The infamous activist hacking group Anonymous is set to release the identities of up to 1,000 Ku Klux Klan members on Nov. 5. Anonymous has hinted that many of them are in law enforcement. The hacktivist group did the same thing on a smaller scale after the protests of Ferguson, Mo., showing a disturbing number of KKK members hidden in Missouri’s police infrastructure.
Unfortunately, Anonymous was pre-empted a few days earlier. A mysterious data dump on Pastebin suddenly went viral. It claimed that four sitting US Senators and five mayors are associated with the KKK. An accompanying Twitter post by user Amped Attacks was released. The claim started going viral and alternative media outlets scrambled to post the names of the senators and mayors associated.
Yet the data dump contained no evidence. It simply listed names and associations. There was no provenance to the claims.
This didn’t fit Anonymous’ m.o. at all. Typically, the hacktivist group releases information with a tremendous amount of supporting evidence. Anonymous has often worked with a journalistic integrity in mind. Photos culled from private Facebook groups, banking connections, hacked private networks, and elaborately unfolded data trails; this is typically how Anonymous has made these reveals.
A simple list of names with no evidence, from a user with no provable connection to Anonymous? That should have given every single news organization pause. Larger networks sat on the data dump without knowing where it really came from. Even newspapers like the USA Today posted a story about the dump, but refused to cite any of those names listed and detailed the claim’s questionable origins. Yet alternative media sources (U.S. Uncut, Alternet, Daily Kos, and Salon) all initially posted the story as fact.
Denials from the politicians named started mounting, including Mayor Madeline Rogero of Knoxville, Tenn. Hers was an exceptionally strange name to be on such a list for several reasons: she’s a liberal Democrat with a record of promoting racial justice all the way back to working with Cesar Chavez in promoting Mexican farm workers’ rights. She was also the only mayor in Tennessee who signed the nationally-circulated mayors’ amicus brief in support of marriage equality.
Anonymous itself was quick to deny any connection to the Pastebin dump. Anonymous member Anon6K told TakePart: “That list was not released by us. And me and my team do not believe she [Rogero] is a member of the KKK.” He later tweeted, “This account has NOT YET released any information. We believe in due diligence and will NOT recklessly involve innocent individuals. #OpKKK.”
Even if the Pastebin information is accurate, which is a leap of logic in itself, it’s not proof of anything beyond being signed up for a newsletter. Gizmodo spoke to one of the individuals named, Patricia Aiken. She runs a consulting firm for law enforcement unions. She believes she was signed up on a KKK e-mail list by former jail employee Kirk Eady, who has since been arrested for wiretapping Aiken and others. Eady has already been linked to signing union representative Daniel Murray up as well.
The biggest scandal here is how this many alternative media outlets were so thoroughly hijacked on the strength of a posting on Pastebin and a tweet from an unconfirmed source. There was no recognition that the style of the data dump fell well outside of Anonymous’ methods. There was no vetting of the information. There was no demand for evidence. There was, in essence, no journalistic integrity at play. That becomes dangerous because it risks real people’s lives getting ruined.
Whether Amped Attacks wanted to steal some of the group’s fame, prank the news networks, launch a smear campaign against politicians, or discredit the information Anonymous itself is about to release is unclear.
If it’s for fame, they’ve succeeded, if only for a few hours Monday morning. If they wanted to prank the major news networks, they failed. Major networks typically sit on information like this until the information is thoroughly vetted. This is partly out of journalistic integrity, and partly out of wanting to avoid burning any bridges before they have to. Given that there wasn’t any information to vet beyond an unsubstantiated claim by someone they weren’t even sure was part of Anonymous, there wasn’t anything for them to actually report.
Only alternative media outlets fell for it. Operations like U.S. Uncut and Salon were taken in hook, line, and sinker. They may even be legally exposed at this point to individuals who wish to sue. This reveals the weakness in many alternative news media operations: a lack of resources and training to properly vet incoming material.
If the intent was to smear conservative politicians, it may end up doing more harm to liberals. The only voters who might be convinced without proof are those whose vote was never in question. Typically, negative campaigning is understood to have an equal and opposite reaction; it’s more of a fundraising stratagem than a campaign tactic. It has little real effect on polls themselves. As a smear campaign, the claims here will have little effect but to further polarize voters who are already firmly entrenched in their beliefs. Given the fraudulent nature of the initial story, it may even drive more additional conservatives to the polls than liberals.
The only thing this effectively does is make it more difficult for Anonymous to transmit its message through its upcoming Operation KKK program. The ground where they might have planted their claims is now salted. News networks that seek to defend law enforcement’s KKK ties will be able to create a narrative that questions the accuracy of Anonymous’ entire doxxing campaign. Even mainstream networks may now pose Operation KKK as a smear campaign, something political rather than informational. Anyone named on Nov. 5, no matter how much evidence Anonymous itself dumps, can fall back on a narrative of political targeting.
That’s the only real effect the efforts of Amped Attacks and the failure of alternative media outlets has had. Their job is to question mainstream journalism, not to throw out journalistic practices altogether. They’ve only harmed the causes they seek to boost.