Beyond Anonymity: The Harrowing Reality of Doxing and Its Implications

woman using laptop
Photo by Sergey Zolkin on Unspalsh

What is doxxing? 

Doxing (or doxxing) is the intentional online exposure of an individual’s identity, private information or personal details without their consent. (Doxing | ESafety Commissioner, 2020)

The term “doxxing” originates from the phrase “dropping documents,” which emerged from hacker culture in the 1990s. It was used when individuals sought revenge by exposing someone’s identity, removing their anonymity. (Douglas, 2016). The purpose of doxing is often to harass, intimidate, or harm the individual whose information is being exposed. It can also be used as a form of retaliation or to encourage others to target the person. Doxing is a serious invasion of privacy and can have significant real-life consequences for the victim, including stalking, harassment, identity theft, or even physical harm.


This is the case study I want to delve into – the backdrop for Brianna Wu’s initial statements is the Gamergate movement, which took aim primarily at women in the gaming and developer community. The toxic technoculture of Reddit’s ‘geek’ community targeted women like Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian, and Brianna Wu, subjecting them to death and rape threats, hacking their online accounts, and causing immense distress (Eckert & Metzger-Riftkin, 2020).

To comprehend why such incidents occurred on platforms like Reddit, we need to examine its culture. Reddit operates on user-generated content, with topics categorized into niche subreddits. Users post under pseudonyms, fostering a different environment from social media platforms where real names prevail. These pseudonyms are intended to promote playful and candid interactions online (Massanari, 2016). However, the subreddit culture often allows geeks and individuals with specific interests to dominate these spaces, leading to the harassment and expulsion of those with differing views, akin to an autocratic system.

The problem arises when Reddit relies on community moderation and unpaid volunteers to oversee subreddits, resulting in questionable actions like doxxing and revenge porn posts.

This sets the stage for the Gamergate controversy within Reddit’s gaming community. Already, there’s a culture of objectifying and sexualizing women, primarily driven by male members who may struggle with real-life interactions with women. Some resort to toxic behavior, especially when confronted by women gamers or resentful of their success in gaming communities or the game development industry. Such toxic behaviors include showering these women with abuse and dismissing their achievements, attributing their success to sexual favors.

Leveraging their technological prowess, these individuals exploit Reddit’s lax moderation policies to target women in these subreddits. This is how the Gamergate incident unfolded, sprawling into a hashtag movement across platforms like Reddit, Twitter, and 4chan, where numerous women were targeted under the banner of #Gamergate (Massanari, 2016). They were subjected to smear campaigns and had their personal information exposed online, leading to real-life consequences such as stalking and harassment. Many were forced to endure a constant barrage of abusive messages and death threats, causing significant emotional distress and fear for their safety. Despite the immense pressure, some like Brianna Wu, spoke out against the harassment, advocating for safer online spaces and highlighting the urgent need to address systemic misogyny within the gaming community and beyond. However, the impact of Gamergate continues to linger, with its victims often grappling with lasting psychological scars and ongoing online abuse.

In response to incidents like Gamergate, Reddit has revised its policies to crack down on trolling, ban revenge porn, and prevent doxxing (Pao, 2015).

“For our purposes, we might readily recalibrate this notion of the virtualisation of violence to account for how violence has been virtualized, first through language, then through writing, and then later, again, through digitisation.” (Anderson & Wood, 2022)

Why is it so scary? 

First, it directly violates a person’s privacy by revealing things like their address or phone number. This can lead to dangerous situations where someone might get hurt or harassed. It can also make it easier for criminals to steal a person’s identity and do bad things in their name. Secondly, it can indirectly harm a person by making them feel unsafe and worried about their future. They might lose friends or even their job because of the information shared about them. It can also cost them a lot of money to fix the problems caused by the doxxing. (Anderson & Wood, 2022)

Swatting is a more extreme version of doxxing. Swatting is a dangerous criminal hoax where a false report is made to police with the intent of luring them to a location, typically involving claims of a serious crime such as a mass shooting or hostage situation. An extreme example occurred when Andrew Finch was killed by police after a group of online gamers falsely reported a violent incident at his residence, resulting in a tragic misunderstanding and fatal consequences.(Campbell, 2024)

How prevalent is doxxing?

