Thugs to the Left, Heavy-Breathers to the Right, Free Speech: Stuck in the Middle

On June 6, 2019, a Twitter account affiliated with the Autonomous Student Network — an anarcho-communist student group — authored a tweet intimating that it would post the private information of students who joined conservative groups on campus, specifically YCT or Turning Point USA, a practice known as “doxxing.” 

Bevo Tweet

The tweet borrows its cloy form from the familiar Gricean Implicature of movie thugs and mafiosos: “nice (house, car, kneecap) you got there, it would be a shame if anything happened to it.” I will let Monty Python’s 1969 satirization of the form stand in place of my comments on the tweet’s originality. Suffice it to say: it’s a nice literary device; it would be a shame if it were overused and consigned to the ill repute of movie thugs, mobsters, and these dolts — and I mean that with none of the honeyed sarcasm displayed above. 

A couple of weeks later, conservative outlets began covering the tweet, running several stories about the group’s doxxing threat. A particularly breathless post about the “Conspiracy to Deprive People of Civil Rights” from Glenn Reynolds — a popular Twitter pundit who recently removed himself from Twitter — seems to have filliped the onslaught of coverage.

At the time of this article’s publication, the tweet from the account — which only has 176 followers — had only 11 likes and three retweets. Glenn Reynolds’ post alone has 111 comments. The same writers breathing into paper bags about the dangers of doxxing are seemingly unperturbed about catapulting a would-be-forgotten tweet into the conservative media spotlight, thereby subjecting the students doxxed in the tweet’s links to far greater exposure. 

The coverage shares a common theme: lefty, anarchist student group uses threats of doxxing to suppress the free speech of conservative students. Each article treats doxxing as tantamount to physical violence; nearly every article could substitute “threatens to dox” with “threatens to break the kneecaps of” and read with the same Sturm und Drang. 

What none of the articles answer adequately is how doxxing — the dissemination of information about an individual online — differs from the conservative speech it is purported to suppress. If doxxing is just speech, how is treating it like physical violence any different than what the right frequently accuses the left of doing to speech? More importantly, is this controversy representative of the free speech experience of most students on UT’s campus? Answer: it isn’t and it’s not. 

Is Doxxing Violence or Harassment? 

When someone threatens to dox a person, they usually mean that they will do one, several, or all of the following: 

– Disseminate their personal information (name, phone number, address, etc.).

– Publish information relating to their purportedly objectionable views (previous statements, pictures of appearances at rallies, who the person follows on Twitter, etc.).

-Call on others to collect further information about the individual and to relate personal anecdotes about the individual’s objectionable beliefs or actions. 

-Call on others to harass or to disassociate with the person (show up at their house, ban them from your organization, fire them, etc.). 

In their doxxing of YCT and Turning Point USA, the Autonomous Student Network (ASN) uses a variety of these tactics, though they don’t, to my knowledge, post personal addresses. 

The posts follow a familiar format: the name of the YCT or TPUSA member followed by their phone number, social media accounts, emails, pictures of them at events, and then a desultory attempt to paint them as racists and/or fascists by association using pictures of who they follow online or of posts they have liked. In the pre-Internet era, one could imagine ASN members doing their work with red yarn and newspaper clippings like Lee Strobel on the cover of The Case for Christ. 

In one post, the ASN attempts to tar and feather Lillian Bonin, the then Vice Chairman and now Chairman of YCT. The post reads like the communist’s long-delayed clapback to Dilling’s The Red Network, purporting to expose Bonin as a member of the “white supremacist milieu” and hypothesizing that Bonin might either be a “recent convert” or a well-entrenched agent who has maintained an “effective cover.” The screed begins with Bonin’s membership in YCT and tries to connect the dots to her supposed white supremacy, ending with an anti-semitic meme that Bonin did not “like,” but which was posted on a Facebook page that she does “like.” Noticeably absent: overtly racist speech from Bonin herself. 

If ASN wishes to castigate people for the opinions of the coterie of pricks and provocateurs that they follow on social media, they should peruse their own following, keeping mindful of stones and glass houses. 

However, the Bonin dox takes the clear form of an argument. It starts with the assertion in the headline that Bonin is a fascist and proceeds to try and prove that assertion. The post is fitful, misleading in areas, and, to my mind, uncompelling. The web of connections the post makes might give John Forbes Nash’s beautiful mind a migraine. 

But it’s still an argument. 

Doxxing posts attempt to provide evidence that someone has objectionable views. In most cases, they are simply curations of publicly available information designed to paint a particular picture. A threat to dox someone is usually no more than the assertion “I will curate public information about you in a particular way.” Like all other arguments, doxxing posts are successful to the extent that they provide credible evidence to prove their assertions; to the extent that they do not, they fail. 

In other words, doxxing is just speech. 

Doxxing is speech with a particular intent. Doxxers depict their target in the worst possible light in an effort to have them removed from polite society; they are certainly not among our better angels. 

