Last Wednesday, the New York Times published an article in which 74-year old Jessica Leeds described Donald Trump, with whom she was sharing a flight 30 years ago, grabbing her breasts and attempting to put his hand up her skirt. One day later, one of Fox Business’ most popular hosts, Lou Dobbs, retweeted a tweet that contained what appeared to be the details of Leeds’ phone number and home address.
What the original tweeter, the website that shared her address, and Dobbs did is called doxing: searching for and sharing private information, or information that can be used to identify a person online. Usually, but not always, is done for the purposes of intimidation or threat. This week, for example, the home addresses of journalists were shared on an 8chan board. The list, commentary, suggestions for targeting people for threats and pranks, are littered with racism and anti-Semitism.
Regardless of whether or not Dobbs had malicious intent, given the context and his audience, the retweet to a mass following constituted a dog-whistle for online harassment that is seamlessly connected to offline violence. The kind routinely implicated in silencing and threatening women who come forward, as in this instance, with stories of assault. Dobbs has almost 800,000 twitter followers and the tweet, which was available for at least two hours, was favorited and shared at least 2,900 times. After a public outcry demanding that he be fired, Dobbs, deleted the tweet, writing, “My retweet, My mistake. My apology to Jessica Leeds,” a reasonable response, but since then Dobbs has also erased his apology.
The primary reasons women wait, sometimes years, to reveal their assaults and harassment, or never say what has happened to them at all, are that they think no one will believe them and they fear retaliation. Doxing is now part of an arsenal of online tactics that make this retaliation cheaper and more acute.
This incident contributed to the trending of #NotOK, #WhyWomenDontReport and #TYBraveWomen hashtags, on which tens of millions of women continue to describe their fear of retaliation. Mindy McGillivray, for example, one of the nine women who have so far publicly come forward to name Trump, has moved out of her home and is leaving the country because of threats. As she explained of the backlash she faced to her local paper, “It scares us. It intimidates us. We are in fear of our lives.”
What Dobbs did, regardless of whether or not he apologized, actually provided untapped corporate opportunities to support the idea that women should be able to speak without fear that they, and their families, will be threatened and targeted for sustained harassment.
Individual people are banding together to call for Dobb’s firing. Currently there are five Change.org petitions. The one with the most signatures, 55K and counting, Fire Lou Dobbs For Publishing Victim’s Personal Information, was started by Recode radio producer Eric Johnson.
But, where are the corporate bystander interventions that would, in fact, be more effective in terms of systemic change? Crickets.
On Friday, I reached out to Fox Business, Twitter and two of several prominent advertisers on the Lou Dobbs Tonight website, Microsoft and TD Ameritrade, for comment.
Ironically, an ad for Microsoft’s digital crimes unit, which seeks to make “people and organizations safer” online, was the first to run on Dobbs’ top-ranked video on Friday. After several exchanges, Microsoft declined to provide a comment.
TD Ameritrade has, in the past five days, changed its advertising placement on Fox’s site. The company’s logo was an anchor on the Lou Dobbs Show webpage last week and throughout the weekend. By Monday, however, the TD Ameritrade logo had disappeared from the Lou Dobbs Show page.
“Our team made the proactive decision to block that content on the Lou Dobbs’ pages this week in light of what happened,” explained a company spokesperson via email on Tuesday. “We employ a very flexible approach to media buying for these reasons. We may pull or adjust our content based on market conditions, breaking news and events, or other issues that we believe might not be a good fit for our values or brand. We make these adjustments regularly, and this is one such example. “
The company has no further public announcement on their decision and the logo continues to appear on all other pages and programs on the website. The company’s digital media buy rotates on various channels of the Fox Business’s website. If funds were withdrawn from Dobbs’ show, along with the logo, the company may have signaled to Fox, if not the public, more than the desire not to be visibly associated with Dobbs. The way media buys work, however, that is unlikely. The disappearance of the logo might be less about virtue than the desire not to be caught in a bad media crossfire.
Predatory and abusive men may act as individuals, but they derive their confidence and impunity from this type of default overlapping institutional tolerance for their behavior. These are only two examples, but there are many other advertisers whose missions, commitments to gender equality or codes of conduct would seem incompatible with Dobb’s action and Fox Business’s silence. These include:
– Exxon Mobile (a company which hopes to end the engineering gender gap by the end of this year),
– Partners in Health (which strives to make sure people stay healthy and are not sickened by harassment and rape),
– Principle Financial Group (which, Working Mother magazine named one of the best companies for women in 2015),
– Chevrolet (which probably knows that women make 85 percent of auto purchases),
– Century Link (which has a detailed code of conduct for people; and companies they do business with),
Others include Cisco, Walt Disney, Lactaid, Kraft, Sudafed, Wells Fargo, Naja, Tag Heuler, Slack and Grammarly, which will correct the spelling of “doxing,” and “discrimination” and “retaliation.”
