With threats to blacklist Trump supporters making headlines, Transparency USA has been getting questions about whether political donors can be “doxxed,” along with requests to remove donors’ names from our site.
It’s worth noting that doxxing doesn’t just happen on one side of the aisle. This fall, among other examples, celebrity rapper Cardi B reported that a Trump supporter posted her address online and called for her house to be burned.
So could you be doxxed? The short answer is yes, if you donate to a candidate or a political action committee (PAC), those donations are required by law to be reported to the government and made available to the public. That’s the law. But the practice of harassing private individuals by “doxxing” them turns the purpose of the law on its head.
During a heated 2020 election cycle, citizens on both sides of the aisle let their political preferences be heard — whether that looked like social media posts, protests in the streets, a vote on Election Day, or donations to a candidate or PAC whose views they supported.
When it comes to campaign finance donors, some loudly support their chosen candidates, while others choose to quietly give, with no other indication of their preferences for elected officials or policy.
What some political donors fail to understand when they decide to make a contribution — particularly if they are new to campaign finance — are the potential risks. These days, one of the most common methods of harassment is “doxxing.”
Doxxing is short for dropping documents (docs or “dox”) on the internet. It’s posting someone’s personal information — name, address, phone number, employer, etc. — in hopes of shaming them or even inciting an online mob to harass, intimidate, or otherwise cause harm.
Even if you didn’t know the term, you’ve probably seen headlines, or you may have experienced the effects of this type of virtual harassment yourself.
Defenders of doxxing like to point out that this information — the names, addresses, and occupations of donors to political candidates and their political action committees (PACs) — is public information, and they’re right. Candidates and PACs are required to submit this information to federal and/or state agencies.
In fact, that’s what we do at Transparency USA. We take the information provided to the public and make it easily accessible, searchable, and understandable. Our goal is to make it easy for you to get the answers you need about the money in state politics.
But those who defend doxxing because they are using public data miss the point.
By providing a public record of donors’ names, along with the amounts and dates of contributions, citizens should be able to keep an eye on their elected representatives to be sure their vote isn’t being bought, and their donations aren’t being used inappropriately. The law was never intended to be a tool used against Americans who seek to exercise their First Amendment right to political speech.
The law recognizes two categories of political spending — donations which must be disclosed and donations which are allowed to remain private.
Candidates and political action committees must divulge the names of their donors.
Groups advocating for social change or educating the public about a particular issue are not required to divulge the names of their donors. These donations are often referred to as “dark money. ” (Think, for example, teachers’ unions, taxpayer advocacy groups, or citizens urging changes to the healthcare system.) A unanimous Supreme Court decision in NAACP v. Alabama held that the First Amendment’s freedom of speech and freedom of association clauses as well as the 14th Amendment’s due process clause allowed organizations to protect the names of their donors in order to protect them from harassment or violence.
A more detailed explanation about public and private political donations is here.
Yes. Your campaign contributions are public record and could be doxxed. If you would prefer to avoid the risk, consider donating to a group that advocates for issues you care about rather than directly to a candidate. If your money goes to a non-profit 501(c)(3) or (c)(4), your donation should remain private.
U.S. citizens have a right to know how their representatives are spending the money entrusted to them. Ideally, you want to support political causes and candidates you believe in and can proudly stand by. But citizens should have an understanding of how campaign finance records work in order to protect their right to privacy when it comes to their political associations. Online mobs and would-be doxxers should be treated like the bullies they are. Allow their threats to influence your political speech, and it reinforces that it’s an effective tactic. Ignore them, and they lose their power.
Editor’s Note: A version of this editorial first appeared on our Transparency Texas page in September 2019.
Transparency is the obligation of the government. Privacy is the right of the citizen. Join us at Transparency USA to get the answers you need about the money in state-level politics.