The Limits of Anonymity

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

May 14, 2013 GMT
Bruce Byfield

An unsettling thing happened on Twitter a couple of weeks ago. Without meaning to, I found myself suggesting that anonymity was not always a good idea.

This was an unexpected position for me to be arguing. Although I have rarely taken advantage of anonymity myself, I have always believed in the right of others to do so. In the past, I have pointed out publicly that in many countries, using a pseudonym is legal unless you are doing so for criminal purposes.

I have acknowledged, too, that many people use pseudonyms for legitimate reasons, such as to hide from abusive spouses or to fulfill the terms of employee contracts that limit their expressions of opinions. At times, I have come close to saying that anonymity is -- or should be -- an absolute right.

Yet there I was, suggesting that in at least once circumstance, anonymity should be re-considered. My inconsistency took me aback, and I wondered if I was being hypocritical, or reversing myself and exhibiting disturbingly conservative tendencies.

The discussion in question was about a new site. Not wanting to publicize it, I'm not going to link it, but the site itself is not as important as its organization anyway.

On one page, the site lists the organizations and people it opposes. On its About page, the site claims it was standing up for free speech, and characterizes its opponents as being concerned with political correctness. Its Welcome post was much the same. Of the other two articles posted so far, one was entitled in part "A Call to Action" and the other dissected an example of what the site opposes.

Pseudonyms were used throughout the site, which prompted me to tweet, "I'd be more impressed if the founders and supporters named themselves." The supporter of the site with whom I was talking chose to believe I knew nothing about anonymity issues, and, after making an effort to educate me rather than answer questions, concluded that I simply didn't "get it."

Trying to set a boundary
I let the supporter have the last word, having belatedly recognized the futility of the discussion. At any rate, the site clearly isn't going anywhere, and has remained unchanged in the two weeks since the exchange.

All the same, the exchange lingered with me -- not for anything that was said in the exchange, but because I was trying to figure out why I thought anonymity a questionable tactic in this case. What, I was trying to figure out, was different in this case?

The answer, I finally decided, is something like this:

Nothing is wrong with using a pseudonym on social media with your friends, when you are discussing what you are doing with your life, or shooting the breeze about the news or the latest episode of Game of Thrones. The discussion may turn nasty and descend to snide name-calling, but the stakes are low. Nothing, really, is on the line -- you are simply passing the time of day, and what matters is your opinion, not who you are. Any consequences are unlikely to linger beyond a couple of days.

However, when you start to address issues that affect a community such as free software, the standards should differ. Then you are no longer dealing with the personal, but the political. You are no longer talking in the abstract, but in the concrete, and often in the hopes of bringing about change. Accordingly, the expectations placed on you are -- or should be -- higher.

The unavoidable fact is that anonymity in politics or social activism can look very much like moral cowardice. It looks like you have something to hide, or perhaps that you want to avoid the consequences of voicing your opinions. Or, so far as another reader knows, you might be a company shill, astroturfing in an effort to create the illusion of a grassroots opinion.

One way or the other, your comments are less convincing than if not just a name but a traceable history stands behind them.
Don't believe me? Then ask yourself how seriously you yourself take the heavily-commented, mostly pseudonymous threads on Slashdot or Reddit. If you are thinking about the issue or trying to learn about, rather than just killing time, it's almost impossible not to be dismissive.

That's even truer when a poster makes a call to action, asking readers to think in a certain way or to join a group. People want to know who they are supporting.

Moreover, if you hope to sway people, you need to at least match the openness of your opponents. In the case of the site I was discussing, I had a clearer sense of the site's apparent opponents than I did of anyone involved in the site. Exactly who, I kept wondering, was the "we" the site talked about, and why should I listen to them?

The benefit of openness
None of this, of course, means that anonymity is to always be avoided. If you are a corporate whistle-blower, or posting information that you only know under non-disclosure, then discarding credibility becomes relatively unimportant. Or perhaps you are so well known by your pseudonym that you have a traceable back story, in which case your pseudonym has replaced your actual name for practical purposes.

More often, though, as soon you take an activist position, your expertise lends credibility to your argument. Why, readers might reasonably ask, would you throw away the hope of credibility unless you have none? Perhaps because the freedom to troll and start flame wars matters to you more?

At a certain level of seriousness, anonymity diminishes the strength of your argument. That may not be always be fair or right, but if you are hoping to promote a cause, it's a reality that you shouldn't ignore lightly.

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