Can the marketplace of ideas continue to function when people can freely hide their identities?
Do people write anonymously on the internet because they want to slander and defame others with impunity?
Yesterday, Stanley Fish addressed some of these issues in a compelling column. He was writing about a book that offers a shrill attack on the internet. Entitled The Offensive Internet, the book argues that since the internet allows authors to hide their identities, it promoting an especially virulent form of assault, and thereby is ruining public discourse. Link here.
Stanley Fish sums up one part of the argument: ‘The practice of withholding the identity of the speaker is strategic, and one purpose of the strategy (this is the second problem with anonymity) is to avoid responsibility and accountability for what one is saying. Anonymity, Martha Nussbaum, a professor of law and philosophy at the University of Chicago observes, allows Internet bloggers ‘to create for themselves a shame-free zone in which they can inflict shame on others.’ The power of the bloggers, she continues, ‘depends on their ability to insulate their Internet selves from responsibility in the real world, while ensuring real-world consequences‘ for those they injure.”
Surely, this is alarmist hyperbole. Just as surely, it is an exaggeration, paying lip service to the marketplace of ideas while attacking, in the most uncivil terms, the internet itself.
As Fish adds: “In the course of the volume the Internet is characterized as a cesspool, a porn store, a form of pinkeye, a raunchy fraternity, a graffiti–filled bathroom wall, a haven for sociopaths, and the breeder of online mobs who are no better than ‘masked Klan members‘ in their determination to ‘interfere with victims’ basic rights.’"
While no one would grant the internet moral agency, this level of exaggeration suggests that the authors are not just exercised over unprotected slander, but that they have a larger agenda. It appears that they are making the case for regulatory control of the blogosphere because they feel that it brings out the worst in human nature. Better yet, they seem to believe that the worst is the truth of human nature. They have so little faith in freedom or in human judgment that they see nothing but calamity coming from the free and open expression of ideas.
Regardless of the high tech aspect of this argument, its proponents are saying that human beings are too evil for freedom.
If the authors really wanted to rectify the fact that our culture is awash in incivility, they should have started by toning down their own overheated rhetoric and by practicing civility themselves.
I would not deny that some people hide behind anonymity to slander, libel, and defame. None of these is constitutionally protected free speech. All can be prosecuted or litigated.
Were it simply the question of passing a law that requires internet providers to reveal the identities, if known, of those who commit such actions, most of us would be in favor.
Beyond that small minority, some people blog anonymously because they are shy and discreet or because they want to protect their reputations or their lives.
Several prominent psych bloggers write anonymously for professional reasons. Among them are Robin of Berkeley, Shrinkwrapped, and F*ck Feelings.
Others might fear the consequences of saying things that others might find blasphemous. Cartoonist Molly Norris stepped forth in her own name to sponsor a contest about drawing a cartoon of Mohammed.
For her pains, the FBI insisted that she go into witness protection and change her name.
A whistleblower might be wiser to blog about corporate dereliction under the guise of anonymity. An assistant professor who is up for tenure might think it wise to express his politically incorrect opinions anonymously.
Anonymity is a classical way of avoiding censorship. In a culture where people are quick to take offense, and where differences of opinion are often denounced as hate speech, why would it not be reasonable for some people to blog anonymously?
Stanley Fish is correct to say that the identity of the author of a blog post, or of any verbal expression, constitutes part of the message.
If you receive a stock tip you would probably want know whether it was coming from Warren Buffett or Stanley Fish.
But, we also know that a person who chooses to mask his identity also loses some of his credibility.
If it were simply a question of anonymous shaming, that would be one thing. But the intellectuals who wrote this book do not limit themselves to shaming. They also want to regulate what they call the intentional distribution of disinformation.
As Fish presents the argument: “Rather then producing truth, the free and open marketplace of the Internet ‘will lead many people to accept damaging and destructive falsehoods,’ and unless there is ‘some kind of chilling effect on false statements,’ the ‘proper functioning of democracy itself‘ may be endangered.”
Of course, there is a difference between defamatory speech and falsehoods. And then there is the problem of knowing when falsehood is being purveyed intentionally. When we start talking about threats to democracy we are not talking about a teenager calling another teenager a slut.
But then, who might it be who is purveying destructive falsehoods that are threatening democracy itself? And who is going to decide what should or should not be allowed to be reported?
Do you imagine that these writers believe that the New York Times and MSNBC distort the news? From their leftist perspective these publications present the unvarnished truth. Their enemy is Fox News. It is usually what leftists are referring to, without naming it, when they talk about puveyors of lies and falsehoods.
And aren’t these great intellectuals most lathered up over the fact that they have lost their monopoly control of what information the public can access?
Aren’t they just pretending to get lathered up over internet slander because they are looking for a toehold to open the door to censorship and to restore their own power over the marketplace of ideas?