09/18/19

Doxxing — Could It Happen to You?

Doxxing is the modern day version of stocks in the town square. Could it happen to you?

“Doxxing” is short for dropping documents (docs or “dox”) on the internet. It’s posting someone’s personal information — name, address, phone number, employer, etc. — in hopes of shaming them or even inciting an online mob to harass, intimidate, or otherwise cause harm. 

Doxxing isn’t new. 

In 2008, the Los Angeles Times published the names and employer information of donors to a group which promoted the traditional definition of marriage. Many of the individuals on the list were subsequently blacklisted, boycotted, or even lost their job.

In 2015, then California Attorney General Kamala Harris demanded that nonprofits submit the names of their donors. Not long after, those names were “accidentally” posted online. The apparent intent was to publicly shame those donors who supported politically unpopular ideas.

More recently, an online mob doxxed Nick Sandmann and other teenage boys from Covington Catholic High School when they were “caught” on a suspiciously-edited video apparently mocking a Native American elder. The initial story turned out to be false, but that didn’t stop an outraged social media throng from posting the names and addresses of the boys and their families. Sandmann and his family were called vicious names and received death threats. His parents’ business was threatened with a boycott, and the boys’ high school was temporarily closed for fear of violence. 

The new thing is doxxing political donors. 

In this current political climate where political contests look increasingly like no-holds-barred cage fights, publicly posting the names of donors to a political opponent is the latest tactic.

Last month, Joaquin Castro, the twin brother and campaign manager for Democratic presidential hopeful, Julian Castro, tweeted the names and employers of 44 San Antonio residents who had contributed to Trump:

According to National Review, at least one of those donors received threatening and vulgar voicemail messages.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner tried to shame his political rival Tony Buzbee with a TV ad decrying Buzbee’s 2016 donation to the 2016 Trump campaign. It’s likely other less prominent Houstonians who donated to Trump may have felt included in the attack.

And it’s not just Texas. Earlier this month, Eric McCormack, star of the TV show “Will & Grace,” called for the release of the names of those who attended a Hollywood fundraiser for Trump, “so the rest of us can be clear about who we don’t want to work with.” His co-star Debra Messing quickly joined the call to create a virtual Hollywood blacklist of Trump supporters. After sharp criticism from the left and the right, McCormack and Messing were forced to backtrack, at least for now, but political donors surely took notice.

While the current political situation seems to be creating an admittedly Republican-heavy list of doxxing victims, the practice itself is not partisan or even always political.

Is doxxing campaign donors legal? Well, yes, but…

Defenders of this practice like to point out that this information — the names, addresses, and occupations of donors to political candidates and their political action committees (PACs) — is public information, and they’re right. Candidates and PACs are required to submit this information to federal and/or state agencies. 

In fact, that’s what we do at Transparency Texas. We take the information provided to the Texas Ethics Commission and make it easily accessible, searchable, and understandable. Our goal is to make it easy for you to get the answers you need about the money in Texas politics.  

But those who defend doxxing are missing the point. 

Doxxing turns the purpose of the law on its head.

The intent of the law is to hold politicians accountable, not to intimidate citizens. By providing a public record of donors’ names, along with the amounts and dates of contributions, citizens should be able to keep an eye on their elected representatives to be sure their vote isn’t being bought and their donations aren’t being used inappropriately. The law was never intended to be a tool used against Americans who seek to exercise their First Amendment right to political speech. 

Here’s how it works, in a nutshell.

The law recognizes two categories of political spending — donations which must be disclosed and donations which are allowed to remain private. 

Candidates and political action committees must divulge the names of their donors. 

Groups advocating for social change or educating the public about a particular issue are not required to divulge the names of their donors. These donations are often referred to as “dark money. ” (Think, for example, teachers’ unions, taxpayer advocacy groups, or citizens urging changes to the healthcare system.)  A unanimous Supreme Court decision in NAACP v. Alabama held that the First Amendment’s freedom of speech and freedom of association clauses as well as the 14th Amendment’s due process clause allowed organizations to protect the names of their donors in order to protect them from harassment or violence. 

Effectively, the courts have struck a balance between disclosing information about politicians to prevent corruption while protecting the privacy of citizens’ political activity to prevent harassment. A more detailed explanation about public and private political donations is here.

Some would like to eliminate private giving altogether.

Calls for exposing and eliminating Constitutionally-protected private donations are increasingly common. In fact, the “For the People Act” which passed in the U.S. House in March would greatly increase disclosure and reporting requirements for all types of political speech. The bill is unlikely to get a vote in the Republican-controlled Senate, but watch for more state and federal attempts to eliminate political privacy.

Could doxxing happen to you? 

Yes. Your campaign contributions are public record and could be doxxed. If you would prefer to avoid the risk, consider donating to a group that advocates for issues you care about rather than directly to a candidate. If your money goes to a non-profit 501(c)(3) or (c)(4), your donation should remain private.

Better yet, don’t back down. Texans should never be intimidated from supporting political causes and candidates they believe in. Texans have a right to know how their representatives are spending the money entrusted to them. They also have a right to privacy when it comes to their political associations. Online mobs and would-be doxxers should be treated like the bullies they are. Ignore them, and they lose their power. 

The bottom line:

Transparency is the obligation of the government. Privacy is the right of the citizen. 

Join us at Transparency Texas to get the answers you need about the money in Texas politics

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