Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Bloggers Anonymous

Is anonymity the enemy of free speech?

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?


Chuck Pelto said...

TO: Dr. Schneiderman
RE: Anonymity, Anyone

I have no problem with people posting anonymously.

However, I attribute greater credibility and personal integrity to people how have the personal moral code and courage to post under their own names.

I post under my name as a reminder that what I say has (1) greater import and (2) the likelihood that it could come back to 'bite me', if I misbehave.


[I wish to say what I think and feel today, with the proviso that tomorrow perhaps I shall contradict it all. -- Ralph Waldo Emerson]

P.S. What I say today, should be well said, that tomorrow, if I must contradict it, I do in in good grace.

Chuck Pelto said...

P.P.S. There are, as I've oft observed, advantages and disadvantages to every possible situation or position.

One of the 'disadvantages' of anonymous posting is the ability to commit libel with impunity.

I suggest that the counter for that is to require a service provider to disclose the information to identify the 'anonymous' perpetrator of such objectionable behavior.

The question becomes, what are the legal issues to expose the perp. Court orders are more expensive than most people care to pay. Maybe we could come up with a way that was less expensive. Automation techniques might be applicable.

Dennis said...

If anyone has watched as people who openly disagree with the Left in this country are attacked in every possible manner then it is not difficult to see why people post anonymously or with screen names. I post in this manner in order to keep those people from taking action that might endanger my family of friends.
The posting of commentary by use of anonymous and/or the many names used by those who wrote the "Federalist Papers" or commentary throughout history is no different. This was a standard practice used in early colonial days and throughout history. Alexander Hamilton was quite adept at writing under many different names. These early writers were none to kind to each other.
The internet offers one the opportunity to respond back. I believe many people need to grow up and deal with life as it is. This is just another way to curtail free speech and to protect those in power from being ridiculed. The last thing one should want is to drive dissent underground where it cannot be addressed.
When one is going up against those who hold power the last thing one needs is to provide a way for them to keep you from speaking out. Paid any attention to what happens to people in universities, those who challenge TSA, et al?
Keeping ones freedom is a messy business given those who would like to take it away. If you cannot stand the heat get out of the kitchen.

Retriever said...

I blog and comment anonymously because (like many people) I work under PC rules that could bite me if I posted under my real name. It's a case of saying that the Emperor has no clothes. As the breadwinner for my family, I have to put their welfare over the greater satisfaction of being able to sign my real name to my opinions. But we do not have free speech in this country, at least if one's speech contradicts PC dogma.

Second, I frequently write about mental health and family issues drawn from the experience of either my past work as a chaplain and youth minister or experiences with mentally ill family members I have cared for. Most bloggers want to share insights hardwon from work and life experiences, and to discuss them with others, but we do not want to violate the privacy of loved ones or of people we have served professionally.

And then there is the question of stalking. One frequently finds that a person develops an unreasoning hatred or obsession with one's ideas or some idea they have about you. If one blogs anonymously, one needn't worry that a troll will come and threaten the physical safety of one's family.

There is also the relief of blogging anonymously if one has ever had a name or a job where people were sucking up to one because of one's name or title. Being anonymous, the friends one makes online tend to be genuine.

And then there is the whole matter of impact upon the children. IF one has a child who might have or need a security clearance. Or a child who might be applying for a PC job. Or a child who is shy. Or a child who doesn't want to be known as that loudmouthed Retriever's kid...My kids sometimes get so angry at my opinions as it is, but they at least have the consolation that none of their friends know that it's me. I mean, imagine having a named blogger or columnist for a mom? Gaaaah. My kids are still recovering from when I used to be a minister in our church and EVERYONE in the neighborhood knew who they were...

I definitely blog anonymously because I am scared of an Administration with an Enemies List. Tho I'm sure they have my IP address...

I also blog anonymously because I have so many acquaintances that if I wrote under my real name, people would get mad at me and think I was writing about them. As it is, every time I write about limousine liberals or divorcing families or spoiled pampered suburban kids, one friend of mine gets furious at me, thinking I am writing about her (I am not, but she's sensitive).

I preferred writing under my own name (as a college journalist), but I feel that with a family to support and unpopular conservative views, I have to be more discreet.

Chuck Pelto said...

TO: All
RE: I Have 'Mixed' Feelings....

....about these claims that people don't use their names in order to protect their friends and/or families.

At face value, I can appreciate the positions.

