The story of Walter Palmer, the Minnesota dentist who poached the beloved, human-friendly lion named Cecil in Zimbabwe, is going viral. Outraged animal lovers have been making their displeasure over what appears to have been an illegal and unethical hunt known online. Some have found productive and clever ways to register their protest, from deluging the Yelp page for Palmer’s dentistry practice with negative reviews to raising awareness on Twitter through hashtags ranging in tone from earnest and heartfelt (#NoMoreCecils and #BanTrophyHunting) to humorously sophomoric (I must admit I giggled when I saw one intrepid Twitterer trying to make #WalterPalmerHasATinyPenis take flight).
However, some are taking the protest one step further, making death threats against Palmer and plastering the website, phone number and address of his dental practice, as well as his home address and phone number, on social media. PETA co-founder and President Ingrid Newkirk called for Palmer to be “extradited, charged and, preferably, hanged,” while actress turned activist Mia Farrow tweeted (and then deleted) his business address. Even Bob Barker, the 91-year-old former host of “The Price is Right” and a long-time animal activist, told “Entertainment Tonight”:
Well, if by publicizing his address they can make him miserable, I say publicize that address … because this man deserves to be made miserable for years to come. … His children are going to have a rough time at school, and I don't envy him one bit. But he deserves all the misery he receives.
As a result of the Internet pile-on, Palmer, his wife and his two children have been driven into hiding and his office has been shut down for several days.
This practice is called doxxing — the name “dox” comes from “docs” or personal documents and can include everything from contact information to private emails to credit card numbers and more. It’s as old as the Internet itself, and must be categorically rejected by online activists.
Doxxing is a repugnant tactic that leads to harassment and bullying, as well as terrorist violence. And as we’ve seen in recent history, there are often people who are quite willing to do harm with that information. GamerGate victims such as feminist game critics Brianna Wu, Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian were driven from their homes when they received rape and death threats from people who demonstrated they had access to their home addresses. The hacker collective Anonymous has famously used doxxing in a number of vigilante operations, including projects aimed at targets large and small, from the Church of Scientology, to police officer Darren Wilson and the rest of the Ferguson Police Department, to the teens who circulated pictures of the female victim in the Steubenville High School rape case.
And last Sunday, hackers released the names and addresses of Planned Parenthood employees as a part of an anti-abortion protest. Pro-life activists have a long history of circulating the personal information of clinic doctors amongst themselves, a practice that led to the assassination of George Tiller in 2009.
In a post at Medium.com, tech culture critic L. Rhodes explained that the problem with using doxxing as a protest tactic is not the fact that the target’s information is made public. In fact, most of the information shared in a doxxing attack is already publicly available to anyone who wants to go to the trouble of looking for it. Rather, the threat of the dox comes when the hacker shares that information with “an angry, motivated mob.” The doxxer, according to Rhodes, “may not have created the mob, but they’re counting on it to contain someone willing to do something with the information they’ve provided.”
In other words, doxxing is a popular tactic because it is a way for angry people to make their online activism “more real” — it has the potential to materially affect the target’s life — even as the doxxer feels absolved of doing real harm to the target with his or her own hands. Furthermore, doxxing and other forms of online harassment aren’t well understood by law enforcement professionals, who often simply tell victims to log off the Internet — ironic advice, given that the real threat lies in the circulation of their physical location to others online. Moreover, most of us are dependent on the Internet to conduct both our professional and social lives. Asking targets to simply disconnect from their entire network to avoid harassment is an unacceptable form of victim blaming that is untenable and unconscionable.
Even in cases that don’t end in murder, doxxing still functions as a tool of terror. It represents an attempt to change the behavior of a person or group through the threat of potential violence and as such has no place in online political activism.
Anyone who is serious about using Cecil the Lion’s death to start a conversation about trophy hunting and animal protection must begin by condemning those who are menacing Palmer and his family. Drawing attention to someone’s behavior online and letting people decide whether or not to do business with him is one thing. Boycotts are a time-tested and politically effective non-violent protest tactic. Furthermore, some activists have used the controversy to initiate a broader discussion about conservation. For example a petition urging officials in Zimbabwe to stop issuing hunting permits for endangered species has already garnered over 800,000 signatures. However, facilitating the harassment of an individual and his family is an entirely different matter. Doxxing is never okay, no matter how repugnant you believe the target might be.