Law in the Internet Society

Social Media Doxxing: Nothing New, But Something Alarming

-- By YingLiu

In addition to Big Brother’s surveillance and tech companies’ data mining, there is another threat to netizens’ personal information: doxxing. The penetration of social media into people’s daily life further made doxxing less difficult and more threatening.

It Happens Everyday, Everywhere

How would you react if you stumble upon a statement you don't agree with? Most people would simply stop reading that. But someone is trying to mobilize large-scale harassment campaigns against such dissenting voices by discovering and broadcasting and publicizing personal information of the dissidents. 

This is what people call doxxing. Doxxing used to be a tactic used mostly in subculture forums, however, it has become something of a mainstream phenomenon that is taking hold of the social media landscape. 

Fandom attacks is the best showcase of how social media doxxing is used as a cyber weapon. Fan accounts have been releasing the personal information of those who had shared dissenting opinions about BTS, the largest Korean pop group, and some victims even suffered from violently detailed death threats. With a fan base of over 100 million people, such K-Pop fandom may have more cyber power than nation-states.

Social media doxxing is also used in political campaigns. During the Hong Kong Protest last year, both sides of the protest line used social media to distribute opponents’ names, identity card numbers, dates of birth, phone numbers, addresses and names of family members. Victims, including both pro-democracy activists and pro-government police officers, found their names and other personal data being used to borrow money, order merchandise online or register for organ donation. Children of police officers suffered from on-camps bullying after their parents’ identity and family information were made public. 

What is more ridiculous and outrageous is that one might become the target of social media doxxing simply because she was infected with Coronavirus. The victim’s personal information, recent whereabouts and family background were released on WeChat? and Weibo and what caught mass attention was that she had been to four pubs during one night. Following the next was the slut-shaming and criticism on her lifestyle.   

Why Things Are Getting Worse When Doxxing Meets Social Media

Subjecting dissidents to public humiliation is not a new method of aggression. During the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese Communists employed the very same tactic called pīdňu: the “class enemies” were forced to confess their bourgeois family background or rebellious political thoughts before the crowds who would then verbally or even physically abuse the confessors.  There is nothing new under the sun. Then why should we still be vigilant about social media doxxing?

Because social media enables the vast majority to share this malicious weapon once only owned by despots. Thanks to social media, everyone can easily make another person be the target of public humiliation, and the lethality of such cyber insults can be way much more widely-disseminated and long-lasting.

First, each user enjoys freedom of speech on social media. Social media sites are proud of their participatory and democratic culture. While Twitter, Facebook and Instagram all adopted a “report-and-takedown” policy that users can request the site to remove a post if it invades their private information, there are little pre-screening content review procedures. To leverage Twitter as a platform for doxxing, one only needs to fill in his email address and password to register an account. 

Second, the “social” characteristic of social media makes it possible for users to have millions of listeners transcending the geographical boundary. Prior to the advent of the web, shouting with a loudspeaker in Central Park could only make your voice be heard by a limited group of people; and the access to make a public speech on radio, television or newspaper was not open to everyone. Social media is more powerful than all other expression-sharing channels in terms of gathering audience — the number of users who refreshed the timeline and randomly saw your new tweet is likely to be larger than the number of the New York Times subscribers.  

Third, everything that happens on the Internet leaves on the internet. On one hand, this means it is much easier for attackers to obtain your personal information. We all have certain digital footprints: the metadata embedded in the group selfie your friend uploaded on Instagram, the geographic location you once checked in on Facebook, and the work experience you shared on LinkedIn? . Putting these pieces together enables attackers to uncover your identity and background. On the other hand, word-of-mouth gossip may be less remembered a hundred years later, but if your personal information once suffered social media doxxing and has not deleted thoroughly by the platforms, imagine your descendant who lives in 3021 feels curious about you one day, with the help of powerful search engines, he may still be able to review the insult you tolerated back then.

Arise, Ye Potential Victims of Social Media Doxxing 

Everyone knows that social media companies should be held accountable to tackle the doxxing issue. However, for a long time, they were tacitly tolerating or even encouraging doxxing since hate and anger helped to drive participation, and user participation could be then translated into advertising revenue. Twitter CEO admitted that the current anti-doxxing system is broken.  

If pinning the hope on tech companies’ conscience in terms of fighting social media doxxing is futile for the time being, netizens shall take the initiative proactively. Staying away from social media is an effective solution to prevent personal information leakage. People may argue this is a compelled compromise of their freedom.

Of course, you are free to tweet, but you should think twice if the new tweet may cause potential harm to your freedom of life. Is it really worth putting your privacy in jeopardy to enjoy such digital cocaine? If your answer is yes, then at least you shall try to use pseudonymity and proxy as a bulletproof vest when attackers are pulling the trigger on your personal information.

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r3 - 08 Jan 2021 - 02:57:26 - YingLiu
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