Sunday, May 23, 2010

THE RIGHT THING: OUTING THE ANONYMOUS ONLINE

Many of the newspapers that carry my column allow readers to post online comments in response, as I also do on the blog I write for the column. The newspapers generally require readers to register some basic information before they can post comments under their chosen screen names. Once they have their screen names, however, it's easy for readers to post anonymous comments, since screen names generally do little to identify the poster.

I could require readers to do similarly on my blog, of course, and I also could set up a moderating feature that would prevent any comment from being posted on the site until I had reviewed and approved it.

I could do so, but I've chosen to do neither. I do ask readers to include their names in whatever they post, but it's not mandatory, and they are free to post anything they want in response to a blog post. The only posts I delete are spam messages trying to sell cheap pharmaceuticals or other products unrelated to the blog.

While I allow readers to post anonymously, I'm not a fan of hiding behind a screen name to express a strong opinion, or even a lukewarm one. If the opinion is worth hearing, I believe, its author ought to be willing to stand behind it.

In his book Integrity (Basic Books, 1996), Stephen L. Carter talks about three steps that are essential to integrity: The first is discernment, the second is to act on what you discern and the third is to state openly what you have done and why you have done it.

Anonymity falls short of Carter's mark, in short, and I agree with him. An opinion expressed without a signature suggests that the author herself is to some degree ashamed of it. There are plenty of counterexamples in which anonymity is acceptable - say, in criticizing a totalitarian government which might punish the truth teller severely - but online commentary in a free society isn't one of them.

All of which brings me to a question I recently received from a reader in Boston.

"If someone posts a comment to an article or video online under a `nom de Web' instead of her real name," the reader writes, "and someone else comes along and recognizes that she's probably the author of that comment, is it ethical for him to give her full name in his response?

"Given the wingnut factor in many of these threads," she adds, "98 percent of the people posting comments do so under something other than their real names, so what would motivate someone to make public the identity of another commenter?"

I'm in no position to explain the motivations of someone who "outs" an anonymous poster. Perhaps the outer felt it important that the poster stand behind her comments, though that premise holds up only if the outer himself gave his name. Or perhaps he hoped to see someone whom he disagreed with shamed into taking responsibility for a view he found objectionable. Your guess is as good as mine.

I see no virtue in outing an anonymous poster, even if you are certain of his or her identity, and I don't think it's ethical to do so. If a site allows for anonymous postings, and if there is no legal or safety issue involved, then those posts should remain anonymous. It is not up to other posters to revise the site's rules, and of course there's always the possibility of doing harm by an incorrect "outing."

That said, I strongly believe that, regardless of the policy of a given site, the right thing for posters to do is to stand behind their comments by identifying themselves. It's too easy to toss brickbats when no one can hold you accountable. To be willing to affix your name to the convictions you express is a sign of integrity and gives your opinions added weight.

If the thought of revealing who you are makes you hesitant to post a comment, probably you should rethink your posting.

c.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

4 comments:

Madilyn said...

You did not address the other side of freedom of speech, the reason people may choose anonymity.

Some opinions are unpopular; and there are too many instances of violence in response to a voiced unpopular opinion. Being able to say your peace without threat of harm is the freedom we all deserve, but not always available. Numerous inflammatory subject still abound: abortion rights, gay marriage, war in Iraq, health care coverage...

Posting anonymously gives a person a chance to speak without fear of "retribution." It affords an opportunity to see if there are others who think the same, to see if we are being ruled by a violent minority when we should instead embrace safety in numbers.

Or, perhaps, remain hidden in the Achterhuis and wait for another day.

Madilyn Bruening
Salt Lake City, UT

Termyte said...

Another reason for a "Nom de Web" is that it provides a way, however feeble, to protect us from the web crawlers and other devious mechanisms that harvest names, email addresses, and views from blogs, discussion boards, et al.

I have a name that is not very common (e.g., there are only two of us on all of Facebook). If my surname were Smith, Jones, or anything relatively common, it would be of little value to the identify harvesters out there. On the other hand, my real name, and my postings, could be used by special interest groups, to target me for either hate mail, or "Join our group, O Fellow Traveler" mail. Neither of which I want.

However, as "Termyte" I can present a point of view that is consistent with my own, without worrying about getting unwanted emails from these various social or political organizations.

SayTell said...

Termyte makes an excellent point. But there is another point beyond the fears of "read rage" and spam.

I work in a service industry, and am thus in people's homes and businesses. I know without question that I have customers who do not share my religious, social or political views. They have chosen to use my firm because of our skill in our field.

I post my views anonymously for the same reason I don't put bumper stickers on my car. It would be irresponsible, at best, to alienate potential customers because of issues that are totally unrelated to our work.

Shmuel said...

I agree with Madilyn, Termyte, and SayTell. There is a very long and distinguished tradition of anonymous voices in public discourse, including the Federalist Papers themselves. This ought to be vigorously defended, not disparaged.

Shmuel Ross
Brooklyn, NY

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