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(Updated) Nieman Lab editor issues statement regarding Temple University professor “doxxing”

Update 4:12pm: Josh has issued a detailed statement on Twitter acknowledging and regretting the error.  Moving ahead Temple still has a difficult situation to resolve as the comments were quite distasteful. I am glad to see the issue put to rest as although I think we as a community need to doggedly protect user trust & privacy, I am at the end of the day still a very loyal and appreciative reader of the Lab’s coverage.


In the style of many digital editors who seem to spend most of their day trawling the shallow waters of Twitter, Nieman Lab editor Josh Benton has a prolific account that spans all matter of topics.

On Friday evening around 9:00pm, Josh began tweeting about a user “truthseeker” who had commented on a Lab article:

Nieman Lab uses Disqus, a popular commenting service. Disqus accounts can be used on multiple websites. An email is required to create a Disqus account and as site administrator Josh has access to this information.

Email addresses count as Personal Identifiable Information. The Disqus Terms of Service allow use of this information by Disqus but does not grant use to publishers. The Nieman Lab does not have a self-standing privacy policy so I believe it would inherit Harvard’s Privacy Statement, which states explicitly:

We will not share, sell, rent, swap, or authorize any third party to use your email address for commercial purposes without your permission. 

Many services obscure the email address wherever possible, especially when the data will travel over public HTTP connections. Automattic’s Gravatar service, for instance, will use an MD5 hash to encrypt email addresses before being sent to a remote server.

Disqus has clarified their own policy on support forums, with a moderator stating explicitly:

Your email address is always visible to moderators of Engage sites when commenting. However they cannot use it for any purpose other than moderation. Adding you to any sort of mailing list or contacting you directly is against the Terms of Service and often illegal, too.
No one else can see it. Not even moderators of Channels.

Disqus Community Moderator Kandric

While Josh did not disclose the email address, he used it to gather additional Personal Identifiable Information to complete his tweetstorm. Was Josh acting as a journalist with these tweets? Or was he an annoyed adult man sitting at home with a cocktail in hand, abusing his power?

If Josh had approached this issue as a journalist, the public tweets would likely not be part of his reporting. As Politico journalist Jon McClure commented to Benton:

Outside of Jon and myself the journalism community has been wholly silent on this matter. Moral leadership is coming from lightning rods like Mike Cernovich.

If the story had been approached as journalism, I can’t understand the chosen approach. This wasn’t framed as a larger story regarding the issue of rejecting a news source based on what they reported. Rather, it was a personalized and punitive attempt to shame a user based on what should have been privileged information. Consider other scenarios: a Jewish forum where someone with Pro-Palestinian sentiments is exposed, or a community message board in a locale where homosexuality remains stigmatized and gay people are identified to be shamed.

Josh is ultimately an employee of Harvard University, which houses the Nieman Foundation. Josh has no previous experience as a publisher, having peaked in the professional world as a columnist and staff writer. Yet Harvard and Ann Marie Lipinski have endorsed his behavior through their silence. 

Philly.com’s Rob Tornoe followed up the story on Monday and quoted the Temple professor, Francesca Viola, as accusing Benton of the doxxing and “his flagrant violation of the Twitter, Disqus, Nieman and Harvard’s terms of service, the apparent violation of the Consumer Fraud and Abuse Act.”

Temple Dean David Boardman offered no comment on Benton’s use of the privileged information, saying simply they were looking into the matter and they respected Viola’s constitutionally protected right to free speech.

Tornoe asked Benton about the doxxing allegations and I found his response tepid, dishonest, and unconvincing.

“Ms. Viola voluntarily logged into a commenting service and left a comment on our site using her Temple email address. All I did was click one link to see all the other comments she had posted using her Temple email address.”

Benton’s defense of why it wasn’t doxxing

Benton glibly glosses over the fact that the “link” was privileged to him as an administrator. Not every user could do the same. He was acting as publisher even if not aware of the mantle. Benton has no experience as a publisher. If he had at one time occupied a leadership position at a news outlet, I expect this whole conflagration would have gone done differently. I am disappointed that the journalism community seems silent on this issue. I don’t think it’s because we disagree on ethics; I feel my principles are commonsense and could be explained to any man on the street.

We as journalists must hold ourselves to the same standards as those we cover. It’s critical for holding the public trust. At this point the only thing Benton can do to regain my trust is issue a mea culpa acknowledging he understands what line he crossed.

Correction 8:20am: A previous version of this post misstated the date of the initial tweets, which were Friday May 4, not Saturday May 4 as noted originally.

Update 8:20am: On Twitter, I had a conversation with Aram regarding the tone of this post, which I admit is more gruff and personal than perhaps it should have been.

Aram wisely commented that my use of inebriation and incompetence as excuses was insulting and actually beneath Josh, who we should expect to have a higher degree of familiarity with doxxing due to his leadership of the Nieman Lab.

Aram also noted that my sleight of Josh for not holding an editor or publisher role in a news company was made in ignorance of the fact that many journalists hold the Nieman Lab in very high esteem, and indeed I do, too. I have excerpt some more of Aram’s tweets here.

Regarding Nieman Lab’s previous coverage of doxxing, there was not as much content as Aram suspected, but they had published at least one post (How to protect yourself from doxxing — and what to do if it happens anyway) on the subject based on a complementary Nieman Report. This coverage focused more on SWAT-style dox attacks than the incidental exposure of personal information that is the more commonplace type of doxxing on the web.

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