The CNN/Reddit controversy got me thinking about anonymity, especially when it’s used for nefarious purposes. The controversy surrounds the creator of an animated GIF that President Donald Trump retweeted, which shows him beating up someone whose face is the CNN logo. Tired of being attacked by Trump and called “fake news,” CNN looked into the origins of the GIF and traced it back to a person with a history of anti-black, anti-Semitic posts on social bookmarking site reddit. Using a profane pseudonym, the user was identified by CNN. The network stated that they reserve the right to publish the middle-aged, anonymous man’s identity should he go back on his lengthy apology and resume his trolling ways. People were quick to accuse CNN of blackmail, and privacy advocates were concerned about the ramifications of news outlets outing online trolls.
The president has previously retweeted content from people with white supremacist views. Some of these white supremacists were anonymous, others were not. During his 2016 campaign, Trump shared an anti-Hillary Clinton graphic featuring the Jewish Star of David. Inside the Star of David were featured the words, “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!” The origin of that image was traced back to an anonymous anti-Semitic, white supremacist message board. The user who created the now-infamous anti-CNN GIF once posted an anti-Semitic image showing a roster of CNN reporters with the Star of David next to their portrait.
In SLO County, we’ve seen our share of anonymous online trolling, which often creeps into our political discourse. The activity I’ve seen and investigated is nothing short of bizarre.
In Oct. 2016, The Tribune reported that I filed a Fair Political Practices Commission against the anonymous group “Fire Adam Hill” for their ad spending. The group targeted District 3 Supervisor Adam Hill and his supporters during the contentious 2016 election and repeatedly refused to disclose their identities. The group boasted that they spent “thousands” in social media advertising with digital flyers, accusing Hill and private citizens of being criminals and paid to support the supervisor in his re-election bid. Many of their allegations originated from the website CalCoastNews (CCN) and their writers. One of the allegations, which appeared exclusively on CCN, claimed Hill was involved in a recent defamation lawsuit against them as part of a conspiracy to shut down the website. Allegations like those were advertised extensively on Facebook with reckless abandon with no evidence to substantiate their assertions. As of April 2017, the investigation remains ongoing.
CCN itself is a hotbed for acrimonious, extreme right-wing anonymity. For example, I’ve been repeatedly attacked by their anonymous users for criticizing their reporting practices. Anonymous users have attacked my family, relatives, friends and co-workers in various and extravagant ways. These comments were the byproduct of the website’s easily debunked false accusations about me. This is similar to what we’re seeing on the national level with Donald Trump attacking journalists and inspiring some of his hateful, anonymous supporters to escalate the conflict into harassment and death threats. Like many others who crossed CCN, I’ve received my fair share of harassment.
CCN staff have also played the anonymous game. In April, I revealed that the adult daughter of CCN co-founder Karen Velie, Cristin Powers, engaged in a potential phishing operation involving members of the SLO Progressives club while her and her mother published inflammatory, unsubstantiated claims about them. Some of these claims appeared published in verbatim by an anonymous Facebook account “Samantha Joan,” which continues to cycle baseless allegations about Supervisor Adam Hill and other local progressives on The Tribune. “Joan” is one of several accounts linked to Velie and her other daughter Summer Awbrey.
Evidence shows that Powers created a Facebook account, “Cris Powers” — which scrubbed any familial connection to CCN — and sent friend requests to hundreds of SLO Progressives members under the guise that she was a participating member of the club. Accepting a friend request from someone allows them to see potentially sensitive information posted on your Facebook newsfeed, including your personal photos and people you have on your friends list. After being alerted of her infiltration, SLO Progressives leadership revoked Powers’ access to club discussions.
Anonymity has been used as a tool in productive ways, from providing a voice for the voiceless to spurring regime change in countries with corrupt, authoritarian governments. Yet time and time again, we’ve seen anonymity being weaponized to foster limitless hostility that often ventures into criminal conduct. But when certain anonymous become part of the news, it’s hard to argue that they should be protected from being identified. Granting the anonymous a zone of protection is a privilege, not a right. Frankly, the right to be anonymous never existed.
The anonymous I’ve identified have all participated in public discussions on matters of public interest. Like it or not, they are interwoven into the fabric of newsworthy public discourse. Naturally, the question, “Who’s behind the mask?” is part of the conversation, and answering that question is well within the media’s right to do.