One of the norms of journalism in the Internet era is a hesitation against "doxxing," revealing the identity or personal details of those who request anonymity. There are times when the newsworthiness of someone's identity trumps that hesitancy, but in general reporters recognize that unnecessary doxxing runs the risk of exposing subjects to hate, abuse, or even violence.
The Daily Beast had a story over the weekend naming and shaming the man who first spread a slowed-down video of Nancy Pelosi to make it appear as though she were drunk, a video that fooled thousands, including Rudy Giuliani. What did they find? He's a Trump supporter. He's done odd jobs in construction and janitorial work and is currently a day laborer in the Bronx. He spent twenty days in prison for domestic assault, writes reporter Kevin Poulsen, who himself spent five years in prison. He has "misogynistic" Instagram posts, the "strongest example" of which is evidently him calling a woman a bitch for kicking his seat on the subway.
Not exactly what you'd call a model citizen, but nothing in his biography screams newsworthiness. The public justifications for naming the man were pretty weak. The first, offered up by Poulsen and Daily Beast editor Sam Stein, is that it's newsworthy to prove the man wasn't Russian.
Can’t believe some people don’t think it’s news to discover the actual identity of the guy behind the doctored Pelosi video. It’s not just that he runs partisan news site+ posted the video to make money. It’s that this story shows disinformation isn’t the purview of Russia alone
— Sam Stein (@samstein) June 2, 2019
NEW: I went looking for the Russian troll behind the ‘Drunk Pelosi' viral video hoax. Turns out he's an itinerant forklift operator from the Bronx who's been secretly running hard-right "news" outlets across social media for years. Also, not Russian. https://t.co/mChiyVqy0B
— Kevin Poulsen (@kpoulsen) June 1, 2019
This is bad defense on several counts. The first is that it's very easy to write a story about how the Pelosi video wasn't Russian-made while granting anonymity to the person who actually made it. Both CNN and the New York Times tracked down anonymous social media users who created content spread by Trump, described them in a general manner, and then declined to name them. And if "it wasn't Russia" is the story, why is the story so fixated on the man's criminal history, his Instagram, his work history, etc.? It reads every bit like opposition research driven by animus.
Second, who on earth thought that disinformation was "the purview of Russia alone"? Viral online disinformation is as old as the Internet itself, political disinformation is as old as politics. There are those in the age of Trump who see Russians peeking around every corner, but I sincerely doubt even the most hardcore liberal has to be informed that Americans can lie.
There was another Stein justification that caught my eye.
1. It’s not my story. It’s @kpoulsen’s
And 2. Rudy pushed it. Clinton denounced it. Pelosi cited it criticized FB for it, etc.
The video sparked a nationwide debate involving the biggest social media company in the world. But sure, there’s no value in knowing who's behind it
— Sam Stein (@samstein) June 2, 2019
Was there reeeeally a "nationwide debate" about the Pelosi video? No one who doesn't work for a media outlet stood around their water cooler talking about it, and the "debate" was between left-leaning reporters who believed Facebook should take down the video and liberal politicians who agreed.
A sad truth is that credulous powerful actors spread fake and manipulated video all the time. In April, I documented how dozens of liberal pundits, Democrats, and journalists spread an edited video purporting to show Trump recently calling asylum seekers "animals" (he actually said it about MS-13, and over a year ago). Among the offenders were presidential candidates Kirsten Gillibrand, Beto O'Rourke, and Pete Buttigieg, and DNC chairman Tom Perez. Just a month ago, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow and several Democratic congressman also used deceptively edited video to argue that Attorney General William Barr perjured himself.
The Daily Beast never covered those stories; virtually zero media outlets outside of the right did. There were no "nationwide debates," because the people responsible for sparking such debates decided not to. Why then was the Pelosi video worthy of a protracted news cycle based solely on a Giuliani tweet? (The Daily Beast also cites a tweet from actor James Wood, but that's false.)
What we have is a situation where the Daily Beast publicly shamed an anonymous citizen because there was a story amplified in part by Daily Beast, a Daily Beast reporter by his own admission prejudged the story and assumed it was the Russians, and the Daily Beast then felt the need to publicly debunk a notion believed only by themselves. At every step, the justification for doxxing the man was a creation of the Daily Beast's making. The reporters and editors willed the newsworthiness into existence, and if an ordinary man has to be dragged through the public square, so be it.