January 6, 2021, the day the US Capitol was stormed in Washington by fanatical Trump supporters, has an impact. As the new government begins its work, law enforcement agencies are not alone in processing the images of the mob that raged there. Numerous online laypeople are also systematically trying to identify the perpetrators and hold them accountable. The central organ of the search is – as I said, only among others – an Instagram account with the name “homegrownterrorists”. It is now subscribed to by almost 400,000 users.
Here possible identities are rumored, names are compiled and linked to faces. The results of the private research are then either forwarded to the police or published online without further scruples. In some cases, the detective work is not that difficult. After all, the would-be insurgents sometimes screamed their name, job and place of residence into the running smartphone cameras during their riot. A Texas real estate agent even took the opportunity to advertise her company.
Does the Good End Really Justify All Means?
This practice of putting offline identities online is called Doxxing. On the rankings for civilized online behavior, it is generally sorted into the bottom drawer; it is hardly less bad than cyber bullying. But after all, this is about a good cause, isn’t it? So is there such a thing as ethical misconduct? A heated debate has broken out in the community of internet extremism researchers around this question.
Ultimately, it comes down to the very old question of whether the end justifies all means. While one camp points out that there must be limits here too, the second part invokes the moral responsibility to expose enemies of civil society. It goes without saying, however, that verification should be carried out with absolute conscientiousness.
But that’s exactly what it seems to be lacking. In any case, the first collateral damage has already been reported. A retired Chicago firefighter, who was celebrating his wife’s birthday during the events, was unjustifiably accused of beating security guards with a fire extinguisher during the riot. “History has ruined my life”, quote him now local media.
After all, it is not the first time Internet users have suspected the wrong people in the name of the law. After the bombing of the Boston Marathon in 2013, people started looking for the perpetrator online. All of the publicly available video recordings were analyzed by numerous Reddit users, and they were soon very sure that they had tracked down the person responsible. All private information of the false suspect was published on the Internet – weeks later the family received death threats. The episode has become the prime example of misguided vigilance.
Doxxing isn’t the only tool from the online poison closet used to confront Trump supporters with the consequences of their actions. The perpetrators should atone financially for their treason. Among other things, the pillow manufacturer “Mypillow”, whose boss Mike Lindell has presented himself as a loyal Trump supporter and die-hard conspiracy theorist, is affected. Lindell spoke at the rally in Washington that led to the storming of the Capitol. Now his products are mercilessly given the lowest ratings in all popular online shops.
This practice is called review bombing, and it is one of the ways in which bystanders get the anger of the crowd. For example, there is a woman who is unlucky enough to not only share her first and last name with the insurgent Trump broker, but also her job. The fact that the second real estate specialist lives and works in Ontario, Canada, only occurred to the Instagram criminologists when her Facebook page was already covered with insults. They apologized in a low voice and moved on.