But this activity raises complex ethical and practical questions. How can you, an ordinary person, be an ethical digital activist? What matters if you go too far? How can you protect yourself? How can you participate in a way that does not put anyone at risk? Here are some tips that might help you.
Remember you are not a hacker: There is a big difference between accessing publicly available information, like a photo from a Facebook profile page that documents illegal activity, and hacking into someone’s otherwise private account to find that photo. In the United States, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) restricts a person’s access to other people’s information “without authorization”, which is not defined; this lack of clarity has frustrated lawyers who represent activists. “Those who do [violate CFAA] break the law and they are criminals, ”says Max Aliapoulios, doctoral student and cybersecurity researcher at New York University. Regional laws should also be kept in mind. In the European Union, “publicly identifying a person necessarily means processing personally identifiable information; therefore, people performing such activities need a legal basis to do so [under Article 6 of the GDPR]Says Ulf Buermeyer, founder and legal director of Freiheitsrechte, a civil rights organization based in Germany.
Ethical issues abound: Amateur online investigators should be aware of the legal issues. Much of the online activity in the wake of the Capitol Riots also raises ethical questions. A person who did not storm the Capitol but who attended the rallies leading up to the riots should be identified and risk Punishment at work? Do those who were in and around the Capitol on January 6 automatically lose the right to privacy even if they were not involved in riots? It’s worth thinking about what you think of some of these questions before continuing. Few are clearly defined.
So where does the information come from? “Our bread and butter are open source,” says Fiorella. “Open source media” refers to information that is publicly available for use. Data archivists, or those who collect and hold information online for historical purposes, accessed this open-source data to save posts before they disappeared as social media companies pushed President Donald Trump and many of its supporters outside their platforms. “If you were on Capitol Hill storming and recording video and taking selfies that anyone can access, and it’s openly available on the internet, that’s a fair game,” says Fiorella.
It is your First Amendment right to access open-source information. Hacktivists and digital activists who browse social media will agree – they say it’s the most important aspect of their job. “Using open source intelligence is not a crime,” says Daly Barnett, activist and staff technologist for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights group. “Archiving is not a crime. Freedom of information is good. “
Bad identification is a real danger. “Anyone with an internet connection, free time, and the willingness to do these things can be part of the crowdsourcing efforts to clarify what happened,” says Fiorella. But crowdsourcing efforts can be problematic, because people can focus on the wrong person. “There is a fundamental tension here,” says Emmi Bevensee, researcher and founder of Social media analysis toolkit, an open source tool that tracks trends across mainstream and fringe social media platforms. “The more people you have working on a problem, the more likely you are to find the needle in the haystack. However, there is a risk of doing things like this. Not everyone has the same research skills or the same methodological responsibility ”- and mistakes can be devastating for the misidentified person. Misidentification also carries potential legal risks.
You can join more established investigators instead of going it alone. There is, of course, the FBI, which collected the footage and is ask the public for help to identify national terrorists. Bellingcat, one of the most respected and in-depth survey sites devoted to this goal, has created a Google Spreadsheet for images of suspects to be identified. Organizations also often have ethical standards in place to guide new detectors, such as that one Bellingcat created in light of the Black Lives Matters protests.
Don’t do a doxx. Doxxing – or digging up personal information and sharing it publicly – is illegal. “The majority of the doxxing has taken place from open-source intelligence,” Barnett says, and data hygiene is still an issue that many people online are grappling with. If you come across passwords, addresses, phone numbers, or any similar ID, don’t share it – it’s a crime to do so. r / Datahoarder, a Reddit archive group, notes that its members “do NOT support witch hunt. ”
If you find something online that could be incriminating, ask, “Am I putting this person in danger?” Fiorella says he asks himself this question consistently, especially in cases where a person may have few followers and uses social media only to share images with friends.
Show your methodology. Just like in college math class, show off your work and how you achieved your results. The data researchers who do this work are renowned for their diligence and thoroughness in the way they record their work and triple-check their information. This type of verification is especially important to ensure that people are correctly identified and that others can learn and retrace your steps for further prosecution. (The methodology may require some technical expertise in some cases, and data research organizations often run workshops and training sessions to help people learn how to do this.)
Don’t share names online. Let’s say you see a photo of a potential suspect online and recognize who it is. Even though you might be tempted to tag the person or capture the image and comment on your Instagram to get that addicting stream of likes, don’t. This work must be deliberate and slow, says Fiorella: “There is a risk of misidentifying a person and causing harm.” While there is no doubt that you understand who a person is, withhold and, as much as possible, submit your information to an organization like Bellingcat or the FBI to verify your work and make sure it is correct.
You will come across situations where things are not clear. Theo shared the story of the viral video in which a black woman from Los Angeles is physically attacked by Trump supporters calling her the n-word. In the video, a man is seen with his arms around the woman amid the violent and mocking crowd. In initial reports, the man was described as part of the crowd and injuring the woman. Video footage appeared to show him putting her on the trail of pepper spray, for example. Then police said the man was in fact trying to protect the woman and that they had confirmed this version of events, although they later suggested to BuzzFeed that he may have ended up doing as much harm as good. Theo shared the image of the man in the aftermath of the incident, then saw the account suggesting he was a Good Samaritan. “I felt awful,” he says. Theo points out that the man was also recorded using xenophobic and racist language, but “it got me to take a little break and think about what I’m doing that might impact people,” says- he. “It’s a fuzzy line.” It doesn’t hurt to say it again: don’t share names online.
Your safety may be at risk. Theo says he received death threats and felt insecure last week, constantly looking over his shoulder if he comes out. Bevensee has received several death threats. Many digital activists have back-up burner phones and computers and work away from their families to protect them.
Keep your sanity in mind. This work may involve viewing violent images. Theo says he’s struggled with migraines, sleep issues, paranoia, and the distress that comes with trying to keep up with his daily work while managing his Instagram accounts and sister Twitter account, @OutTerrorists. “I’m just one person, and I have to manage the DMs and keep everything up to date,” he says, noting that he also updates messages with verified FBI IDs, goes through comments and forwards information to the FBI itself. Take some time to think things through and realize that it’s okay to feel upset. It’s one thing to use this as a motivation to right the wrongs of the world, but almost every pundit and activist has told me it’s important to have a way to deal with disturbing images.
Share your information with law enforcement, if appropriate. Bevensee and Aliapoulios said the digital activism movement was a direct response to the perceived lack of official action. Many activists have a strong distrust of American law enforcement, pointing to the difference between the way the rioters on Capitol Hill and the Black Lives Matter protesters were treated. But in the case of the insurgency, which brings federal charges, experts and activists agree the right thing to do is to report information to authorities.