The news website Splinter published a post on Wednesday titled “Here’s Stephen Miller’s Cell Phone Number, if You Need It,” containing a cellphone number that purportedly belongs to the senior White House aide. Stephen Miller, the 32-year-old far-right California native and presidential adviser—who was also a chief engineer of the Trump administration’s travel ban on citizens of predominantly Muslim countries—has reportedly been one of the most steadfast White House champions of the family-separation policy that has saturated the news in recent days, as more Americans have learned that immigration agents have been forcibly splitting many immigrant parents from their children after they crossed the border. The policy has been met by public outrage as photographs have emerged of young children and teens sleeping in cages in warehouses and tents, and as stories of babies being ripped from nursing mothers have gone viral.
The outrage has sparked protests of various stripes nationwide, from Tornillo, Texas, the site of one of the youth encampments for minors who crossed the border; to Boston; to the inside of an upscale Mexican restaurant in D.C., where Kirstjen Nielsen, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (which oversees Immigration and Customs Enforcement), went Tuesday evening to eat dinner but was forced out by chanting demonstrators.* And it’s not like the public outrage isn’t being heard; it could be partially credited for shifting the ground quickly in this humanitarian emergency. On Wednesday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order signaling his intent to keep families united when crossing the border, though the decision to treat undocumented border crossings as criminal charges, which led to the family separation in the first place, has not been changed.
Like Nielsen’s encounter with activists, Splinter’s post directed public shame in the direction of an influential figure involved in the government’s immigration policy, since, as Splinter wrote in the un-bylined post, “Miller himself has been rather unavailable for direct feedback from the public.” Thanks to Splinter, people who are angry at the inhumane policies Miller has pushed could engage with him directly, however they wanted.
Twitter, which has a hard rule against publishing “other people’s private information without their express authorization and permission,” didn’t take long on Wednesday to start suspending accounts that shared the link to the Splinter story, even if the tweet didn’t include his cellphone number. Libby Watson, a journalist at Splinter and prolific tweeter, appears to have had her account temporarily suspended for sharing a link to the story. Other journalists and editors, like Tom McKay, weekend editor of Splinter sister site Gizmodo, is also in the midst of a temporary 12-hour suspension, he confirmed to me, as is Andrew Couts, the managing editor of Gizmodo, who according to a screenshot, won’t be able to direct message or tweet from his account for 12 hours after deleting the tweet with a link to the story with Miller’s number.
Based on a quick swim through the firehose of Twitter, however, it was clear that links to the Splinter story and screenshots of Miller’s phone number were everywhere, even hours after Twitter began suspending violators of its policy. People bragging about reaching out to the White House aide with angry text messages are posting screenshots. Others are still sharing the phone number, which when dialed now alerts the caller that the number has been “disconnected, changed, or no longer in service.”
One can make a forceful and convincing case that Miller—who, according to the New York Times, said that the move to separate children from parents when families enter the country without proper documentation “was a simple decision by the administration to have a zero tolerance policy for illegal entry, period”—deserves to hear, in public, wherever he goes, from people who find this policy beyond appalling. Less obvious is whether a news website—even one partially molded in the image of its predecessor Gawker, with whom many people compared it after it posted Miller’s number—ought to arm the people who would let Miller have it. When a person or a group publishes someone else’s personal information online that wasn’t publicly available, it’s called doxing, and it’s a common tool in some of the uglier corners of the internet, like 4chan and 8chan, where anonymous trolls collaborate to find the phone numbers and addresses of people they disagree with, like female video-game developers, activists, religious leaders, and journalists. Posting people’s personal information online allows harassment to happen both on- and offline—it’s how swatting happens. Should a news organization engage in an activity that paves the way for this kind of stunt? Is it an activity better left to activists? Is Miller’s phone number of journalistic value? I could see myself answering yes or no to all of these questions—the ethical line here isn’t clear-cut.
Twitter has taken a strict stance, opting to censor some users who share even a link to a post with Miller’s number in it. And the Twitter account of Gab, an upstart social network loved by neo-Nazis and the alt-right, took to reporting and quote-tweeting people who were sharing the number in order to help Twitter in enforcing its policy on the posting of personal information. This was the second time in 24 hours Twitter has moved to suspend users attempting to share personal details about individuals involved in the administration’s family separation policy. On Tuesday, along with Medium and GitHub, Twitter suspended the accounts associated with a database created by data artist Sam Lavigne that scraped publicly available information of people who posted that they work for Immigration and Customs Enforcement on LinkedIn. GitHub removed a repository of the code that was used to scrape LinkedIn profiles, and Medium nixed a post in which Lavigne explained the project. For its part, Twitter removed a bot made by Russel Neiss that tweeted out information on the ICE employees. Unlike the Splinter post containing Miller’s phone number, that bot and the database it was tweeting from didn’t have information that wasn’t already public—though they arguably were encouraging people to harass the ICE employees in question.
Long accused of allowing abuse to fester on its platform, Twitter has been working in recent months to improve its enforcement of its harassment policies. Perhaps it just so happens that one of the most notable examples of its current efforts involves not the harassment of women, people of color, LGBTQ users, or other frequently assailed groups—but Stephen Miller, a man who “actually enjoys seeing those pictures at the border,” according to an outside White House adviser’s account to Vanity Fair on Wednesday. Let’s hope Twitter applies the same fervor to its platform moderation the next time someone who doesn’t work at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW gets doxed.
Correction, June 21, 2018: This post originally misspelled Tornillo, Texas.