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Pseudonymity & Accountability Redux

June 9th, 2009 · 14 Comments

While I expect it’s cold comfort to Publius, I suppose Ed Whelan should get some modicum of credit for realizing—however belatedly—that his “outing” of his pseudonymous interlocutor was wrong. I might have gone with something stronger than “uncharitable”—”crass” and “petty” spring to mind—but let’s face it, a second-thought and an apology are so rare in contemporary political discourse that I’m not disposed to look a gift horse in the mouth. It doesn’t make up for the original act, but given the tone of left-right interaction, on the rare occasions we see actual interaction, it’s got to be hard to step back, reevaluate, and admit you’re in the wrong, so I guess it’s a hopeful sign that there are folks still capable of that.

That said, the furor has provied an occasion to mull over the role of pseudonymity or anonymity in online political speech. I mentioned it below, but I think it’s really worth examining the supposition that pseudonymous (as opposed to genuinely anonymous) blogging leads to more vicious or debased dialogue. The assumption that it does, I want to suggest, is an improper generalization from our experience with comment threads and chat boards where—first—pseudonyms are so readily disposable that there’s effective anonymity, and—second—people aren’t engaged in the kind of  longer-term project that a blog signifies, nor are they subject to the “brand” constraints such a project imposes, even without a real name. When I actually think about the nastiest, most bilious blogs I encounter, they’re mostly ones people sign their names to. Now, in part, that may be because there’s a higher bar for anonymous bloggers to get on the radar, so there’s lots of even nastier anonymous blogs I never see—but if so, great, the market (so to speak) is working.

I also note a distinct difference in the way people approached the question of pseudonymity. Stipulate at the outset—as most folks seem to—that barring extraordinary circumstances (unambiguous libel, incitement to harrassment) Americans have a clear constitutional right to anonymous speech and that, again barring exceptional circumstances, other Americans have an equal First Amendment right to name them if they happen to be privy to that information. Everyone’s really arguing about norms—about what conduct we should consider out of bounds, things decent people just don’t do. And I’ve been interested to see how differently some other folks frame the question. Some think that what’s relevant is the character of the outed person—that using a pseudonym is “cowardly” or “hiding.” Maybe it is—though again, it seems presumptuous to assume you know in advance whether someone has a good reason for not using his real name—but I’m not sure why it matters. Isn’t the right response to point out that an interlocutor hasn’t the courage to put his name to his words, rather than trying to punish him for a perceived character defect? And if pointing this out turns out not to make much difference to the argument—as I expect it wouldn’t have in this case—then why is cowardice any more relevant than a dozen other character defects someone might have? Instead of trying to form overall character judgments about people from a few blog posts, shouldn’t we be asking the more straightforward question of whether exposure serves some interest more weighty than a vindictive impulse? “He had it coming” is rarely a good justification for anything all by itself.

Still, I was interested in the frequent assumption—rather circular in the context of an argument about norms of pseudonymity—that exposure is just the cost you have to accept for putting your opinions out there.  Certainly it may be that one should anticipate the risk of being  outed, just as one should know there’s a risk of being mugged if you walk through certain neighborhoods at certain hours decked out in Prada. That’s not actually a defense of either outing or mugging, though.  For my part, I spent enough time as a teen and a college student in fora where “handles” were the norm that I just wholly lack this apparently widespread intuition that one ought to put one’s name to opinions by default, absent some special justification. In a lot of ways, I’d think the modern media context makes the case for a pseudonymous default that much stronger. Because being a prominent blogger in the 21st century means, in at least a minor way, being a sort of public figure. Lots of people seem to love the idea, but plenty of others don’t. As the exploits of one Joe Wurzelbacher demonstrate, it can even happen somewhat accidentally if you voice a political opinion in the right place at the right time.

