Breaking news: Some guy posted a doctored video of Nancy Pelosi.
But fear not. The website The Daily Beast sprang into action. It tracked down the random, Trump-supporting man who allegedly posted the offending clip, hounded him until he talked, then published his name and other details about his life in a shocking instance of harassment masquerading as journalism.
The man whose identity was revealed by The Daily Beast is, by the publication’s account, an unemployed African American forklift operator who lives in New York City and runs a couple of very minor Facebook pages. He had done it anonymously, one assumes, to avoid any professional and personal fallout, which The Daily Beast has now exposed him to.
The video in question, doctored to make it sound like Pelosi was drunk when talking about Donald Trump at a progressive conference, dominated a news cycle a couple of weeks ago. In other words, it was a big deal for about six hours, and then disappeared like most everything else in our disposable news culture. The video was certainly a testament to the debased quality of online discourse, but it was also quickly identified as a fake, because it was pretty obviously a fake. None of this justifies outing the man supposedly responsible for it. In a better world, anonymous political commentators could be identified without fear of social media mobs attempting to ruin their lives. As has been demonstrated time and again, this is not the world we live in.
Widely criticized for its decision to name the man — or in online parlance, “dox” him — The Daily Beast defended its story as a way to show “that disinformation isn’t the purview of Russia alone.” But who ever believed this?
Even if it’s relevant that someone in the Bronx rather than St. Petersburg produced the video, that didn’t require naming the man — let alone detailing his employment history, talking to his ex-girlfriend or delving into his guilty plea to a domestic violence charge and an outstanding warrant for his arrest on a probation violation. (The man denies many of the details of the story.)
All of this was completely gratuitous. The balance, which any responsible publication should have considered, between the public benefit of naming the man (none) and the personal harm that might be done by naming him (considerable) isn’t even close. Of course, it matters that he is a Trump supporter. Outlets like The Daily Beast don’t make a routine practice of hunting down trolls who are producing the vast sea of anti-Trump material online, because they don’t consider spoofing or maligning Trump to be a threat to democracy, or at all undesirable.
Incredibly enough, according to The Daily Beast, someone at Facebook provided details about the man’s posting history that were used to confirm the story. Users of Facebook should take note.
Although reporters might believe that rank abuse of America’s high elected officials is something new, it’s as old as the republic. And it’s often been anonymous. By all means, call out online distortions and lies, but deliberately exposing low-level political advocates to personal destruction is shabby and irresponsible, and more an act of political retaliation than journalism.
Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review.