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Internet Campaign To Out Racists Is Legal, But Unethical

Aug 18, 2017

A Twitter profile called “Yes, You’re Racist” is asking the Internet to help identify people who participated in the marches in Charlottesville, Virginia and are believed to be white nationalists.

The result of this citizen brigade: some of the marchers are being named, threatened, and some are losing their jobs.

Account Creator Logan Smith told Laura Sydell of NPR’s All Tech Considered that his goal is to shame folks.

“They’re not wearing hoods anymore, they’re out in the open,” he said. “And if they’re proud to stand with KKK members and neo-Nazis and anti-government militias, then I think the community should know who they are.”

While this citizen activism reminds Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies of some old school journalism, she said it’s not the same.

She points to an example where reporters in 1977 at the Tallahassee Democrat wrote down license plate numbers of people participating in a KKK march in the state capital.  They followed up by checking state driver’s records and then established that a majority of the marchers worked together at a paper plant in Perry, 60 miles to the south of Tallahassee.

“They didn’t just publish the names. They looked for patterns and trends and they looked for information to tell their audience who was participating in these marches,” she said.

State and federal law is clear that people out in public have no right to privacy and can be photographed and identified, McBride said. However, she said she believes these actions are unethical, and smack of vigilantism.

“If you think it would be wrong to stand out on the street and egg on a mob to take justice into their own hands, you’re sort of doing the same thing when you do that on the internet, on Twitter,” she said.

There’s also the risk in getting it wrong. A University of Arkansas professor, for example, was wrongly identified as a participant in the marches in Charlottesville.

He had to leave his home and the university had to issue a statement that it was a case of mistaken identity. 

McBride added that the media depends on the First Amendment right to free speech every day. It’s difficult for many to deny others that essential right, she said.

“I think as journalists, many of us are uncomfortable with publicly shaming people for publicly exercising their right to free speech, even if it’s vile, repugnant free speech,” she said.