Reddit has taken significant steps to crack down on doxxing by implementing policies against the sharing of personal information without consent. However, platforms like 4chan and 8chan operate differently, allowing users to post anonymously without the need for an account. These platforms, often characterized by their minimal moderation and emphasis on free speech, have become known for hosting controversial and sometimes harmful content. Additionally, services like Pastebin provide a platform for users to anonymously share text online, making it easy for individuals to disseminate sensitive information, including personal data, without accountability. The anonymous nature of these platforms can contribute to the spread of doxxing incidents, as perpetrators may feel emboldened by the lack of consequences for their actions.

Out of 1,737,887 posts scraped from, and over a two week period 5,530 were identified as doxxing posts. (Snyder et al., 2017). “464 of them were manually labeled with one or more of the following sensitive information such as credit card details, personal information, or addresses. (See Table 1)

Table 1. Counts of the number and percentage of dox files that contain different categories of demographic information (Snyder et al., 2017)

Motivation for doxxing

According to Snyder et al. the four general motivations for doxxing identified are as follows:

1. Competitive motivation: Some doxxers aim to demonstrate their skills or superiority by targeting individuals who claim to be un-doxable or invulnerable.

2. Revenge: Doxxers may seek revenge against individuals who have wronged them in some way, such as stealing a significant other or being perceived as seeking attention online.

3. Justice: Doxxers may target individuals who they believe have acted immorally or unfairly towards others, even if the harm was not directed at the doxxer personally. This differs from revenge, as it involves avenging harm done to third parties.

4. Political motivation: Some doxxers engage in doxxing to support larger causes or goals beyond targeting individuals directly. This may involve exposing members of organizations like the KKK or suspected child pornography groups, or individuals working in industries perceived as abusive to animals.

    Some even dox for financial gain offering doxxing as a professional service for as low $5. They compile personal information about the requested target and post them on online platforms that allow anonymous posting and do not proactively remove these posts (Snyder et al., 2017)

    Ethical doxxing or criminal offense?

    The doxxing of a Jewish WhatsApp group, where the chat logs were leaked caused shock and disbelief among many, with concerns about the targeting and harassment of people speaking out on Palestine. While some defended the group’s right to express their views, others emphasized the need to ensure safety and harmony within communities.(Taylor, 2024)

    The leakers claim they acted in the public interest because they believed the group was coordinating actions to target pro-Palestinian activists. The release included a transcript of chat discussions and a list of group members’ names, workplaces, and social media accounts. However, the absence of personal contact information raises questions about whether it meets the government’s definition of doxing (Copland, 2024) 

    Some argue it was whistleblowing because it revealed what they considered to be immoral activities. Additionally, the political nature of the chat suggests the leak was driven by political motives rather than malicious intent. Nevertheless, there were harms associated with the release, including harassment and death threats towards some group members. This raises concerns about the broader impact of banning doxing, as it could potentially criminalize legitimate acts of whistleblowing and political activism.

    Legal side of things

    Who bears the responsibility for safeguarding against doxxing? Should platforms be entrusted with moderating content in the public interest, or does the issue necessitate government intervention? This inquiry, as articulated by Terry Flew in his book “Regulating Platforms,” holds relevance in this discussion.

    In response to the doxxing of the whatsapp group, the Australian government has announced plans to criminalize doxxing. While existing laws already address cyberbullying and harassment, the proposed legislation aims to specifically target doxxing. Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus has indicated that the new laws will criminalize the disclosure of personal information for malicious intent, with potential penalties including jail time.(Singh, 2024)

    The U.K. introduced guidelines to prosecute doxxing incidents, while Germany’s “Facebook Act” fines social media platforms for not removing hate speech and illegal content quickly. The European Union also implemented the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) to give users more control over their personal data online including the right to be forgotten (Eckert & Metzger-Riftkin, 2020)

    In the U.S., there have been attempts to pass laws like the Online Safety Modernization Act to address online crimes affecting women and girls, including doxxing. However, progress has been slow.