That, I think, is how we need to frame the question, because that’s the real tradeoff. Is it reasonable to expect that anyone who wants to express a political opinion in our central discursive medium must be willing to become a public figure, with all that entails? It’s not Norman Rockwell’s everyman standing up to unleash a stemwinder at the town meeting anymore: Political conversation has moved online, and unless you’re in some affinity group’s walled garden, the audience for those conversations is always, at least potentially, the whole of the Net. New media have empowered ordinary people to make their views heard on a vastly greater scale than was possible a few decades ago, but the cost is in control of the scale. There used to be a bright line between what was said around the table with some friends at a café, or at a community meeting, in a talk to a local civic group, in an interview on local radio, on national television. You had some sense of what you were getting into when you decided to share your thoughts. Now, an Alaska homemaker can send a few friends an e-mail with her take on Sarah Palin and find it being discussed on National Public Radio a few days later. It’s great when people are prepared to back their opinions so wholeheartedly, but it sounds like an awfully high entry fee to demand of anyone who wants into our public conversation about politics—or at least anyone who plans to express a strong view about the people who have chosen to make themselves public figures.

Addendum: One of my pseudo-pseudonymous colleagues at The Economist weighs in. (“Pseudo” both because we actually just have shared datelines, and because it’s pretty damn easy to figure out, say, which “Washington” posts are mine and which are Dave Weigel’s.)  And it actually strikes me that the comment section there is a pretty good illustration of the important difference between anonymity and pseudonymity. Now, maybe the editors actually spend more time than I realize clearing out nasty or stupid comments, but I think it’s generally striking how high-quality the comment discourse is there as compared with the stereotypically splenetic comment section. Maybe it’s just that Economist readers are unusually civil, but I think the more likely explanation is that people have to register to post, which ties their comments to a consistent online persona, even if it doesn’t bear the user’s real name. I don’t think either Publius or Anonymous Liberal—whose characterization of Whelan as a say-anything legal “hitman” seems to have set Whelan off—went any further in anything they wrote than I would in a bad mood, under my own name.  Actually, I’m curious, can the folks who want to claim that pseudonymous bloggers are generally nastier than others find a genuinely prominent or high-profile pseud who routinely dishes out attacks more vicious than named writers commonly make?

Addendum II: As a follow up to the “public figure” considerations above, I want to focus on the non-sequitur claim that one person’s free choice to use his own real name somehow confers a right—as a matter of “fairness”—to unilaterally impose the same choice on his interlocutors. I hope it’s obvious to most why that sort of claim is nonsense, but I want to point out a slightly less obvious asymmetry that its acceptance gives rise to. If you are a professional writer or pundit or activist, using your own name on your public writing will generally be a professional advantage: One of your primary goals is to get your name out there. If you are not a professional pundit—if you’re, say, an untenured academic, or someone who depends on controversy-shy clients for a living—then what is an advantage to the pro is much more likely to be a liability for you, at least until you’re on firmer ground. Now, it seems silly in itself to insist that “fairness” mandates the sort of mechanical equality that compels one person to accept a benefit while another accepts a liability. But it also seems  undesirable to advocate a rule that systematically encourages pros and discourages everyone else from participating in public conversation. And it seems perverse to embed this imbalance under the banner of a confused desire to put differetly situated people on “equal” footing.

Tags: Privacy and Surveillance · Sociology



14 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Adam // Jun 9, 2009 at 11:35 am

    The last paragraph really gets at the heart of the thing. The ability of the internet to blow through socially constructed boundaries — of place, relationship, and time — really scrambles the calculus on all sorts of free expression. To take a somewhat trivial example, I basically can’t use Facebook anymore. My “network” was already an awkward mix of long-ago schoolmates, current friends, past and present co-workers, random strangers, professional contacts, etc. Since getting married, I’ve added dozens of in-laws and young nieces and nephews to the mix. There’s basically nothing conceivably good that could come out of the arrangement, so I’ve locked the account down as tightly as it will go.

    And even on this blog, there’s no way I’ll leave my full name in a comment. It’s not that I want to hide behind pseudonymity, per se. It’s just that I don’t particularly care to be associated with some tossed off thoughts in a text entry form for the next 40 years.

