When the government publishes your personal information, it isn’t just a breach of our privacy as citizens. It’s an authoritarian tactic to silence dissent.
In July, the White House published the emails of critics of their voter-data-collection efforts—without redacting sensitive personal information. People were stunned to learn that contacting the White House with their concerns might not be confidential. That in fact, they might be doxxed, not by internet trolls, but by the highest office in the country.
In defending their “right” to publish the information, Marc Lotter, the Press secretary to Mike Pence, reportedly defended the move, saying that these comments are inherently public, akin to when a person appears to make comments before a commission. But that justification conflates an antiquated local practice with a rule or a law, and it demonstrates a concerning trend in the Trump administration to act outside of democratic principles and norms in order to aggressively silence dissenters.
Sheri Berman, professor of political science at Barnard College, says it’s hard to determine malice in this context. “Was this a violation of citizens’ privacy or potential encouragement to harassment due to incompetence or inadvertence, or was it a purposeful misuse of power?” asks Berman. “Neither is good, but the latter is clearly worse, and would be a clear example of the Trump administration abusing its power and not playing by the accepted democratic ‘rules of the game.’”
Berman explains that “individuals, civil society groups, and even media outlets ‘doxing’ is not the same as the president or government officials engaging in this type of behavior since they [have] infinitely more power, are supposed represent the entire country, and protect and obey democratic institutions and values.” She says she does not know of any other instance in which an administration has openly engaged in such tactics in the U.S.
But are emails to the White House, in fact, “public statements,” as the press secretary asserted? There is no notification on the contact page of the White House website informing visitors of any such thing. And in fact, just weeks after constituents’ emails were published, Senators Feinstein, Brown, and Wyden submitted questions and a request for information from the White House regarding the tactic.
“Since our nation’s founding, whether by mail, phone, or email, people have contacted their elected representatives to voice their opinions. At no time have Americans contacted their elected representatives with the expectation their representatives would subsequently publicly disclose their personal information without permission,” the letter reads. The 14 questions presented in the letter are basically a demand for transparency with regard to the policies and procedures the administration follows with the correspondence it receives.
“The decision by the White House to publish the emails commenting on the Commission without redacting personal information demonstrates, at best, a lack of sensitivity to and simple disregard for the very concerns raised in many of emails,” the letter continues. “At worst, the decision to publish is a vindictive action taken to harm individuals that spoke out against the Commission’s efforts to gather and publish personal data on every American voter.”
Senita Lenear has witnessed what can happen at a local level when personal information is shared, publicly. Lenear is a commissioner for Grand Rapids, Michigan’s second-largest city. She acknowledges that many local communities follow a practice of collecting the personal addresses of residents who wish to address the commission in a public forum. She learned that, at least in her jurisdiction, collecting that information was a tradition or practice, but not a legal requirement.
“I suspect it was tied to registering complaints and attaching those complaints to correct complainant for tracking and follow-up purposes,” Leaner says. But the practice was something that concerned her.
“A few times I noticed people utilizing technology to look up the addresses of the persons speaking. That concerned me because people can sometimes make provocative statements in public forums that may sometimes infuriate others who may be present. With having the address of the person at your disposal, suddenly a simple difference of opinion could morph into something much more serious.”
Lenear approached the mayor and city attorney to discuss her concerns. She requested that they switch the practice of collecting the addresses of residents who wish to speak, to only collecting the name and city of residence of speakers. It was a simple change, able to be implemented by the very next meeting.
Sam* knows all too well how publicly expressing concerns can inflame others—sometimes the commissioners, themselves. When Sam attended a commission meeting last year in her city to address concerns she had about how redistricting efforts might displace people and to offer what she felt were more equitable solutions, she was met with resistance.
The blowback Sam experienced wasn’t at the meeting, itself, but afterward, when she returned to her work and normal free time. “Soon after the public meeting, the executive director of my organization approached me and said I must have really done something because one of the politicians called and asked about me,” she says.
Sam says this person had used straw-man tactics during the meeting in an attempt to discredit her and her viewpoint. “Now this guy was calling me at work? How would he know where I work?” But, she says, that wasn‘t even the end of it. “Later at another public meeting, he continued to intimidate me with a sarcastic introduction: ‘Oh, look who’s here, she likes to challenge me at commission meetings.’”