Many people are asking why Twitter has done nothing to shut down Dobbs or the original tweeter (whose tweet is still visible). Twitter’s Terms of Service, provided when I asked for comment, read, “We may consider the context and nature of the information posted, local privacy laws, and other case-specific facts when determining if this policy has been violated.” Twitter is not transparent about their processes, however, so it is impossible to know why they chose not to act, but if the phone number and address came from public record, or were already published elsewhere, the tweets probably didn’t violate Twitter’s rules.
Social media platforms such as Twitter look to preexisting laws. Doxing is not, per se, illegal, but can, under specific circumstances be prosecuted under existing laws, such as those related to privacy or stalking, for example. However, laws pertaining to harassment, stalking and threats are themselves recognized as insufficient when it comes to capturing women’s experiences of violence. They are particularly inadequate when applied online.
In this case, explains Danielle Keats Citron, Morton & Sophie Macht Professor of Law at University of Maryland and author of Hate Crimes in Cyberspace, there is no easy yes or no answer. “One way to think about the Dobbs’ tweet is through the lens of crime-facilitating speech. Sometimes, speech contains information that helps people commit crimes,” says Citron. “It can involve specific information like publishing the names of undercover officers or crime witnesses that criminals want to silence. Did Dobbs’ tweet amount crime-facilitating speech like the intentional incitement of imminent violence? Did he have the purpose of inciting people to confront Jessica Leeds physically or via telephone? One the one hand, there is an argument that Dobbs’ purpose was to incite twitter followers to harass and stalk Leeds. On the other, there is an argument that he did it with a political purpose, such as to get people to think about the Clinton Foundation (referrenced in the tweet). Another way to think about the tweet is as an invasion of privacy—the public disclosure of private fact…Perhaps the story about groping is newsworthy but is a victim’s home address and home phone number? Is it even private information since it was culled from public records?”
Neither the law nor Twitter’s rules adequately take into consideration scope and amplification network effects. Having a person’s address on a dusty ledger in a public office, posted in a public square, or even available on an online government database, is qualitatively different from sharing the same information with a hundreds of thousands of politically motivated and angry people in the two-second push of a button. Laws and terms of service such as the one that apply to this situation disproportionately negatively affect women and other marginalized people, who are the majority of mob attacks online. Think Leslie Jones, Ashley Judd, Jada, #SlaneGirl, Anita Sarkeesian, Zelda Williams, Justine Sacco and Megyn Kelly.
The past year has seen increased public awareness of the importance of bystander intervention, particularly men’s bystander intervention. But, until men put their weight behind meaningful, culture-challenging corporate interventions, very little will change.
Corporations don’t have to call for Dobb’s firing to be effective. They can express their support for women who are sexually harassed or raped, and their disapproval of tactics such as doxing and the harassment it is routinely implicated in, in infinitely creative ways. They can withhold or donate money, hold partners accountable to standards, or, in an instance like this, insist that Dobbs donate money to an organization that works to end violence against women, albeit a particularly unpalatable option.
I say men, because men have greater power than women do to accept or disrupt norms, particularly when money is involved as leverage. Between them, Fox (Newscorp), Twitter, TD Ameritrade and Microsoft have 45 corporate officers, more than 75% of whom are men, the majority of whom might agree that Trump’s behavior towards women and retailation against women is despicable, and yet here is a good #NotAllMen chance that has not been utilized. As former People magazine editor in chief, Larry Hackett, recently wrote regarding the story of Trump’s having sexually harassed writer Natasha Stoynoff while she was interviewing him, traditional approaches and styles of management have to be altered to take women’s experiences into account. This means, in almost all meaningful contexts, that men need to do this.
In the meantime, people have now been sharing Dobbs’ home address in social media, which may provide a momentary schadenfreude, but is hardly a solution.
Every institutional failure to intervene normalizes harassment, retaliation and violence, gives power to people who blame victims, and contributes to the devaluing women in our society. It’s not enough for good men to personally condemn misogyny and sexist behavior and walk away. Carelessness is what sustains women’s inequality and allows abusers to act with astounding entitlement.
Copyright Women’s Media Center, 2016. For reprint, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.