And ASN is no exception. Their desired outcome is that conservative students will be cowed into silence or ostracized into oblivion. In service of this end, ASN misleads in areas, flooding the reader with incontrovertible evidence of the target’s conservatism and then sneaking in unconvincing evidence of their racism or fascism, such as in the Bonin post. Their conspiratorial tone gives Glenn Beck in his chalkboard days a run for his money. 

But it’s still an argument; it’s still just speech. 

Which is why it smacks of hypocrisy when Glenn Reynolds calls the tweet from these nobodies — for frame of reference, the “UT LONGmemes for HORNSy teens” Facebook page has 41,000 members to ASN’s 176 Twitter followers — a “Conspiracy to Deprive People of Civil Rights.” To deprive someone of their rights requires power — specifically, it requires force. The state can use its police power to deprive me of my civil rights; a mugger can use a gun to deprive me of my civil rights; a group of students, simply using speech, cannot. To speak in such terms is to equate speech with violence, an accusation which the right frequently hurls at the left. 

Similarly, doxxing does not itself suppress speech. Doxxers seek to activate social outrage against their target for holding objectionable views. If the assertions are credibly supported by the evidence and the views expressed are truly reprehensible, it is that individual’s views which cause them to be ostracized, not the mere fact that they were doxxed. If presented with a credible argument that my friend is a Nazi, I would be inclined to disassociate with him.

Several of the articles quote UT Communications Strategist, Shilpa Bakre as saying “students should never be targeted or face harassment for their affiliations, political beliefs or any other reason.” I could not disagree more. Some beliefs are beyond the pale. Students holding these views should be “targeted,” to the extent that they become a target for arguments against their views. If the University is treating mere words as harassment, feel free to “harass” me if you disagree with my views. 

Finally, doxxing is not “hacking.” Most of the information in these doxxing posts is gleaned from social media, public appearances, and other public sources. Xennials who have seen The Wire should be familiar with phone books; those contained your name, number, and address just like these doxxing posts.

As for the issue of posting the students’ place of employment, the pearl-clutching of administrators on this front rings hollow. McCombs’ internship class requires that you post your current or most recent job on your LinkedIn account. From there, it is a hop, skip, and a Google search to get your employer’s phone number. When they are finished squishing ants on the sidewalk, conservative free speech warriors might try dealing with the elephant in the room on campus: the ubiquitous issue of compelled speech. 

There is a wide gulf between accusing someone of being conservative and of being racist. ASN makes a compelling argument that Bonin is a conservative; likewise with most of the other students in the doxxing posts. As for their purported racism, fascism, or white-supremacy, I leave it to the reader’s critical discretion, but I am, on the whole, unconvinced. I am convinced, however, that ASN’s exercise of speech is not violence nor even harassment and that telling first-years there is a “Conspiracy to Deprive (them) of their Civil Rights” is likely to have a far worse chilling effect on speech than does a cliched tweet by some birkenstockalistas.

Is this Controversy Representative of UT’s Free Speech Experience? 

The first fact about free speech on UT’s campus, particularly political speech, which students should grasp is how few people care at all about this stuff. The number of students actively participating in the kind of political debate that might precipitate a doxxing is vanishingly small. As Bryan Caplan aptly puts it, “(t)he vast majority of college students arrive as philistines and leave as philistines.” 

The folkloric paradigm of student participation is that of the Kavanaugh protesters, the administration sit-inners, and the Israeli block partiers; a more accurate paradigm is the student walking past these events on Speedway, miffed at having to take a detour, but with her anger tempered by the extra few minutes of Pod Save America she can now enjoy through her airpods. 

This does not mean that students are loafers. Very few students will translate political knowledge of this sort into personal success in much the same way that very few if any non-music majors will translate “Intro to Classical Music” into an appreciation of classical music. For the majority of students, this stuff does not matter and the choice to ignore it and focus on other things is rational and even commendable. 

It does mean, however, that students expecting a hotbed of political discussion and differing opinions, a crucible to test the steel of their own worldviews, will largely be frustrated unless they seek it out. It also means that, outside of a small niche of hyper-active political fans, your personal politics will not matter much, if it all. 

Students still concerned about the “Conspiracy to Deprive (them) of Their Rights” should keep in mind how limited the reach of this tweet was before conservative outlets picked it up. Of the twelve accounts that liked the tweet, only two appear to be UT students. Of the three accounts that retweeted it, one is the ASN account retweeting its own tweet, the other two are avowedly conservative accounts. Of the tweet’s 227 comments, there was not a single one predating The College Fix’s June 21 article. 

This is all to say to incoming freshmen: join whatever group you want, conservative or liberal, or better yet, ignore politics, especially national politics, altogether, as it’s typically more trouble than it’s worth. And ignore the blustering of these thugs — everyone else does. 

The real core of political free speech on campus is located in late-night bull sessions with friends about partisanship and political ignorance, in the Houston liberal and Shiner, TX conservative who share a pitcher of beer, and in the host of other small interactions that might change your view of the world and make you a more informed citizen, but also might not; who’s to say? With thugs to the left and heavy-breathers to the right, campus free speech is stuck in the middle, and what a wonderful middle it is. 

Categories: Campus

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