A Look At Social Media's Dark Political Underbelly

Anonymity online protects sometimes, and does grave harm in other cases. How do we strike a balance?

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The emerging story of @NatSecWonk and his anonymous activities online is painting a very dark picture of both motive and opportunity for people to use social media for their own ends - political or otherwise - without much attention to personal responsibility or even national security. Ryan Lizza asked an important question in this segment when he asked, "Does someone who works in the government have the right to just vent on Twitter? Is there a right to just be out there and say what you want anonymously?"

It's a great question, and one that shouldn't be limited to those inside government. The rise of unmoderated social media has led to what I consider an abuse of free speech which in some cases, crosses a line and is most definitely not simply a matter of venting.

Running through Jofi Joseph's tweets, one finds everything from snark to rudeness. But what comes through loud and clear is a deep dislike of Hillary Clinton, which gave some ammunition to right-wing bloggers. A selection:

@NatSecWonk 7 Oct But whoever it is, he/she makes a good point. The more one looks under hood, the more you realize that HRC had few policy goals and no wins.

NatSecWonk @NatSecWonk 7 Oct Anonymous State official who slammed HRC for absence from Middle East? It's either Frank Lowenstein or David Wade.

NatSecWonk @NatSecWonk 2 Sep Solid piece by @WSJSolomon highlights how Kerry is so much more willing to go to the mat than HRC, who was almost paralyzed by caution.

NatSecWonk @NatSecWonk 14 Aug Hey reporters - shouldn't someone investigate how Cheryl Mills is still an employee at @statedept while she is an active gatekeeper for HRC?

NatSecWonk @NatSecWonk 25 Sep 12 Does anyone ask why Hillary Clinton relies on a young wunderkid as her foreign policy alter ego? When will press write about Jake Sullivan?

While he was caustic with right wing journalists, he also handed them some key talking points, like reinforcement for their Benghazi nonsense.

NatSecWonk @NatSecWonk 15 Sep @EricDKoch Look, Issa is an ass, but he's on to something here with the @HillaryClinton whitewash of accountability for Benghazi.

And in April, 2013 he originated the "Obama administration incoherent Syria policy":

NatSecWonk @NatSecWonk 28 Apr Credit where credit due to @slaughteram for a strong op-ed today calling out the White House for an increasingly incoherent Syria policy.

Anne-Marie Slaughter's article did not use the term "incoherent." But Jofi Joseph did, and the wingers saved that one for early September, when they used it to great media advantage.

It can be argued that he was just exercising his right to free speech. At least, until you see how horrible he was to women. I'm no fan of Jennifer Rubin, but he was just downright nasty and rude when it came to her:

NatSecWonk @NatSecWonk 7 Apr A make out scene between overweight @liz_cheney and grotesque @jrubinblooger? #worstlesbianpornmoviesceneever

NatSecWonk @NatSecWonk 13 Mar So @marcorubio should be careful -- @jrubinblogger wants to give him the blowjob she hoped to give Romney last year: wapo.st/Z3Ps1C

NatSecWonk @NatSecWonk 24 Feb I feel sorry for the husband of @jrubinblogger He has to have sex with her every five years.

NatSecWonk @NatSecWonk 15 Jan #Protip: Never has there been such a lethal combination of wanton stupidity and hideous looks as in the case of @jrubinblogger

Rubin's hackery is legend. But it stands on its own, without the nasty attacks on her looks, her weight, and just about everything about her.

What Jofi Joseph did was mild in comparison to what others endure

In August, a British lawmaker and a feminist campaigner were harassed to the point where criminal charges were brought against their online tormentors.

Then there is the story of the female science bloggers who were harassed and demeaned online and Scientific American's lame response to that.

It isn't just women, either. Twitter is routinely used by the right to harass, defame, libel and bully liberals into silence. Michelle Malkin's Twitchy site is nothing more than an online gang gathering site to Google-bomb their targets.

The targets aren't dead; they're fighting

Now one target is striking back. Brett Kimberlin has filed a RICO suit against a group of wingers, including Andrew Breitbart's estate, Glenn Beck, Michelle Malkin, James O'Keefe and their cadre of special online friends who have been engaging in systematic harassment and character assassination. In this case, wingers are claiming as fact that Kimberlin SWATted them, with absolutely no evidence and without bothering to contact him for comment.

Wingers being wingers, it seems they needed a bogeyman for fundraising. It didn't hurt that Kimberlin was actively pursuing voters' rights protection via a non-profit he was managing, and also calling for the resignation of Justice Clarence Thomas. His activism in these areas both threatened them and offered a fundraising opportunity. So they began to tweet threats in relation to a lawsuit that was pending:

  • I'll be bringing the straw for you. It's now not a matter of if.Brett Kimberlin, neck broken by 110lbs Female Marine.
  • Brett Kimberlin is done....... the hunter is the hunted We know who you are. We're coming for you. You will pay.
  • I don't get intimidated & get on my bad side & you'll get the full wrath. Not just from but. (sic) I have my own. The extreme wing of the TP has arrived.
  • This message is for Mr. K. It would not suit the best interests of all people involved in your movement to shut the F&*K up & that includes you.
  • If Brett does not start to act like a grown up and quit calling the police on people like a little punk. There will be hell to pay.
  • Army Of Davids sent a message. Don't show up in court Tuesday or you are dead. This is your only warning.

From there, Breitbots jumped on the bandwagon and began to echo -- as FACT -- that Kimberlin was in fact responsible for the SWATtings. Kimberlin was an easy target, because he has a past criminal history that includes a conviction for bombing, for which he has served his sentence in jail. However, one's past does not define one's present. That didn't stop this gang from hammering on and on and on about how Kimberlin was responsible for endangering LA Assistant District Attorney Patrick Frey, Aaron Walker, the creator of the Islamophobic "Everyone Draw Mohammed" website, and Fox contributor Erick Erickson.

In June, 2012 they ramped up the echo chamber and rolled out the blog posts. Twitchy jumped right in to create the right-wing libel chamber alongside the likes of racist hater Robert Stacy McCain and our favorite Los Angeles prosecutor.

There are 51 pages in that lawsuit with example after example of wingers using social media not just as a smear machine, but an outright gang effort to destroy another person and his family. These are not wingers even being smart about what they say. They're as dumb as Jofi Joseph was, because they think the first amendment protects them from false claims. Here's one from July, where they have now pivoted to their claim as FACT that Kimberlin is a pedophile with no evidence and no reason other than to create a fundraising juggernaut:

I don't write any of this with an intention to hold blog court, nor is this post intended to take up the cause of justice for Brett Kimberlin. That's the province of Popehat and his gang of libertarian lawyers. The court will decide this case, and as part of that decision they'll have to decide what constitutes free speech and what does not.

But the larger question here is how to balance the benefit of social media for all kinds of speech -- from political to scientific to personal -- against the very real damage that anonymous people can do to others' reputations and lives online.

It isn't just Twitter. We see it in anonymous blog comments later shown to be astroturfed Fox employees, in Facebook posts and accounts, and even from high-level national security officials. At some point there has to be a line drawn between anonymous free speech and destructive speech which does not intend to express an opinion as much as it intends to destroy a target.

Where is that line?

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