Are you ready to find out if your neighbor is a cross-burning Klan member? Tomorrow, the “hacktivist” group Anonymous will release a list including “more than 1,000” names of Ku Klux Klan members and affiliates, as well as the websites they use to coordinate with one another. In a press release about the operation, Anonymous writes,
We are not oppressing you, Ku Klux Klan. We are not here to strip you of your Freedom of Speech. Anonymous will never strip you of any of your Constitutional rights. There is no “hate speech” exception to the Constitution. In a free society, we do have a duty to protect free thought, even when especially offensive. Your hateful ideas and words remain yours to keep. You are allowed to speak and in kind, we are allowed to respond. You are legally free to live and be any which way you choose to live and be. Keep in mind, it is not illegal nor oppressive to hurt your feelings. With that said, we are stripping you of your anonymity. This is not a threat, but rather a promise.
— Anonymous (@YourAnonNews) November 2, 2015
My first thought upon hearing about OpKKK was something along the lines of, ‘Hell ya! Expose those fools!’ While I’m all for privacy rights, I also believe you reap what you sow: if you want to join a group that preaches racially-motivated hate and violence, you better be ready to face the music if you get exposed.
But as I started to think more about the operation, a number of questions began to grow in my mind…
The first, most obvious question is the question of credibility. Can we trust that the Anonymous hackers were thorough and impartial in their investigations? Will the group provide evidence to back up their claims, or will they simply release the list with a “trust us” note attached to it?
I will say that I am personally inclined to trust Anonymous. From taking down child pornography websites to exposing and destroying ISIS-affiliated Twitter accounts, the group has proven that it is has a genuine interest in promoting the public good – even if some people disagree with their methods. With this in mind, I can’t imagine them releasing such a sensitive list without doing their due diligence first.
I could, however, imagine a less honest group of “hacktivists” using this type of online revelation to destroy the reputations of people that they dislike. Which brings me to my second question…
How do we handle future revelations like this, ones that come from groups or individuals less trustworthy than Anonymous? I can’t help but think that this is an extremely easy way to slander someone, even if the accusations are later proved to be false.
In fact, OpKKK has already been marred by a now-discredited “leak”. On Monday, a hacker known as “Amped Attacks” dumped hundreds of names, phone numbers, and emails onto the website Pastebin, claiming that they belonged to KKK members.
Anonymous was quick to repudiate the list, posting the following tweet to the official Operation KKK Twitter account:
This account has NOT YET released any information. We believe in due diligence and will NOT recklessly involve innocent individuals #OpKKK
— Operation KKK (@Operation_KKK) November 2, 2015
Still, much of the damage had already been done. Dozens of outlets covered the Amped Attacks dump, trumpeting headlines like, “Prominent US Senators and Mayors Outed as Members of the KKK by Anonymous”.
More credible organizations, like the Washington Post, did a fairly good job of discrediting this first info dump, and many of the public figures named in it were quick to denounce the list. Unfortunately, the reality of our social media- centric society is that many of the people who saw the sensational headlines will never see the articles debunking those claims.
It’s also worth noting that people who are slandered in this way have little to no legal recourse; since the source of the information is anonymous, there’s nobody to sue for libel or defamation.
My final question is this: if Anonymous’ list does indeed prove credible, what consequences will the outed KKK members face?
It is not illegal to be a member of the KKK (though many would argue it ought to be), so it’s unlikely that they would face criminal charges or investigation. And since the information is coming from an unverifiable source, employers probably wouldn’t be able to fire people on the list without being hit with wrongful termination lawsuits.
The most likely scenario is that the bulk of the repercussions will come in the form of internet evisceration, public intimidation (like what Cecil the lion’s killer dealt with) and, in the most extreme cases, vigilante justice.
Are those consequences enough to outweigh the potential problems with this kind of revelation? It’s a question that I don’t know the answer to. So, rather than trying to answer it, I will instead leave you with the words of the famous writer Oscar Wilde: “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”