Para-doxing: Publicity and Privacy for activists in the Digital Age


Image: Dariusz Jemielniak ("Pundit"), CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

by Brian Garvey

The use of social media has revolutionized the way activism is done. The smartphone gives the ability to every person who owns one, and has an internet connection, to become a journalist. This can have serious benefits. For instance, images of the destruction of Gaza are getting out, even though it’s become increasingly difficult for international journalists to get in without risking their lives. New technology provides opportunities while social media gives a platform to average people that haven’t  had access to before. It’s also making activists a target. Maliciously publicizing someone’s private information, a practice known as “doxing”, is now an all too common practice. Marginalized groups are especially at risk and the proliferation of racism, sexism, and anti-LGBTQ bigotry has become a major problem online, especially for those willing to speak out against injustice.

There seems to be a generational divide regarding how to handle this problem, or even how seriously to take the problem. Older activists who didn’t grow up with the internet and social media as part of their daily lives may not even consider doxing an issue. In days gone by, names, phone numbers, and addresses were regularly delivered to every door, in the form of the phone book. For most people who were active before the 21st century the expectation of personal privacy just isn’t the same as for Generation Z and Millennial activists. What they need to realize is that these younger activists, most of whom are active on social media, are opening themselves up to counter-protesters who can attempt to single them out with doxing attacks.

Different life experiences shouldn’t make us dismiss concerns about public exposure. Doxers are actively trying to instill fear into young activists, by releasing names, addresses, and pictures. They send hateful and violent messages that make their targets fear for their safety. They accuse activists of bigotry and hate. In the case of pro-Palestinian activists, they levy slanderous accusations of antisemitism. Of course making young people feel unsafe isn’t acceptable on a moral level, but the practice is also a threat to the movement for peace and justice. If this important work is to continue, and succeed, the movement needs the active participation of a new generation of activists.

So, what is to be done? Educating activists about the threat is a good first step. After all, to be forewarned is to be forearmed. This is especially true when the threat itself is based on fear and intimidation. Part of acknowledging the practice of doxing is to make the movement aware that it’s a possible consequence of getting involved in the struggle. The same power the internet affords us is also available to our opponents. Being unsurprised takes some of the power away from doxers.

Activists can take steps to protect the secrecy of their identities, both online and on the street. Many activists wear masks at demonstrations to hide their faces. On the internet, people can use pseudonyms and even VPNs to hide their IP addresses and locations. They can use encrypted forms of communication, such as Signal, to hide their planning from would-be hackers and government agents. This increased technological challenge isn’t for everyone, though, and increased security can create communications challenges.

Some would suggest that the burden should also fall upon social media companies to screen out instances of doxing and harassing comments. This also comes with risks. Censorship on social media platforms is a slippery slope. Censorship can also be used against activists, and the executives that control Facebook, X (formally Twitter), Instagram, and Tiktok can’t be counted as reliable allies of the peace movement.

In the end, to achieve the publicity we’re seeking, we may have to accept risks of exposure. If we’re being challenged, it probably means that we are doing something effective. It’s not pleasant to be fought but it’s certainly better than the alternative, being ignored. This means that we personally may be challenged. But the struggle for peace and justice is a deeply personal one. Oftentimes the most effective forms of activism and advocacy come from sharing personal experience. Expressing why an issue is important to us and our families is exactly what public interest organizations tell their lobbyists to do in meetings with members of Congress and their staff.

People who would publish our photos and personal information are trying to intimidate us into silence. In doing so they create a chilling effect for others who are considering speaking out. To say, “I will not be intimidated.” When doxers threaten to make our activism known to potential employers, a tactic used against anti-genocide activists on college campuses, we should ask ourselves: do we really want to work for a company that wouldn’t hire us because we opposed genocide?

But, in truth, it’s more complex than that. Ultimately, it is at the discretion of individuals to know their risk-levels and ability to participate, but to dismiss concerns outright reveals a privileged mindset. Higher-risk people, such as those who are not fully citizens or people with jobs such as teaching, still want to participate. Why should their futures be potentially compromised just because they want to speak out against injustice? 

To be good activists we may have to accept that what we say and do, and maybe who we are, will be public. If the point is to make real and lasting change, we want it to be as public as possible. To be good people we must protect each other as we carry out this important work.