  • 2 Matthew Yglesias » The Metaphysics of Pseudonymity // Jun 9, 2009 at 2:26 pm

    […] some larger thoughts on the ethics of the issue, I’d recommend what Julian Sanchez has to say. But a separate point I would make is that the whole notion that you might want to […]

  • 3 Peter K. // Jun 9, 2009 at 2:44 pm

    “Still, I was interested in the frequent assumption—rather circular in the context of an argument about norms of pseudonymity—that exposure is just the cost you have to accept for putting your opinions out there.”

    I’d put it differently: exposure is what you should expect if you are going to be impolite in your debate with others. Even though I sympathise with Publius politically, he basically called Whelan a dishonest mercenary hitman who should be embarrassed about a recent piece. Maybe Publius expected him to have a thicker skin. But if you’re going to be rude, you should expect some sort of reaction.

    I don’t know about blogs, but I believe anonymity in comment sections enables people to be much more viscious and rude than they might other wise be.

  • 4 Julian Sanchez // Jun 9, 2009 at 2:49 pm

    Again, that’s a question of norms, isn’t it? In some cultures, you should “expect” that if you insult someone like that in a public debate, they’ll haul off and punch you in the face–or challenge you to a duel, for that matter. In the circles I run in, the “reaction” will be either to point out that one’s opponent is being crass or to return fire in kind. The question in both cases is what kind of response to an insult is reasonable, and how we collectively answer that question determines what someone “should expect”.

  • 5 MBunge // Jun 9, 2009 at 2:50 pm

    There are two factors in the debate over pseudonymity that you’ve passed over.

    1. Does the appropriateness of the shield of pseudonymity decrease as the bloggers commentary/prominance/influence increases? It seems sort of odd to contend that someone who participates in the public discourse on the level of, say, publius, needs or should have the same level of anonymity as someone who occasionally posts to comment threads on the blogs of others.

    2. If you call someone out by name, they have the right to call you by name. When a pseudononymous blogger goes beyond talking about issues and starts engaging with other bloggers, particularly those blogging under their real names, it is unfair for them to remain in the shadows. If you want to be in the arena, get in the damn arena stop using a megaphone to yell from the crowd.


  • 6 Julian Sanchez // Jun 9, 2009 at 3:07 pm

    “If you call someone out by name, they have the right to call you by name.”

    Why? I just reject that entirely; it’s a complete non-sequitur. If you don’t want to be called by name, don’t USE your name. People are at liberty to introduce all sorts of personal information about themselves into a public discussion; making that free choice for yourself gives you no rights at all with respect to anyone else. It’s also, incidentally, a pretty bogus conception of “fairness” that demands equality on something that is a benefit to one person—a writer and professional pundit looking to raise his profile—and a liability to the other.

  • 7 MBunge // Jun 9, 2009 at 3:28 pm

    “Why? I just reject that entirely; it’s a complete non-sequitur.”

    No, it’s not. It’s about the basic fairness that if you’ve going to go after a public figure, you shouldn’t do it from the shadows. What if the Watergate stories had been run in the Post under a pseudonym because Woodward and Bernstein were afraid to put their names on it?

    Ed Whelen, for better or worse (mostly worse), is in the arena. If publius wants to take him on he shouldn’t automatically be able to do so without getting in the arena himself.

    And in regards to choice, publius was free to choose a pseudonym. How can that choice impose ethical requirements on anyone else? You can blog under a pseudonym but no one has to respect that pseudonymity.


  • 8 Doug // Jun 9, 2009 at 3:44 pm

    It would be easier to figure out which DC posts are yours if you tell me which of you is race-obsessed. But I wonder if you can tell a difference between the civility and thoughtfulness of the DIA commenters who write under their own names versus those who use pseudonyms. I can’t and I also can’t believe fear of being outed by The Economist or having your subscription cancelled is very much on anyone’s mind.

    I comment there under my own name, but that’s got nothing to do with anything other than I didn’t really read the form I was filling out at first and I haven’t bothered to create a new ID.

