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How the #CNNBlackmail Scandal Exposed America's Dark Side

A Trump tweet, a CNN report, and online trolls exposed the ugly side of human nature. If everyone believes they're attacking for a purpose, eventually we will all become victims.
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These days, a single tweet can start a chain reaction that leads to an army of trolls unleashing harassment both online and sometimes, off it. It’s a bizarre yet hazardous part of our increasingly connected world, especially when the hoards are reacting to what they see as equally damaging behavior. So who decides who deserves anonymity? And what is the effect of public shaming?

Let’s first go through how the current scandal on #CNNBlackmail unfolded.

The debate playing out this week started with a tweet from President Trump of an edited wrestling video showing Trump body slamming WWE President Vince McMahon, except McMahon’s head is covered by a superimposed CNN logo. The content of the video created a backlash due to what many viewed as promoting violence towards journalists. CNN then tracked down the Reddit user HanAssholeSolo, who claimed to have created the video in question. According to the KFILE team that found the user and journalist Jared Yates Sexton, many of HanAssholeSolo’s other posts included racist, anti-semitic and violent comments. CNN says that the user posted an apology online after they tried to contact him, and that he later confirmed his identity to the network. The apology has since been deleted by the moderators of /The_Donald subreddit, but according to CNN a portion of it read:

The move by CNN that raised eyebrows was a line explaining why they maintained HanAssholeSolo’s anonymity.

Many interpreted the CNN note as a doxxing threat, presuming that the network’s decision to keep HanAssholeSolo's real name private was contingent on his future behavior. Andrew Kaczynski, the CNN reporter who wrote the article, responded by explaining that the line was misconstrued.

CNN also released a statement, standing by their approach.

The damage however, has been done. Now, a conglomerate of groups are outraged. Andrew Aurenheimer, the hacker known as “Weev” is encouraging others to go after the CNN team if the network doesn’t fire Kaczynski and acquiesce to other demands. In a post on The Daily Stormer, Aurenheimer writes:

Alt-right commentator Mike Cernovich claimed that a protest was planned in front of Kaczynski’s house, and another journalist who pointed out HanAssholeSolo’s history of offensive posts is apparently receiving death threats.

Trying to follow this chronology is a scary exhibit of how quickly online disagreement can descend into dark territory. No news organization should toy with blackmail. CNN disputes that it did, but the language used does deserve scrutiny. On the other hand, no reporters deserve to have their families or lives threatened either.

Does HanAssholeSolo deserve privacy? Some argue that he shouldn’t have the privilege based on his offensive posts. Should we judge based on content though? Where do we draw the line between those using anonymity as a needed protection for self expression, and those taking advantage of it? 

Public shaming isn’t the answer either. People say ugly things, and they make mistakes. Does that mean their words should follow them wherever they go? Does it give others license to harass them in return? And does it even mean they'll stop? As a female journalist with an online presence, I get plenty of creepy and offensive comments directed my way by people who are willing to use their names. 

Hate begets hate. The concept is simple, and doesn't need anonymity to be realized. Maybe what we should really debate are whether or not reactive measures do anything to further a cause. If everyone believes they're attacking for a purpose, eventually we will all become victims.