    Interestingly, government entities themselves have been involved in doxxing incidents, such as when police release suspects’ photos on social media. In some extreme cases, like swatting, where despite warnings from authorities like the FBI, there is no federal law specifically prohibiting swatting.

    When seeking assistance from law enforcement or social media platforms, many victims felt ignored or dismissed. Even when they requested the removal of their personal information from websites, they often received no response or were met with automated messages. Social media platforms sometimes punished users who used pseudonyms for privacy, removing their accounts or declining their requests for removal of personal information. This reflects a larger issue of social media companies prioritizing the collection of personal data over user privacy and safety.(Eckert & Metzger-Riftkin, 2020)

    What steps can we take?

    With platforms often reluctant to act in combating doxxing and government regulations lagging behind, the responsibility to protect ourselves online falls on us. Here are some recommendations from the eSafety Commissioner’s website:

    1. Protecting Yourself Against Doxxing:

    – Review privacy settings on social media accounts to control who can access your shared content and personal information.

    – Utilize strong, unique passwords for each account and opt for challenging security questions.

    – Employ distinct usernames for various online accounts.

    – Enable secure authentication methods, including two-factor authentication where possible.

    – Be cautious about sharing personal details such as your address, workplace or school, and phone numbers.

    – Regularly search for yourself online in incognito mode to gauge the accessibility of your information.

    2. What to Do if You’re Doxxed:

    – Gather and safeguard evidence of the doxxing incident.

    – Report the doxxed material to the relevant social media platform. The eSafety Guide offers links for reporting on various popular platforms.

    – Block unwanted contact from perpetrators.

    – Seek additional support or assistance from eSafety, law enforcement, legal services, counseling, or support organizations.

    – Review and update your privacy and security settings regularly.


    Anderson, B., & Wood, M. A. (2022). Harm Imbrication and Virtualised Violence: Reconceptualising the Harms of Doxxing. International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy, 10(4).

    Campbell, J. (2024, January 14). High-profile political figures are the targets in the latest wave of “swatting” incidents. Why the trend is so alarming. CNN.

    Copland, S. (2024, February 15). The Jewish creatives’ WhatsApp leak was more whistleblowing than doxing. Here’s why. The Conversation.

    Douglas, D. M. (2016). Doxing: a conceptual analysis. Ethics and Information Technology, 18(3), 199–210.

    Doxing | eSafety Commissioner. (2020, May 23). ESafety Commissioner.

    Eckert, S., & Metzger-Riftkin, J. (2020, July 1). Doxxing, Privacy and Gendered Harassment: The Shock and Normalization of Veillance Cultures. | Medien & Kommunikationswissenschaft | EBSCOhost.

    Flew, T. (2021). Regulating Platforms. John Wiley & Sons.

    Massanari, A. (2016). #Gamergate and The Fappening: How Reddit’s algorithm, governance, and culture support toxic technocultures. New Media & Society, 19(3), 329–346.

    Pao, E. (2015, July 16). Former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao: The trolls are winning the battle for the Internet. The Washington Post.

    Singh, A. L.-A. (2024, March 1). Is Doxxing Illegal in Australia? Lexology.

    Snyder, P., Doerfler, P., Kanich, C., & McCoy, D. (2017). Fifteen minutes of unwanted fame. Proceedings of the 2017 Internet Measurement Conference.

    Taylor, J. (2024, February 9). Publication of Jewish creatives WhatsApp group led to death threats, MP says. The Guardian., B. (2015). Doxxed: Impact of online threats on women including private details being exposed and “swatting”. Plus Greg Lukianoff on balancing offence and free speech. Index on Censorship, 44(3), 46–49.

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