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Summary:

Online anonymity has been taking a beating recently, with the Gay Girl in Damascus affair and a recent piece by the former ombudsman at NPR criticizing anonymous comments. But allowing people to be anonymous has real value for society that shouldn’t be dismissed so quickly.

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The old joke about being online is that “no one knows you’re a dog.” But the idea of online anonymity has been taking a beating recently, in part because of celebrated cases of fraud such as the Gay Girl in Damascus blog — which turned out to be written by a 40-year-old Scottish man. And the former ombudsman for National Public Radio has also come out swinging against the anonymity of commenters, which she calls “an exercise in faux democracy.” But allowing people to be anonymous isn’t the problem — plus, it has real value for society that shouldn’t be dismissed so quickly.

The fact that someone might want to set up a blog and pretend to be a lesbian in Damascus (as Bobbie Johnson described in his recent post on the issue) is definitely somewhat disturbing — in part because it was revealed that the creator of the blog had been carrying on this facade for several years, and had taken in several knowledgeable writers on the Middle East, including Global Voices Online staffer Jillian York, who wrote about her experiences in a blog post.

But as online media veteran Dan Gillmor pointed out in a piece for The Guardian on the “Amina” affair, the fact that someone can pretend to be a gay blogger in the Middle East without being discovered also means that real lesbians and other persecuted people in Damascus or anywhere else can also post their thoughts online, and that can be a very powerful force for democracy and human rights. Should anonymity (or what is actually pseudonymity) only be allowed for those who can prove that they really are political dissidents? And if so, who would do the proving? Says Gillmor:

What we should all fear is what too many in power want to see: the end of anonymity entirely. Governments, in particular, absolutely loathe the idea that people can speak without being identified… I fear there will soon be widespread laws disallowing anonymous speech, even in America.

Along the same lines, there has been a lot of discussion recently about how online activity of all kinds — including blog comments — would be better if anonymity was outlawed or restricted in some way. Alicia Shepard, the former ombudsman for National Public Radio, wrote a piece recently for the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University in which she argued that many comment sections are “an exercise in faux democracy” and that there would be “more honest, kinder, civil exchanges if people used their real names.”

This is something we feel pretty strongly about at GigaOM, and something I also felt strongly about during my previous job managing online community for a major national newspaper that got tens of thousands of comments a day. Did we get a lot of hateful comments? Yes, we sure did — and we used a Winnipeg-based company called ICUC Moderation Services to handle the worst, which NPR also uses. But the ability for people to speak their minds about important topics without having that attached to their real names is also important, I think — and one of the main reasons media sites have such terrible comments is that their writers rarely if ever engage with readers.

One of the solutions that Alicia Shepard and others have reached for when it comes to blocking anonymous comments is to hand over commenting functions to Facebook and only allow those who log in with their real identities to comment. But as we’ve noted before, this restricts the conversation by default to only those who want to attach comments to their real names — and those who want to log in via Facebook. That might reduce spam or trolling, but what about those who have something worthwhile to say who prefer to remain anonymous? They are effectively excluded.

Dissidents in the Middle East who want to try to make themselves heard about the conditions in their countries (a group that Jillian York has argued is ill-served by Facebook’s rules requiring real names) aren’t the only ones who might want to remain anonymous. As the ombudsman at the Washington Post noted in a recent post about the benefit of allowing anonymity in comments, there are plenty of issues that people in the U.S. and elsewhere might want to speak freely about without having that attached to their names whenever someone does a Google search, and they deserve to be able to do that.

In the end, the ability to speak anonymously isn’t just an attribute of what Alicia Shepard calls “faux democracies” — it’s something that has also played a key role in the rise of real democracies in countries like the United States, by allowing people to speak to the powerful without fear of persecution. We shouldn’t toss that kind of principle aside so lightly just because we want to cut down on irritating comments from readers, or stop the occasional blogger from pretending to be someone they are not.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Kat B Photography

  1. The written word is not the same as the spoken word. Spoken words have the advantage of fleeting memory. In other words if one wants a “conversation” and not reporting in comments one better tries to emulate a “conversation”. We do not record normal conversations for a reason.

    Also people are pretty good at aggregation and abstraction, so if a whole site. Not just one article, has some underlying “inconsistency” issues the comments on that site for any given article will reflect that. Or how you write is as important as what you write. Only some editors have no clue, or they do but then complain about the comments and content thereof anyway. Or do as I say not as I do. We just do everything for a darn page view. But don’t want that reflected in our comments. There we want well thought out,verified written words. In other words reporting. Has to be somewhere :-)

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    1. Good point. :)

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  2. Those arguing against anonymity would do well to remember it has been a facet of communication for a long time, one recent example being The Federalist Papers.

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    1. It’s true that “Publius” was a nominally anonymous handle but the fact is, everybody at the time knew that Publius was (for the most part) Alexander Hamilton.

      Posting under a pseudonym was a convention at the time — everybody did it; by and large, most knew who the actual author really was. The reason for the convention was the strict laws against libel and slander. Unless one had solid proof of the author’s identity, the author was basically shielded from those laws. But the publisher generally knew the identity of the “anonymous” author. So I’m not sure this is the best example.

      And of course, there is a world of difference between publishing an argument anonymously, and using anonymity as a cloak for illegal activity (a la LulzSec).

