There is a distinct risk in pretending that hate online is harmless — one that is, and has been, plain to see for years, if you bothered to look at early victims of the behavior. But in the absence of any attention or consequences, the same kinds of people who have, for years, tried to silence marginalized voices on the internet are using their well-practiced tactics on more and more privileged targets because, as long as there was no risk of repercussions, they felt safe escalating the abuse, and wielded it as their preferred weapon in a culture war of their creation.
On Tuesday reporter Andrew Kaczynski published an article on CNN explaining how he found the identity of Reddit user HanAssholeSolo, who had identified himself as the creator of the media-punching GIF tweeted by President Donald Trump on Sunday. He did not publish HanAssholeSolo’s real name or any other identifying details, but did suggest that he reserved the right to do so in the future.
Because the user had already posted an apology, deleted his prior posts and seemed remorseful, CNN opted not to release his name. They were under no obligation to protect his identity, and they did not force him to do any of those things in exchange for that protection. Still, CNN’s decision not to release HanAssholeSolo’s name has been characterized as blackmail by conservatives, including Donald Trump Jr.
In response, a wave of threats from Neo-Nazi trolls have sprung up against not just members of Kaczynski’s team, but some members of their families as well. Apparently incited by the lie that the meme creator is a teenager (he is, according to Kaczynski, a middle aged man) many have constructed a narrative that they are protecting free speech — by threatening reporters and their families.
Threatening people who write on the internet is not a new tactic: For several years now, a common response to writers and journalists posting things that bigots didn’t like was to doxx, harass and try to coerce them into giving up their jobs and fading away. Whether it was about video games, race, feminism, body acceptance or something else, cruelty and harassment have long been a sick sort of game for some people — including, by his own admission, HanAssholeSolo.
What’s more is that there seems to still be a belief that none of this “online only” behavior is dangerous, despite a gunman shooting up a pizza parlor to stop the fictional Pizzagate, or the fact that Dylann Roof, who shot nine Black people in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015 was radicalized by white supremacist websites. We have seen, over and over again, that online hate speech and harassment feeds into offline violence. Nonetheless, its posited as nothing more than free speech.
It is true that freedom of speech is a right guaranteed in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. The amendment is very specific, laying out that Congress shall make no laws abridging that right to speak, but it does not say a word about private citizens or companies, nor does it say that the press cannot write about what a citizen has said or done. Anyone can speak, but that doesn’t guarantee an audience, or that the people who are listening won’t respond negatively. It also guarantees a free press that is not subject to the whims of the government.
And it’s easy to construct the investigation into HanAssholeSolo and his GIF of the president beating up the media as an overreaction to “just a meme,” if you don’t consider the very real power wielded by the president of the United States.
The GIF rose to national attention when Trump tweeted it: When a meme that only exists in a subreddit makes it to the president of the United States, that’s news. When that subreddit is filled with racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and misogyny, that’s also news, especially when the president’s supporters have shown a pattern of embracing bigotry. In the wake of his election hate crimes have spiked, and many have expressed genuine concern about the president indirectly supporting, or at least ignoring, these things and their impact on the country. So of course an image of the president beating up the press — even in digital effigy — is just going to add to the concern.
HanAssholeSolo made the meme, the president shared it and Andrew Kaczynski investigated it. Two of those things could have a chilling effect on the freedom of the press. The third is merely an investigative reporter doing his job. Free speech isn’t freedom from the consequences of that speech, nor is it solely the purview of angry white men who think that only their right to speak should be inviolate.
The people claiming that they are attacking Kaczynski and his colleagues (and their families) to “protect free speech” are actually doxxing and attempting to use the safety of family members as blackmail to silence reporters. But the response to telling the truth should never be online violence or harassment — or people justifying those things because of the circumstances of the supposed offense.
You want to protect free speech and privacy? Embrace the idea that threatening the press for doing their jobs is damaging. Consider asking yourself who in history is known for trying to silence journalists for saying things that they don’t like. Then look at where you’re standing. Which side of history are you actually on?