Accusations of coercion flooded social media spaces Wednesday morning, shortly after CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski reported that the network had identified the creator of a viral gif depicting President Donald Trump clotheslining World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Vince McMahon with the CNN logo emblazoned across his face.
Writing on KFile, Kaczynski revealed he had determined the identity of a Reddit user who created the gif but declined to name him publicly.
The Redditor in question, HansAssHoleSolo, posted vile memes featuring racist and anti-semitic imagery, in addition to the viral gif. KFile was able to identify the user on the basis of incriminating information he had posted elsewhere on Reddit. After posting an apology and deleting offensive content he had posted around the site, he spoke to KFile, confirmed his identity, and reiterated his regret.
Given his genuine remorse and status as a private citizen, CNN elected not to publish his identity — but reserves the right to do so should they observe any further “ugly behavior” on social media.
The warning prompted widespread speculation in social media as to whether KFile’s warning was unlawfully coercive. #CNNBlackmail led Twitter’s trending topics for much of the morning.
In this instance, it seems exceedingly unlikely that CNN has engaged in criminal coercion.
The definition of coercion varies by state and across federal laws, but it generally involves the compulsion to act against one’s will where one party holds influence or power over the other party. Under this construction, CNN’s actions are lawful.
In the first place, it appears that the Redditor’s actions were entirely voluntarily. The user made clear his apology, and post deletions reflect his desire to maintain his anonymity, so as to protect himself and his family from public ridicule. His actions are clearly in harmony with his will. Coercion is not possible where an individual is acting in accordance with their desire.
It also seems coercion is impossible as a chronological matter. As KFile notes, CNN did not speak with the user until after he had deleted the offensive materials and posted an apology. KFile could not possibly have coerced him if the two did not speak in advance of these developments.
What’s more, the user himself cannot legitimately argue his rights have been violated. He has no expectation of privacy on a public forum. Remember, he posted details about himself that cumulatively resulted in his identification. He also self-describes as a “troll” — he posted the materials in question to provoke a reaction. That the reaction is larger than he intended is no defense.
CNN host Chris Cuomo, a lawyer who regularly evinces little knowledge of the law, posted a more ominous tweet that could be read as an implied threat against the Redditor. He has since deleted this problematic post. However, since it does not appear that Cuomo was involved in KFile’s story, the tweet is probably immaterial.
As a prudential matter, some have questioned CNN’s decision to expend personnel and resources in pursuit of a random Reddit critic. One might reasonably debate whether Kaczynski’s reporting is prudent, but the evidence for criminal misconduct is awfully thin.
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