, have a moral imperative to stand up for what is right.
It’s normal to have disagreements, especially on a college campus, but it’s important to maintain civil discourse and not to use the internet as a tool to harass, bully and harm one another. By educating society on this increasingly pervasive issue, we can prevent others from experiencing doxing’s damaging effects.
Dr. Damon McCoy is an assistant professor of computer science and engineering at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering.