‘Mic Dispatch’ episode 19: Shaun King and the morality of doxxing people online (full transcript)


On this episode of Mic Dispatch, correspondent Aaron Morrison discusses doxxing with Twitter personality and journalist Shaun King. King has recently received backlash for retweeting content that has misidentified people suspected of racist actions. Morrison asks him about this and his moral obligation considering his huge internet following of over 3 million people across social media.

Shaun King: If you mistreat people, there are other people like me who will help hold you responsible for it.

Natasha Del Toro, anchor, Mic Dispatch: How do you feel when someone’s doxxed — meaning, their real identity and personal information are outed online? Doxxing usually happens after people have been caught behaving in ways many find problematic. Writer and activist Shaun King has come under intense scrutiny for his frequent doxxing, building a huge online following in part by outing people he deems racist. Correspondent Aaron Morrison talks to King about why he does it and about when he gets it wrong.

Morrison: Daniel Borden.

Anchor in news clip: Borden was identified on social media as one of the men seen in the photos attacking a black man earlier this month.

Morrison: Joseph Pryor.

Anchor in news clip: The man who was seen shouting at a black woman in a viral video taken at a Kentucky rally for Donald Trump has been discharged from the Marine Corps.

Morrison: Aaron Schlossberg.

Aaron Schlossberg in viral cell phone footage: They’re not documented, so my next call is to ICE to have each one of them kicked out of my country. Honey, I’m callin’ ICE!

Morrison: We know these names because these men have been accused of public racism and violence. And they are living on the internet in infamy. But how did we find out these names? Many say it’s because of an activist named Shaun King. Shaun King is a journalist and a political organizer who has [over] 3 million followers on social media. Some say he’s an internet vigilante. And others consider him a hero of the Black Lives Matter movement, largely because he exposes everyday racism and violence on the internet. I don’t know a whole lot about his methods. And I don’t even know if I could say all of his methods are ethical. So we’re gonna go sit down with Shaun.

Morrison: Shaun King’s on the way.

King: Hey!

Morrison: Hey, man!

King: Yeah, yeah. Thanks for having me. Glad to connect. How are things going?

Morrison: Things are good.

Morrison: In your mind, what are you achieving by exposing people who are accused of racism or police brutality or other sorts of immorality?

King: When someone does something like this publicly and we say, “Hey, what’s this person’s name? Who is this?” When we hold somebody responsible for that, one: We hope that it ends their public behavior. But we also hope it sends a message to other people that you are free to be publicly hateful. Just know that you might be known for it. Our goal isn’t so much to ruin somebody’s life as it is to stop the bigotry. The system doesn’t do that work for us, so we have to do it ourselves.

Morrison (voiceover): King has been credited with helping law enforcement arrest Alex Michael Ramos and Daniel Borden, who were convicted over the summer for beating a young black man named DeAndre Harris during the Unite the Right events in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Protesters in clip: Black lives matter, black lives matter.

King: I was watching livestream videos. I was horrified. He had just a huge gash across his head, was covered in blood, and I thought, “They could have killed this young man.” But I had the thought, “If these guys do this and just walk, this is gonna happen all over the country.” I wrote a tweet just saying, “Who is this? Who are these men who did this?”

Morrison (voiceover): King was praised for his work after Charlottesville. He was recognized as a humanitarian at the 2018 BET Awards and was invited to give a commencement speech at the City University of New York in June.

Morrison: Can you take us through what actually happens as you’re sort of narrowing down who some of these folks are?

King: The first thing that we did was just collect a ton of information: photos, videos, personal accounts. Second thing that we did was began to actually catalog and organize them. So we created individual files for each person that we saw there — to verify their information. There were so many things that we looked at: tattoos, birthmarks, moles, facial features, the ear shape and structure. And I had no idea, but the ears are, like, a real identifying factor, and the shape of each person’s ear’s unique. Then we tried to find, if we could find, videos of the people actually confessing to it. We found Alex Michael Ramos on Facebook. After he assaulted the DeAndre, he posted a video on Facebook Live.

Alex Michaal Ramos, in clip: Yeah, I’m glad I stomped some ******* out there. I don’t give a ****.

King: He admits to physically assaulting someone and describes someone like DeAndre.

Ramos, in clip: You hurt my people, I guess we hurt you back.

King: This was maybe two days after the assault. But it took us two more days or so to confidently stake our whole reputation on it. Someone could say something horrible, do something horrible. And if we don’t find who they are, they pay no price for it.

Morrison: It’s clear that, over the years, you’ve gotten better at doing this. But there have been times where it seems you and others have misidentified folks.

King: Sure.

Morrison: How do you make sure that you aren’t misidentifying people?

King: Well, I have never — I have never misidentified anybody that we suspected of racism or police brutality. It wasn’t until this past summer, I found myself in a strange place.

Morrison (voiceover): King is referring to a case in Dallas where a woman claimed she was sexually assaulted by a Texas state trooper after being pulled over on suspicion of DWI. King publicized the allegations to his social media following. But footage from the trooper’s body camera disproved the woman’s allegations.

Officer, in clip: You’re being placed under arrest for driving while intoxicated. I need you to face toward — keep facing toward my car. You can go ahead and sit up here. I’m going to reach around and buckle you in.

King: What we never considered was that she would completely make the story up.

Morrison: Then once that information came out to be not true, what did you do?

King: Oh, man. First, I deleted everything that we said. We said the officer’s name. It was the officer. Like, we didn’t misidentify the officer. People read the piece that I wrote and they said, “Hey, this isn’t a public apology.” I apologized to him person-to-person. And I felt like he had been done wrong by this person and I had, too.

Morrison: You’re saying that you’ve never misidentified someone, but there’s been stories that have been written about how — 

King: Which?

Morrison: There’s an officer in Cleveland, by the name — Cleveland transit officer named Sean O’Neil. You had been linked to a group of people who had misidentified him as the officer who pepper-sprayed a crowd who had gathered for the Movement for Black Lives convening in 2015.

King: I’ve never heard of it.

Morrison: Sean O’Neil?

King: Never heard of this case. I didn’t misidentify Sean O’Neil, but if someone — but here’s the danger: If someone else misidentifies him and then says, “Person A is Sean O’Neil and he did action B,” and then I retweet that, that’s — that’s a problem.

Morrison (voiceover): King wrote about the pepper-spray incident in 2015 for Daily Kos. King didn’t mention the officer’s name in his blog post. But a Cleveland activist, Rachelle Smith, says she tweeted the wrong officers name and then King retweeted her incorrect tweet.

Morrison: I’m in Cleveland to talk to Sean O’Neil, the officer that Shaun King doesn’t remember misidentifying as the officer who pepper-sprayed a crowd of Black Lives Matter activists. We reached out to a couple of the people that had been accused of misidentifying you, one of them being the activist and journalist known as Shaun King.

O’Neil: Yeah. He had retweeted posts from someone else, and he just retweeted it and added something there about Sean O’Neil. There were several people that I’d found on social media that had misidentified me. So I’d reached out to all of them to say, “Hey, look, this is not me, here’s the proof,” so on and so forth. “Can you retract and apologize? I mean, come on, you’re messing with my life, and my family’s.” All of them did and apologized, except for him.

Morrison: How did you find out what the actual incident was?

O’Neil: So, it was about three years ago, the summer of 2015. There was a voicemail on my phone from an officer at work. And I call him and he tells me, “Hey, you might want to check this out.” On Twitter, various places, I’d been misidentified as an officer that was involved in an incident a day before. At first, I’m thinking, “Oh, it’s not that bad.” But then I see how social media, things spread exponentially. And then when I see Shaun King — and I knew he was quite a visible and quite popular activist online. So I knew if he’s putting it out, it’s really going to cross. My wife was like, “Are they going to be on our front yard? Are they going to come to our house?” That’s when it hit home, right there.

Protesters, in clip: Black lives matter, black lives matter!

O’Neil: So that weekend, the Black Lives Matter had a conference in the city, downtown. There was a juvenile, I think, 14-year-old who was passed out drunk on a bus. So he couldn’t care for himself. The officers had to take him off and release him to his mom. Well, when they took them off the bus, the one convention was getting out. The attendees of the conference on scene wouldn’t let the car go, they wouldn’t disperse. They started pushing the car. So the officers on scene kept on giving them warnings. “Get back!” Trying to give lawful orders to get out, and they didn’t. So the one sergeant on the scene went ahead and applied the OC spray to make room for the car to move out.

Protester, in clip: I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!

Morrison (voiceover): Activists, however, saw the use of pepper spray on the crowd as another instance of police brutality. The incident occurred at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement — and in Cleveland, the 2014 death of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy killed by city officers, was fresh on their minds.

Morrison: How was it that they arrived at it being you?

O’Neil: I don’t know, because that officer and me don’t look alike at all, I don’t think. I mean, I guess the picture, the quality wasn’t that great. The video.

Morrison: Would you have wanted an apology from Shaun King?

O’Neil: Yeah. Just a simple reply saying, “Look, I’m sorry. I’ll take it down.” That’s all. That’s what everyone else just about did and the one, especially — Rachelle Smith. She’s the one that actually reached out to me, and sending a little letter saying, “Yeah, I’m really sorry about this. In my zeal to support, you know, Black Lives Matter, I jumped the gun and, you know, I apologize for any harm I might have caused you and your family.” So it was real genuine and I appreciate that, because she took the time to draft and send me this letter.

Morrison (voiceover): I invited Cleveland activist Rachelle Smith to my meeting with the commander. Smith believes that she was the first person to misidentify O’Neil. This is the first time O’Neil and Smith are meeting face-to-face.

Morrison: Why did you reach out to the lieutenant once you realize that you had misidentified him?

Smith: Because it’s important to me to hold myself to the same standards I hold to other people to. But I knew that, you know, my tweet had been picked up on Twitter by some pretty heavy influencers: Shaun King, DeRay Mckesson. I mean, it was retweeted thousands upon thousands upon thousands of times. The first thing that I did was reached out to some of the influencers who I knew had shared it and told them, “Wrong guy, stop.” I’m totally against deleting tweets, but I went back and deleted it so that people who had just shared it would go away. But I knew that that wasn’t going to undo what had been done.

O’Neil: But I think it reemphasized what I’ve always believed: that you have to be careful before you jump to conclusions. You need to make sure you have all the facts, because a lot of times you’re getting a snippet or a snapshot of an incident. I’ll be perfectly honest: Everyone knows there’s a history of police — we’ve done some wrong things. We have to correct those and we have to work better with the community. But at the same time, you can’t just jump to conclusions. You have to get all your facts in order first. Then you make an unbiased, impartial decision. That’s what needs to happen more, I think.

King: I think the challenge is, like, I had nothing to do with — I’m not even familiar with that story, but I am responsible for anything that I say or do. So with this case or with any case, it’s my burden and responsibility to make sure, “Hey, this is accurate.”

Morrison: If you had an opportunity to apologize to someone who had misidentified — whether it be Sean O’Neil or anyone else, is that something you would do? Privately or publicly?

King: Yeah. Oh yeah, absolutely. I’m not the type of person that’s slow to acknowledge a wrong or apologize for something. Like even with this, this specific instance, if I had anything to do with that, I regret it. Like, one, I don’t want to be wrong. And I definitely don’t want to misidentify anybody. People see me as someone who’s going to help them hold somebody responsible. I’m doing the best that I can every day. It’s just, you know, our country has a — is deeply problematic.

Del Toro: What do you think about King’s activism? Is doxxing OK? We want to hear from you, so leave us your comments. And that’s it for another episode of Mic Dispatch, thanks for watching and see you next time.

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