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  3. Freedom of speech means different things in different places in the world. The idea that a government can shut down the Internet entirely to their people is an amazing thing. Thankfully where there is a will, people will find a way.

    Cocoon believes everyone has a right to access the Web, a right to privacy on the Web, and a right to surf without worrying about viruses. Full disclosure I do work with them.

    No website should be held responsible for comments their readers leave – though I believe some comments are worthy of being removed.

    I’m commenting with an anonymous random email generated by Cocoon. The purpose is more about spam control than pure anonymity, but both are accomplished.

    There are ways to protect your privacy and speech online, getCocoon.com is one and there are others such as TOR. Check them out, and protect your right to privacy online.

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  4. Then there is the problem of anonymous sources who state opinions – as well as total lies – as though they were facts in an effort to sway the public. Repeat it often enough and more than only the lower 50% believe it.

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    1. And 93.2% of all facts are made up.

      Look, you can’t fix stupid. But it’s not uncommon for me to want to be able to say something without [Agency | Misfits | Employer] knocking on my door with an axe to grind.

      There’s precious little real privacy or anonymity to be found as it is. I’d like to keep whatever we can… even for whatever little ills it causes.

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  5. ” the ability for people to speak their minds about important topics without having that attached to their real names is also important…”
    I agree. For some people anonymity is the ONLY option (or they could suffer dire consequences in their country.)

    There are times when I may choose to be anonymous (for example: your site has approx. 19 methods to track my presence online) and generally I would use the getcocoon.com plug-in to stop you from collecting this data about me.

    OTOH – you just need to look at Lulzsec to see how anonymity is often used to harm the people. I believe that using anonymity to harm others has NO VALUE…

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  6. Spoken words are soon forgotten, easily taken out of context unless you were party to the discussion. Write those words down, however, and record them on a medium that potentially immortalizes everything for posterity?

    Muzzling or otherwise censoring anonymous comments is certainly an effective device for keeping the conversation a “preach to the choir only” production. I guess if that’s what you want?

    The beauty of having an opinion is that I have the option of expressing it or not. When I do, only I get to dictate the terms of that expression, not anybody else. My privacy is my own, and I do not concede it easily.

    It’s always amusing to me the parties who want to “ban” anonymity. Think about it: governments, fundamentalist idealogues, self appointed thought police (who lack authority only to the extent that governments do not yet bestowed additional sought after power on them), corporations… I could go on. In a free society the most puzzling of these are people who have a certain frame of mind about things yet spare no effort to stifle, demonize or otherwise “regulate” opposing points of view (curiously many of them consider themselves intellectuals, go figure).

    Freedom of speech, but only if you sign your name to it, have your identity verified six ways to Sunday (thanks Facebook), and have all your shared thoughts and opinions on everything from politics to pizza crust preference just a Google click away from prospective employers, creeps, or any other person who may not have your best interests at heart. No thanks.

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    1. Well said, Joseph — thanks for the comment.

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  7. Anonymity is absolutely important. It keeps the online blog/media in check of their biases. The only site that adopted facebook only comments in techcrunch, and with good reason.

    TC is an extremely corrupt news source / blog, whose head, Arrington writes good about companies in which he or his friends have invested and rubbishes anyone and everyone else. Then there are PR f**ks like MG Siegler, who are biased towards Apple or facebook or whatever and spew out continuous biased garbage. The comments section became too accurate to ignore and ever since they switched to facebook comments…the site has lost all of its appeal..all the value was coming from the insightful comments which were upvoted by the community.

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  8. The virtue of the internet IS anonymity. It really shouldn’t matter whether I’m a lesbian latino, a white male, or a half phillipino, half arab eccentric inventor. One’s ideas should be judged on their own merit.

    The people who I’ve seen oppose anonymity, to a person, do so because they want the power to silence critics. It is popular on the left, these days, to believe that anything the president says is “fact”, and to start websites like “factcheck.org” whose sole purpose is to whitewash these lies with the assertion that they are facts. (you know that what he says is true- the word “Fact” is in the URL!) This goes doubly for anyone from nazi public radio.

    Obama is not anonymous. but in the famous “you lie” speech, I counted at least one provable lie in every sentence– not just the asinine one which resulted in the “you lie” accusation.

    Republicans are often no better.

    In a day and age where the president is black, and therefore his supporters feel comfortable calling anyone who disagrees with him “racist”– even fellow black people– the motives for denigrating anonymity are clear as a day.

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    1. Thanks, Any Mouse — good point that ideas should be judged on their own merit, not based on who the commenter is.

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  9. I think of Ben Franklin and also The Federalist Papers. When a person is motivated by hate, they hide behind a cloak. When a person speaks an uncomfortable truth, hateful people want to round them up and make a public spectacle of them. Invest more time getting rid of the hate, not the dialog.

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  10. Nothing wrong for post who can do with anonymous. This can help the person in two way. One is he can express freely about his intention what ever it may. Secondly with that opinion other people can be benefited like health related issue. If the blogger attached the comments through Face book is it stop the Anonymous comments? No i think B’coz people can create pseudo account and will comments it. Instead of attaching with social network better to allow anonymous to freely comments and respect for every one freedom of expression.

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