Yesterday, a person who claimed to represent the “hacktivist” group Anonymous posted information to the data-dump site Pastebin that outed various public figures, including Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, as members of the Ku Klux Klan. There are a lot of reasons to believe that data is not real, and no good evidence to suggest that Cornyn or any of the other figures named in the documents are involved with the Klan. I totally fell for it yesterday, partly because “Senate majority whip is a Klansman” is such a good story—too good, in retrospect, to be true. But in my defense, Anonymous has been planning to out Klan members with a document dump on November 5.
Now that we’ve seen one apparently unvetted document dump, Operation KKK seems less thrilling. I’d like to believe Anonymous is a leaderless collective of self-styled hackers1 who plan to break a racist terror organization simply by telling the truth, but it also seems possible they’re a leaderless collective of self-styled hackers who plan to libel people.
Probably, yesterday’s phony doxxing was a good thing, because it will either encourage Anonymous to carefully verify their info or encourage us to ignore it. It’s also possible that we’ll go through this whole cycle again, with a certain number of people continuing to believe whatever rumor is ultimately disproven, because they’re in the habit of believing the worst.
In this context, the internet is a giant machine for libeling people—maybe the most effective one we’ve ever invented. For rate and reach of spreading rumors, it beats hell out of the printing press. Twitter and Facebook combine the insular gossip of a small town with the unbounded expanse of telegraphy. And the democratic, leveling quality of the internet means a claim spreads not because it’s reliable, but because it’s interesting.
I’ve been thinking about this lately, because my friend became the object of a libel campaign on Twitter a couple months ago. Another Twitter user became convinced that a new show on MTV had stolen his idea, and he got my friend’s name off the credits of that show and began accusing him of plagiarism. My friend had nothing to do with the creative development of the MTV show, which wasn’t the same idea anyway, but the original libeler was friends with Seth Rogen. For a few days, Rogen retweeted baseless, professionally damaging accusations about my friend to his 3.5 million followers. It was a bummer.
Anyway, I heard Seth Rogen got his dick stuck in a Coke bottle and tried to get it out by breaking the bottle with a hammer, and that’s how James Franco lost an eye. I also heard that you shouldn’t just publish arbitrary, unverified claims of fact to millions of people, even though it’s really easy to do that now.
I hope Anonymous publishes an accurate and thorough list of the Ku Klux Klan’s estimated 4,000 to 6,000 members on Thursday. Now that I’ve had a day to think about it, though, I doubt that list will contain anyone important. We’re talking about a universally reviled terrorist organization whose membership comprises .002% of the population. Senators and mayors, no matter how sympathetic they might be, aren’t going to sign up.
Maybe I’m wrong, and the Klan’s fingers reach all the way to the top. Or maybe a bunch of dumb crackers are going to have even shittier lives come Thursday. Probably they deserve that; they’re Klansmen, after all. But maybe the internet is such a powerful machine for ruining reputations not because we’re prone to loose talk, but because we love to judge a stranger.
I know I do. I’m not sure that’s one of my good qualities, though, and lately I would like to better keep it in check. Maybe the problem with internet rumormongering is not that it invites us to be inaccurate, but rather that it invites us to be uncharitable. The Klan is evil, and its members deserve censure. But is naming and shaming them the best thing we could do about it? Or is it the thing that makes us feel good about not being on the list?