However, at a deeper, and much more significant, level I see a fear, i.e., lack of courage, necessary to sustain the liberties we have fought so hard to establish. And by 'fought' I mean every man and woman who selflessly laid down their lives to PROTECT their friends and families.

I have three wives, two of which are Ex's. And two daughters, both of whom bear my surname.

I do not fear for their lives. Rather, I see them as having to shoulder the same responsibilities to maintain this nation, this society, as everyone else who calls themselves a citizen is required to do.

If we, as a people, hide behind our friends and families in stead of taking on the fight, which we all know is here and now, what will we become?

Three guesses. First two don't count.


[War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. -- John Stuart Mill]

P.S. Here's an interesting item that I think touches on this business.....

Chuck Pelto said...

P.S. Stuart has a number of interesting articles relating to the sort of behavior I have misgivings about. One of the more salient being this one from last August, appropriately titled Liberals for Oppression.

And make no mistake about it, the people that these others here are afraid of are practicing the terrorism described in the article. And they bear witness to the efficacy.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I very much appreciate Retriever's remarks about anonymous blogging. Given that the intellectual elites who are writing books about this believe that the real reason for anonymity is to slander with impunity I am happy to read Retriever's explanations for her decision, and hope that everyone will respect her for it.

As Dennis reminded us, and as Clarence Thomas wrote in his concurrence with the Supreme Court tradition, anonymity has a long and distinguished history in America. If it was good enough for Alexander Hamilton and James Madison and Thomas Paine, it should be good enough for us.

Chuck Pelto said...

TO: Dr. Schneiderman
RE: Opinions

As I stated, I understand their arguments. As well as the place for anonymity in the public venue as well as in Law.

However, I question what is to become of US if so few people have the courage necessary to maintain our freedoms—because they're 'afraid'—we're pretty much finished as a society.

It's the LONG-TERM view. And the effectiveness of the intimidation is blatantly obvious to even the most casual observer. It's the local—and for the most part not quite so violent—application of the militant Muslims approach to 'politics'.

If you can't beat them. Intimidate them. If you can't intimidate them. Kill them.

It's a situation like Gary Cooper faced in High Noon.


[One of the greatest blessings of virtue is the contempt of death. He who has learned how to die has unlearned how to serve. To be ready to die frees us from all bondage and thralldom -- Montaigne]

P.S. And therein lies the proverbial 'rub'. And an indication of the power of 'Faith'....but that's another topic....

Cargosquid said...

Anonymity seemed to work for Silence Dogood....

Chuck Pelto said...

TO: Cargosquid
RE: Indeed

Anonymity seemed to work for Silence Dogood.... -- Cargosquid

However, he was not 'anonymous' at that signing in Philidelphia back in July of 1776. And remember, he wrote those letters when he was....what....14??!?! Impressive.


[We all hang together or we shall surely all hang separately. -- Benjamin Franklin, a.k.a., Silence Dogood]

P.S. The same is true today.

P.P.S. That's a GREAT movie.

Chuck Pelto said...

P.P.S. About 'Silence Dogood'....

As a teenager, Franklin worked as an apprentice in his older brother James' printing shop in Boston, where The New-England Courant was printed.

Franklin never got anything he wrote published, so, at age 16, Franklin created the persona of a middle-aged widow named Silence Dogood.[1] Once every two weeks, he would leave a letter under the door of his brother's printing shop. A total of 14 letters were sent.
-- Article at Wikipedia


....I ask you....

....would you expect your brother to publish your letters, you working as an VERY young apprentice for him in THAT era?

So, I suspect it wasn't out of fear of being beat up, imprisoned or worse by the British when he wrote anonymously. After all, why would the British give a flying crumpet about hoop-peticoats?

But, when it came to standing against tyranny, he wasn't there anonymously.

Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God. -- Benjamin Franklin

Chuck Pelto said...

TO: All
RE: How.....



[Gird up your loins.....]

P.S. Based on something from Cargosquid, I watched National Treasure.

And I was once again 'struck' by the reading of that segment of the Declaration of Independence, which goes....

But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and provide new Guards for their future security.

Anyone else here having the hairs on the back of their neck 'rise'?


[If you're not 'paranoid', it's because you aren't paying attention.]

P.S. I was trained to be 'paranoid' by the best: the US Army. And, in truth, they ARE 'out to get you'.

Chuck Pelto said...

TO: All
RE: Oh....

....for cry'n out loud.

As I was indicating earlier....

....Life is 'dangerous'. You're engaged or you're a 'victim' of the victor.


[When the shooting starts, you're either a 'combatant' or you're a pop-up target. -- CBPelto]

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