This punishment does not fit the crime.
Over the weekend, the Daily Beast — apparently with Facebook’s help — exposed the identity of the man who allegedly uploaded the now-famous “drunk Nancy Pelosi” viral video. It turns out that it wasn’t a Russian troll who posted the video but rather a “day laborer” from the Bronx. The man denies responsibility for posting the video.
But the Daily Beast didn’t just describe him in general terms. It didn’t just provide his name. No sir, the reporter combed through his personal history, exposed his criminal record, and even evaluated whether his personal Instagram posts were “misogynistic.” The report wasn’t a news story; it was a 2,000-word piece of opposition research — all directed at a relatively powerless American citizen who’d made a single deceptive video about arguably the most powerful woman in the world.
I do not in any way endorse creating or sharing fake videos. I love good parody, and I love good satire, but this video was neither. It was an attempt to deceive, and powerful people shared it, apparently believing it was genuine. At the same time, however, I strongly disagree with the Daily Beast’s decision not just to identify the man who made the video but to expose otherwise irrelevant and embarrassing details about his personal life.
In a normal, healthy culture, there would be nothing at all wrong with writing a story about the origins of a viral, doctored video — including explaining how the video got on the web and perhaps even identifying its creator and the person most responsible for disseminating it, even if they wished to remain anonymous. But we do not live in normal, healthy culture, and every journalist knows this.
Here is what they know. They know that exposing a private citizen to Internet scorn can and often does destroy his professional life and alter his personal life, perhaps permanently. They know that each prominent person or publication with a large Twitter following wields a social weapon and that attacking someone on a partisan basis functions like a virtual version of the whistle that launched assaults in World War I. The online shock troops swarm out of their holes and hovels, and the results are often catastrophic to the target.
In fact, this is largely now what it means to “fight” online. The instigator knows what will happen, but he looks at his published story (or his mocking, angry tweets) and says, “Show me where I called for any of this. Show me where I asked for anyone to be destroyed.” It’s disingenuous. It’s deceptive. They know full well what they do.
We have now reached the point where — if you become the target of online attacks — the death threats are virtually presumed. The efforts to undermine your career are nearly automatic. And it doesn’t matter who you are or what side you’re on. The mob can come for anyone. Again, this is so well-known and so commonly discussed that it’s easy to look at stories like the Daily Beast’s, especially given the gratuitous inclusion of embarrassing personal details, and believe they’re intended to facilitate exactly this consequence.
Moreover, no one understands what it’s like to endure this unique slice of hell until they experience it. You simply can’t say, “Well, this forklift operator knew the rules. He broke the rules. Now he pays,” and pretend that you’re enacting any kind of proportionate justice for the offense.
My default presumption is to protect anonymous speech — even as a journalist — absent compelling reasons to the contrary. To do otherwise is to feed the cycle of rage and personal destruction. To do otherwise invites personal catastrophe. It can even — in certain circumstances — invite violence. We live in a punitive age, dominated by a spirit of vicious intolerance.
We can choose to participate in this culture or resist this culture. The Daily Beast chose to participate. It chose to launch another online mob, this time against a target far more vulnerable than the prominent public officials and prominent public voices who (sometimes) have the resources and social capital to mitigate the resulting harm.
The real problem with the drunk-Pelosi video isn’t that a man in the Bronx posted it, but rather that powerful people spread it. I am far more concerned with Rudy Giuliani’s conduct than with the online activities of a “day laborer” from the Bronx. I’m also more concerned about the response of other powerful people and entities to this man than I am by this man’s conduct.
If the Daily Beast report is accurate, then it appears that Facebook helped dox its own user. If true, this is unconscionable. The Daily Beast cast its story as the tale of how “even a hastily produced, low-budget fraud can fool millions if it lands just right.” That’s no doubt true, but we can learn that truth without destroying a man’s life.
But the real story here is darker. It’s the story of how powerful media will combine with big tech to expose a vulnerable man to public ridicule in an era of vicious intolerance. The punishment does not fit the crime, but it does fit our times. The culture of rage and clicks triumphs again.