How ‘Doxxing’ Became a Tool for Outing Extremists

The term originated among hackers who posted private documents about a rival or enemy. But doxxing is now being used on social media to publicly identify extremists who participate in events such as the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Va., earlier this month.

Online vigilantism has been around since the early days of the internet, notes the New York Times. So has “doxxing” — originally a slang term among hackers for obtaining and posting private documents about an individual, usually a rival or enemy. To hackers, who prized their anonymity, it was considered a cruel attack. But doxxing has emerged from subculture websites like 4Chan and Reddit to become something of a mainstream phenomenon since a white supremacist march on Charlottesville, Va., earlier this month. “Originally it was little black-hat hacker crews who were at war with each other — they would take docs, like documents, from a competing group and then claim they had ‘dox’ on them,” said Gabriella Coleman, author of a book about the hacker vigilante group Anonymous. “There was this idea that you were veiled and then uncovered.”

Now the online hunt to reveal extremists has raised concerns about unintended consequences, or even collateral damage. A few individuals have been misidentified, including a professor from Arkansas who was wrongly accused of participating in the neo-Nazi march. The ethics — and even the definition — of doxxing is murky. It is the dissemination of often publicly available information. And are you really doxxing a person if he or she is marching on a public street, face revealed and apparently proud? It is not as though they are hiding their identities.