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The Fear Digest

Rogue Journalists, the Police, and Other Things That Scared Americans This Week

Another week, another list of reasons to be wary of the people in charge.

Protesters in Minneapolis calling for police reform on December 13. Photo via Flickr user ​Fibonacci Blue

Welcome back to the Fear Digest, our weekly roundup of the top ten terrors lurking in the back of the American imagination.Read last week's column here

10. Charles C. Johnson
This week the political media suddenly became fixate​d on Charles C. Johnson, a formerly obscure conservative blogger who runs a website called The reason for this attention—which included profiles in the Washington Post and Politico Magazine—was that Johnson doxxed "Jackie," the subject of the infamously incorrect Rolling Stone story about rape on college campuses. He revealed what he said was her real name and spread around what he claimed were photos of her—except it wasn't her in the pictures. That combination of maliciousness and inaccuracy is sort of his trademark style—"he seems to make a lot of mistakes, even for the freewheeling, don't-wait-just-publish environment of digital media," wrote Jacob Silverman in Politico. Johnson would be an absolute joke if he weren't just a little bit scary. If you end up in the public eye for any reason, this crusading self-important blowhard might just dig up and release your personal information and accuse you of all sorts ​of BS. One-man witchhunts like him are why people don't trust journalists.
Last week's rank: Unranked


9. Cars That Spy on You
Most of us don't have to be worried about malicious journalists roaming the social media landscape like packs of factually-challenged jackals. Pretty much everyone, however, has a car, which means that everyone has a vehicle that is quietly tracking their movement and press of the brake pedal. Yup, our cars' increasingly complex computer systems are storing our data. From the Washington Post:

Some fear that this automotive data could someday be seized by government spy agencies or used against helpless drivers by insurers or worse. How automakers use, store and protect even the most mundane data collected from our increasingly smart vehicles is going to become even more important as cars start talking to everything around them — from other cars to sensors embedded in the road to nearby businesses. Manufacturers are taking their first steps to safeguard this information. But even they acknowledge there's a lot they don't know how to do.

Last week's rank: Unranked

8. The NSA
Not that the carless among us have any more privacy. NSA reformers lost yet more ground this week, with Congress both making it easier for the secretive intelligence agency to collect Americans' data and officially enshrined into law parts of a Reagan-era executive order that authorized many of the NSA's data collection practices in the first place.
Last week's rank: 8

7. Terrorist Attacks Over the Torture Report
Speaking of things that keep America safe, early this week there was a big stink over the "torture report," a summary of a classified 6,000-plus page investigation into the horrible things done in the name of national security after 9/11. Though anyone who watched Zero Dark Thirty already knew that the CIA was not exactly playing patty cake with its detainees, publicly releasing the details was controversial—so much so that officials warned of possible attacks on Americans and American facilities abroad, and US embassies around the world beefed up their defenses. (Possibly as a result of these countermeasures, there weren't any significant post–torture report attacks, though some US allies were all like, Um, did you do this stuff at black sites within our borders?)
Last week's rank: Unranked 


6. The Torture Report Being Unpatriotic
The debate over the torture report wasn't just about whether releasing information on " enhanced interrogation techniques" would result in specific negative consequences for US foreign policy—it was about whether ordinary Americans should know about this stuff at all. In one Fox News discussion that went viral thanks to its sheer inanity, a set of well-coiffed pundits decided that they didn't need or want to know the sort of transparency the torture report represents. Furthermore, the whole report was apparently a political play by Democrats to distract from the real issues and make people think America is "not awesome." 
Last week's rank: Unranked

5. Being Shot by Random Strangers
If you want proof of America's awesomeness, holy Jesus do not do a Google News search for "shooting," which during this relatively ordinary week in December would have netted you results for a gun battle in New Haven; a violence-plagued bar in Macon, Georgia; a fresh batch of shootings in Chicago; and a possibly gang-related incident at a Portland, Oregon, high school that put three kids in the hospital.
Last week's rank: Unranked

4. The Islamic State
At least our homegrown violence was seemingly random this week, as opposed to the planned and organized awfulness of the Islamic State, which released what appears to be a horrific guide for how to treat their female slaves.
Last week's rank: 6


3. Undercover Cops at Protests
I'm not saying that embedding undercover officers inside protest movements, as the California Highway Patrol* reportedly did this week in Oakland, is a terrible idea that demonstrates a rather shocking contempt for citizens' First Amendment rights—but if you are doing that, it might be a good idea to avoid visuals like these:

Cop draws gun on demonstrators in dramatic photos at overnight protest via — NBC News Pictures (@NBCNewsPictures)December 11, 2014

Last week's rank: Unranked

2. Cops Planting Guns on Innocent People
On Thursday, the New York Times reported on an even more alarming case of potential police misconduct—some people are saying that NYPD cops in Flatbush, Brooklyn, have been framing suspects by planting guns on them. Well, that's bad! Already one of these cases has been dismissed, and judges have apparently been extremely skeptical of police accounts in others.
Last week's rank: Unranked

1. The Cops in General
You might argue that cops who brandish guns at crowds of demonstrators or plant weapons on suspects are just a few bad apples—but increasingly, people around the country are calling attention to the underlying rottenness of the whole metaphorical apple orchard, the whole racist, classist, casually violent system of roots. It's not just that we've seen a streak of unfortunate encounters between (usually white) officers and (usually black) civilians lately, and it's not just that these cops are almost never held accountable for their misdeeds. It's that those within the system seem to greet this sort of state-sanctioned violence with a these-things-happen kind of shrug. In the past week everyone from doctors to law students to Congressional staffers to mothers of police shooting victims have been literally taking to the streets and demanding that the authorities figure out a way to enforce laws that doesn't leave so many bodies in its wake. The really scary thing? All of this might not be enough to change anything for the better. 
Last week's rank: Unranked

EDIT 12/14: An earlier version of this article mistakenly referred to the undercover cop in Oakland as belonging to the Oakland Police Department, when in fact he is with the California Highway Patrol. 

Follow Harry Cheadle on ​Twitter.