We should be able to distinguish someone participating in the political system from someone who uses anonymity to viciously target people.
The issue of anonymity on the Internet is in the news because of CNN’s decision to protect the identity of the man who created a GIF of Donald Trump pummeling a CNN logo. This man, who went by the user name “HanA**holeSolo,” was a prolific poster of racist content online. One posting showed all the Jewish reporters at CNN with the Star of David next to them, with a caption complaining there were too many Jews in the media.
When a CNN reporter made contact with “HanA**holeSolo,” he essentially begged CNN to not publicly identify him because he would suffer repercussions for his actions. CNN obliged but reserved the right to share his identity if he continued to post his ugly content.
The Internet exploded, Jonathan Turley accused CNN of being a “censor” and other commentators argued that by merely reserving to right to expose this man’s identity, CNN was violating his free speech rights.
Where to start?
You would be hard pressed to find someone who cares more about free speech than I do. I wrote a book about it, in fact. A book that led the New Yorker to characterize me as a “speech nut.” Which I am.
The fact is, this man was free to post whatever he wanted; he was not “censored” as Turley claims, any more than I will have been “censored” when I get attacked by the alt-right for writing this column. This man’s speech was completely free of any restrictions. What his defenders are objecting to is him being accountable for what he wrote and posted. Holding a person accountable for what they say is not a violation of their free speech, unless the entity doing it is the government.
There are consequences to our speech. If a person wants to be in good standing in society, then they perhaps should not post racist garbage on the Internet for fun. We are not obligated to protect a person’s identity so they can spread and foment racial hatred. They should take the hood off and own their behavior. Their targets do not have the luxury of being anonymous, after all. So why should they?
I do not speak for CNN, nor do I know what thinking went into protecting this man’s identity or reserving the right to release it. What I can say is that if I ran a company and someone posted pictures of my Jewish employees in a way that was meant to incite anti-Semitic rancor, and I found out who this person was, you can be sure that I would extract promises that they would cease and desist from this kind of behavior. If releasing their identity was my only leverage, I would use it.
It’s true that the term “racist” has been stretched beyond its natural meaning by some on the Left who use it as a cudgel to delegitimize any conservative they disagree with. But it’s also true that some things are undeniably racist and threatening, and we shouldn’t pretend that it’s such a gray area that we can never condemn or hold someone accountable for racist behavior.
It’s also true that because of their jobs, some people can only participate in online discussion about politics anonymously. We don’t want to discourage that. But in a mature society, we should be able to distinguish the person trying to be a participant in the political system from a person who uses their anonymity to viciously target and attack people based on their race or religion.
I initially disagreed with CNN’s decision to withhold the identity of this person because he was part of a major news story, and private citizens end up being reported on in news stories every day, whether they like it or not. The concern here is that this person’s life would be destroyed if people knew what he was doing. But what about the people he routinely dehumanizes and degrades online? What about how he feeds racist trolls with content to fuel their hatred of people of color or Jews? How on earth is this man the victim in this story?
The only defense I can see for protecting his identity is that CNN believed it might jeopardize his physical safety. If this is true, then they made the right decision.
POLICING THE USA: A look at race, justice, media
Yet, the same people who believe merely printing this man’s name would have been some sort of atrocity are tweeting at me that they are going to spread my home address and my parents’ home address on social media. One enraged defender of this man told me on Twitter that if I “outed” anyone who sent me misogynist attacks online, I might end up being beheaded. Another defender has been tweeting out the home addresses and phone numbers of CNN reporters even though CNN has protected the identity of HanAssholeSolo
Naturally, these all are coming from anonymous accounts.
Kirsten Powers, author of The Silencing: How the Left is Killing Free Speech, writes often for USA TODAY. Previously she worked for Fox News and is now an analyst for CNN. Follow her on Twitter @KirstenPowers.