  • 9 Julian Sanchez // Jun 9, 2009 at 3:45 pm

    All you’ve done is assert the same non-sequitur again; it’s not any more convincing this time. And Woodward and Bernstein is a pretty odd example to pick as a case against pseudonymity. That’s actually a pretty good illustration of why it’s obtuse to claim equality demands “fairness” without looking at the circumstances. By using their names, Woodward and Bernstein became famous for their story—though if they’d been writers for The Economist, they would have been required to be anonymous, presumably to their chagrin. Mark Felt, on the other hand, didn’t use his name because he *wasn’t* in the same position as Richard Nixon, and so there would be nothing at all fair about insisting he use his name. Indeed, if he hadn’t been able to level his accusations pseudonymously, we wouldn’t have had the Watergate story at all.

    As for when choices imposes obligations: what one has not voluntarily exposed falls under the background presumption that you do not introduce irrelevant personal facts about a debate opponent into the discussion as a way of penalizing them, even if you have yourself been freely willing to share personal facts. The choice to use a pseudonym doesn’t IMPOSE the obligation, it is a specific case of a general obligation that binds every civilized person engaged in debate until the person waives it.

  • 10 MBunge // Jun 9, 2009 at 3:56 pm

    “As for when choices imposes obligations: what one has not voluntarily exposed falls under the background presumption that you do not introduce irrelevant personal facts about a debate opponent into the discussion as a way of penalizing them, even if you have yourself been freely willing to share personal facts.”

    Now you’re the one introducing a non sequitur.

    1. Someone’s name is not “background information”.

    2. If you don’t know who the hell you’re debating with, you can’t possibly know what personal facts about them can or cannot be relevant to the discussion.

    3. Whelen didn’t seek out and engage publius, it was the other way around. The idea that pseudononymous bloggers can take shots at public bloggers while remaining behind the shield of a pseudonym strikes me as far more corrupting to discourse that requiring people to put their names to their opinions.

    And Mark Felt didn’t make his charges pseudononymously. He made then anonymously. W+B created the pseudonym for him and vouched for his truthfulness with their and their paper’s own credibility. I would have guessed that someone sending letters to the Post under the name Deep Throat that contained allegations against Nixon would have tossed into the circular file.


  • 11 Amy // Jun 9, 2009 at 4:08 pm

    “And Mark Felt didn’t make his charges pseudononymously. He made then anonymously.”

    So your position is that I can express my thoughts without having my identity revealed, but only if I allow someone else to do my writing for me?

  • 12 Demosthenes // Jun 9, 2009 at 5:36 pm

    As a long-time pseudonymous blogger, I agree thoroughly with Julian’s take: both on the fact that any pseudonym-bearing-blog is a serious, long term project that one doesn’t want to jettison so easily, and the point in the addendum that so many of the opponents are writers who trade on their names.

    MBunge: What personal facts could possibly be relevant? Pseudonymity strips any possibility of argument from authority, and it is authority that is usually in question when conflicts of interest arise.

    A doctor who is being paid to advocate a medicine doesn’t have a conflict of interest because he’s a pitchman, but because he’s trading on the credibility afforded him by being a doctor. If he used a pseudonym to pitch the drug, the possibility that he could benefit financially from it would be naturally present no matter who he was, and would be a part of any attempt to judge the arguments’ credibility.

    And to claim that there is any “fairness” between someone with a secure bully pulpit vs. someone without one is just perverse. Have you even HEARD of SLAPP suits, MBunge?

  • 13 unique // Jun 10, 2009 at 1:40 am

    I think the answer is simple, especially for those who have a difficulty with someone not accurately identifying themselves – simply use the fingerprint scanner that seems standard equipment on modern laptops, and sign your posts with your thumbprint.

    I am waiting for the applause of those who abhor that old chestnut about how no one on the Internet knows you are a dog to be reach a crescendo.

  • 14 Ella // Sep 6, 2012 at 10:37 am

    I think you’ve just caprtued the answer perfectly