The ethics of online anonymity were back in the news this week, as the Washington Post caused uproar by publishing the real identity of the anonymous woman behind the popular and influential Libs Of TikTok Twitter account.
Much has been said in the ensuing 24 hours by outraged conservatives, about the hypocrisy of the article’s author, Taylor Lorenz, who recently and tearfully described the “severe PTSD” she experienced as a consequence of online harassment, and her own need to conceal all personal information online.
The Washington Post, meanwhile, defended the doxxing, arguing that Libs of TikTok is a sufficiently influential player in the political landscape that her identity is a matter of public interest.
And it’s true that the account has had a significant impact on US conservative politics since its inception a year ago. Christina Pushaw, press secretary to Florida governor Ron DeSantis, said the account “truly opened my eyes” to what LGBT campaigners call sex education and opponents call “grooming”. The outrage the account has generated in turn fanned the political flames that saw Florida’s so-called ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill passed into law.
But perhaps the lesson here is not really about consistent treatment of friends and enemies online (which no one really sticks to), or even the justice of exposing anonymous internet users to harassment you yourself have acknowledged to be unpleasant.
Libs of TikTok was, as Lorenz’s own article makes clear, exposed by the collaborative efforts of several progressive institutions. Why the concerted effort? Arguably the account’s principal crime was to aggregate online content according to a deprecated narrative.
Lorenz describes Libs of TikTok as “finding new characters for the right-wing outrage machine”. This is accurate, in the sense that the videos shared there do regularly go viral, but it’s the content itself which creates the outrage — content created by progressives themselves.
Judge for yourself, but to my eye the aggregate impression received from scrolling the account is that American primary schools are entirely staffed by twenty-something females with heavy ‘LGBTQ’ styling, all hellbent on pumping little children full of queer theory, no matter what their parents think.
This is doubtless not objectively the case, given the millions of teachers out there; but narratives can be powerful. Accordingly, progressives are increasingly and openly enthusiastic about shaping those available: another Washington Post writer, Max Boot, recently argued that “we need more content moderation, not less” in order “for democracy to survive”.
Along with propagating such a range of opinions, it’s fanned progressive calls for censorship because the sheer volume of internet content out there is so overwhelming that a great deal of internet-age journalism involves simple curation. That is, not reporting ‘out there’ in the material world but noticing patterns, collating content and providing minimal commentary. A curator compiles a narrative for those who don’t have the time or filtering skills to do so, and people who do this effectively can be significant players in real-world politics.
In this context, the offence committed by Libs of TikTok becomes clearer. The account didn’t so much create hateful content as violate the progressive consensus edict that its members alone may curate and narrate the internet, and thus shape real-world politics. For this, a private individual has had her identity exposed, potentially subjecting her to the attentions of all manner of eccentric and possibly vengeful individuals.
Somehow I doubt this will be the end of Libs of TikTok, who seems to have come back fighting. But her exposure represents an escalation in the war for who controls the stories that percolate out of the maelstrom of online discourse.