Over the weekend, the President of the United States tweeted out a GIF of himself in a professional wrestling arena attacking a person whose head was replaced with the logo of CNN.
From the moment he entered politics more than two years ago, Donald Trump has been feuding with the network for its mostly accurate coverage of his campaign and administration. But the tweet raised eyebrows for going a step further, seemingly endorsing physical violence against CNN reporters, or even journalists more broadly.
CNN itself reported on the tweet, and their K-File team—led by Andrew Kaczynski, who is among the best at plumbing archived or otherwise obscure corners of the internet in search of information—managed to uncover the person responsible for creating the original GIF.
In an article detailing how he came to discover the identity of the GIF’s creator—a Reddit user with a long history of sharing racist and anti-Semitic memes who goes by the name HanAssholeSolo—Kaczynski lays out some of the details of his sordid internet history.
One detail omitted was HanAssholeSolo’s real name. In a short paragraph, Kaczynski explains that CNN is withholding the name, along with other identifying information about this person, because he is a private citizen who demonstrated remorse by issuing an apology for his hateful postings.
But it’s the sentence that follows that has triggered a fresh round of public outcry: “CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change.”
On Reddit and elsewhere online, the reaction to CNN’s warning was swift. Within minutes, #CNNBlackmail was trending on Twitter, as Trump supporters and critics alike accused the network of threatening a private citizen with doxxing. The network itself was forced to respond.
The whole episode has shifted narrative focus away from the person behind the bigoted posts and toward a more complicated question: Should the media be in the habit of revealing the identities of otherwise private individuals responsible for public displays of bigotry?
First things first: Posting things online that you don’t want associated with your name—whether because they are stupid, racist, or just plain embarrassing—is generally not a great idea. Only the most careful of internet users can avoid detection by online sleuths, and there is no right to privacy if you are posting things publicly.
Secondly, racists, sexists, anti-Semites and other bigots are not entitled to anonymity just because they are private citizens. Most trolls aren’t as lucky as HanAssholeSolo: Their names are typically plastered across the internet, and quickly find themselves out of a job and unemployable by anyone with enough wherewithal to run a Google search on applicants. Employers—to say nothing of friends and family—arguably have a right to know about an individual’s judgment in widely sharing their personal beliefs online.
In his apology — which was pulled by moderators from the r/The_Donald subreddit where he originally posted it — HanAssholeSolo explained that his posts were “to get a reaction from the subs on reddit” and he “never meant any of the hateful things I said in those posts.” To anyone with prior experience unmasking online trolls, those words sound awfully familiar. A defining characteristic of the most vicious and relentless online trolls is cowardice when asked to take ownership of their words and actions.
However, CNN doesn’t exactly cast itself in the best light here, either. The optics of a multi-billion dollar corporation dangling a potentially damaging story over a private individual unless he cooperates is where the network runs into trouble. Were CNN to simply explain why it wasn’t publishing the identity of the user, without adding a caveat that the network “reserves the right” to change its mind later, this wouldn’t be a story. Then, if the internet at large had gone ahead and identified the person behind HanAssholeSolo, nobody would have batted an eye.
Ironically, the network might even have been on firmer ground had it just gone ahead and published HanAssholeSolo’s name in the first place. After all, few people would begrudge a serial racist to publicly suffer the consequences of his own actions. And it’s clear Trump’s loyal band of racists have no similar reservations about sharing private information. On Wednesday, a group of white supremacists released information about several CNN personalities, and threatened the children of CNN employees unless they fired Kaczynski.