Sam says that wasn’t an isolated experience, either. She also had a similar run-in with another local official after that. Those instances left her with extreme anxiety to the point that she is no longer willing to speak at public meetings.
And this is exactly the point of exposing (or threatening to expose) people who criticize ideas, practices, and leadership. Harassing and intimidating dissenters makes it far less likely that those with oppositional viewpoints will speak out the next time. Suddenly the stakes just went from maybe a fear of public speaking to a fear for one’s own safety.
I know just how Sam feels. As a woman writer, I’m no stranger to harassment for the things I say and write. But the most disconcerting vitriol I ever endured was when an online troll turned to an in-person threat at a local commission meeting.
After political difference with others, when your information is public, risks become magnified. People who have experienced being harassed and doxxed aren’t sure who they can trust, who might be following them in real life or online, and whether they might end up losing things, like jobs and homes and even their lives.
In the end, it’s something no one should have to navigate. People should be able to speak, to write, to express their thoughts and ideas and concerns, and to just exist without a fear of retaliation for doing so. In a free society, these democratic ideals should be vigorously protected.
But, the Trump administration is showing that for dissenters, democratic principles don’t necessarily apply. Between his campaign trail, where he regularly reminisced about the “good old days” when protestors used to be carried out in stretchers, and the recent doxxing episode, we’ve seen how the administration seeks to make examples of those who dare to assert their resistance.
Earlier this year after hundreds were arrested following the Inauguration Day protests, the Department of Justice sought an order to require Dreamhost, the web hosting company of the protest organizer’s website, to provide data about all website visitors—all 1.3 million of them, many of whom had simply visited the website.
Had I visited this website? Who knows? Did you? Maybe. What is that even supposed to indicate? People click on websites all the time when reading about things that are happening in the world in attempts to learn about them. Dreamhost filed a motion in federal court, reiterating those concerns and the overreach of power that the broad request represented, saying, in their legal argument:
“In essence, the Search Warrant not only aims to identify the political dissidents of the current administration, but attempts to identify and understand what content each of these dissidents viewed on the website.”
The DOJ ultimately backed down, amending the warrant to specify a range of dates and that the host not provide HTTP requests and error logs. Dreamhost was ordered to comply with the amended warrant, but they still plan to appeal on First and Fourth Amendment grounds.
The unjust missteps by Trump’s administration have become hard to even keep up with. Last week, in what felt like a game of Uncle, where congressional representatives from all sides unanimously begged him to condemn white supremacy following his “blame on both sides” comment regarding deaths and injuries in Charlottesville, Trump finally signed a resolution condemning the violence in Charlottesville, and specifically white nationalists, white supremacists, the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis and other hate groups.
But, even in doing so, the White House summed up the resolution in a way that watered down what, specifically, was being condemned, saying, “As Americans, we condemn the recent violence in Charlottesville and oppose hatred, bigotry, and racism in all forms…” seeming to reiterate Trump’s earlier stance of blame for “both sides.” These subtleties are important because suggesting that protesting injustice and hatred is also bad – also makes you a “bad dude”—is another way to plant the idea that killed and injured dissenters aren’t victims, but rather, villains.
“In an authoritarian regime governments often just go out and fine, harass, arrest, etc. opponents directly; there’s no need for indirectness or proxies,” says Berman. “Which is precisely why anything in a “gray” area should raise alarms: since we live in a democracy where government officials are not legally allowed to fine, harass, arrest, etc. people simply for opposing them or some of their policies, anything that attempts to get around existing laws and norms in order to do so should be recognized and reacted to as the potential attack on democracy it is.”
For writers and journalists, for activists, and for people directly affected by unjust policy and legislation, asking questions, seeking justice, and speaking out is an innate part of our work, of our livelihood, of who we are as humans. The attempt to silence people through public shaming and the tacit threat of a public and threatening pile-on are tools the federal government appears to now be using to effectively silence the most vulnerable people in our society. Many are already familiar with this culture in online spaces and in some locales, but blatantly and openly bullying constituents at the Federal level in the U.S. is new. And it does not smell like democracy.
*Not her real name
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