Media reporting of two Queensland teens: ‘A form of doxxing’

The front page of The Courier Mail on Thursday, July 30. Source: The Courier Mail

Two women tested positive for COVID-19 after they allegedly lied on a travel declaration when arriving in Brisbane from Melbourne. Media reporting has been criticised, with one expert calling it a ‘witch hunt’.

Two teenage women have been identified in the media for allegedly breaching lockdown regulations in Queensland and accused of lying on forms on their arrival back to Brisbane from Melbourne -- they were later confirmed to have COVID-19.

A third woman involved, along with the two who travelled back from Melbourne, have been fined $4000 each, charged with fraud, and will be facing a court appearance at Brisbane Magistrates Court on September 28.

The Queensland Police Commissioner, Katarina Carroll said on Thursday, "we will not tolerate this behaviour at our borders".

"I think that the courts will hopefully look at this very, very seriously, as is the public," Carroll said.

ABC News reported on Friday that police are investigating if the three women were instructed by a crime syndicate to break quarantine. The Australian reported on Thursday one of the women was being investigated over a stolen luxury handbag -- the syndicate is believed to steal and transport luxury goods between Australia’s capital cities. 

Carroll has said the two teenagers put the community at risk.

“I am very disappointed with them at this stage, they went to extraordinary lengths to be deceitful and deceptive and, quite frankly, criminal in their behaviour,” she said on Thursday. 

Queensland health minister Steve Miles told reporters on Thursday morning that contact tracing will be done in the Logan and Springfield areas in Brisbane, which will include shopping centres, restaurants, and a church. 

"They travelled on flights VA 863 and VA977. The Queensland Health contact tracers are identifying close contacts from those flights,” he said.

Media coverage raises questions

The coverage of the two women has been criticised on social media. In the reporting of the story, many media outlets published their images, the medical details of when the women were tested, their local medical centre, the locations they visited; and their workplace were all made public.

Queensland Deputy Commissioner Steve Gollschewski wasn't pleased with the identity of the women being made public via media coverage and on social media.

"I have to say, I was rather disappointed about that," he told ABC Radio Brisbane on Thursday.

"We had an ongoing investigation that had not been concluded and no charges had been laid and we were trying to get the cooperation of these people, that kind of thing impacts on that.

"But nonetheless we recognise these are extraordinary times and we understand the concern in the community."

The mother of one of the women told ABC News her daughter isn't an animal, and the coverage has left them without support.

"Imagine if you have something like that, you don't have any support and people treat you like a serious criminal," she said.

"Nobody wants to give you support. She's very sad. She is my daughter. She's not an animal."

People have questioned the decision to name the two young women in the media, highlighting a double-standard from reporting on previous breaches of lockdown rules.

Amy Remeikis, a reporter at the Guardian, drew examples of previous lockdown breaches that resulted in community transmission that didn't receive the same treatment.

"We didn't name the Aspen couple. We didn't name the 50th birthday Noosa people. We didn't name the security guards. Stop searching for people to blame in the middle of a life changing pandemic. People have fucked up. But identifying people only causes more harm."

There have been some questioning whether the identity of the two women, who are African Australians, played a part in the coverage.

The risks involved in naming them

David Vaile, Executive Director Cyberspace Law and Policy Centre, described the media reporting as "a form of doxxing", and doesn't believe there is "any extra benefit" in sharing the personal information of the women.

"Doxxing is very serious a threat, it's recognised by authorities as putting people at risk," Vaile told The Feed.

"The more that gets revealed about them, the more they're in physical danger. People can make it difficult for them to work or difficult for them to go home. The potential for harm escalates, very quickly."

There have been cases of people receiving death threats, and physical harm after being doxxed. Vaile says at this point, we have had ten years of experience of seeing the material affects of doxxing.

"Once their identity was revealed people have had things delivered to their door or make threats or make fake sort of calls to them."

Vaile says once the doxxing begins it can escalate very quickly for the victim. He described what's happening to the two women as a "privacy disaster" which isn't resolved easily.

"You can't sort of change your face, you can possibly change your house but not in the short term. You're stuck. Someone apologising, isn't necessarily gonna make you safe again," he said.

The public health necessity that COVID-19 has brought creates an argument, Vaile says, about the amount of information reasonable to be in the public domain, however, it isn't something he believes "applies here".

"Because you've already had most of that information distributed through the public health authorities," he said.

The biggest issue in discussions about privacy is looking at the proportionality of harm and the disruption of someone's life, which Vaile says, can come as a result of a privacy disaster or breach.

"All of that stuff is often invisible, the victims typically don't go out in public and say, my life has been ruined," Vaile said.

Vaile says after the fact the victims of doxxing become invisible, there's no coverage of what happens once the attention moves on. Instead, Vaile says, "the witch hunt" is only visible.

"So what it means is that often, ordinary people, but also often journalists can't necessarily weigh the potential harm of going too far," he said.

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If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, stay home and arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

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