The Issue of Anonymity

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A guest commentary from 'Winston Smith'

There are plenty of good bloggers out there, and I have mentioned many of them in this forum. If asked to choose who is the best of the lot, Id have to go for Winston Smith and his Orwellian Spin blog.

Smith is a deep thinker, and I have tremendous respect for the way he presents arguments without being argumentative. In making a point, he wields logic, reason and facts with surgical precision, forcing readers to consider his points on an intellectual rather than emotional level.

For this reason, Smith is performing a valuable public service.

This morning, Smith attempted to post a comment on my blog but ran into a glitch with the sites posting system. So he emailed me the comment all 934 words of it. And it is classic Winston Smith: carefully considered, thoroughly researched and highly intelligent.

By now, the main rush of readers has already seen the Sign Your Name entry (and the excellent comments by David Newell and Kerri Breen) so I fear Smiths contribution, if posted there, will be missed by most readers. Therefore, I am presenting it here, as a guest column.

Winston Smith is a pseudonym, which makes this commentary even more relevant and interesting. Smith gives his reasons below, but suffice to say they have less to do with his own well-being than that of those who are close to him.

Smiths opinions are not incompatible with my own, though I may need to clarify mine in light of the points he raises. If I do respond, however, I will do so in the comments section. I invite you to do the same. - GM

The Issue of Anonymity

As someone who writes under a pen name, I'd like to respond to your post and to the other comments.

First, I think there is a danger of conflating two discrete questions: the identity of a commentator, and the content of her/his comment. There may be a correlation between the two (i.e., much of the abusive comment does come from anonymous sources), but they are not the same thing. I have seen plenty of nasty, abusive commentary on the Internet and elsewhere by people who proudly sign their real name.

There is, no doubt, a problem with anonymous commentators (some of whom are likely paid plants); but that does not mean that the solution to the problem is to exclude anonymous commentators or those who use a pseudonym. I have noticed a pattern on some blogs, whereby the issue of anonymity arises only when a commentator posts something that disagrees with the blogger. On some prominent blogs, such as Bond Papers, anonymous commentators are welcomed (indeed, the site touts its leaks from government sources), so the problem seems to be as much the content of the post as the lack of real-world identity.

We should keep in mind that anonymous sources and the use of pen names are as old as free speech and journalism itself. The modern newspaper and the practice of print journalism were made possible by pen names. This practice was essential to the creation of what Habermas called a public sphere, and it fueled the birth of opposition politics in NL. The best letters to the editor advocating representative government in Newfoundland were written by the very type of anonymous sources that professional journalists now tend to dismiss.

This raises a second important point: the relationship between professional and semi-professional journalists, on the one hand; and amateur commentators, on the other. There seems to be a common (and a very false) assumption that everyone is equally free to use their own names when they comment publicly on the Williams government. For the journalists and others who make a living from political commentary, the issue of anonymity seems very simple: only the gutless refuse to use their real names. But for those who are participating as amateurs (and doing it for free, I might add), we have to balance competing pressures: this is not our job; we're not doing it for material or professional gain; and we have to consider our careers and families.

Which brings me to a critical issue: the discussion both here and elsewhere tends to assume that the decision to use a pen name entails entirely individual concerns. But I ask you to keep in mind that this decision is often not entirely individual; in fact, it can often turn on how such a decision would affect family members vulnerable to retribution. Before journalists jump to condemn everyone who is not at liberty to use their real name, please stop to consider that they may be using a pseudonym to protect members of their extended family. St. John's is, politically speaking, a very small town.

The Internet has brought many things, including the problem of flame wars (which, by the way, are not restricted to anonymous commentators); however, it has also democratized public debate, bringing amateurs into a discussion that used to be largely monopolized by professionals. Professional journalists no longer occupy the position of gate-keepers that they once enjoyed. This strikes me as a positive development, and one that journalists should welcome rather than fear. If you look at the quality of the current commentary on NL politics, some of the best material comes from amateurs.

Finally, I think the participation of amateur commentators using pen names can bring another benefit: it shifts the focus away from the identity of the author and pulls it toward the content of the argument. One of the problems with political discourse in NL (in part due to the small pool of politicos, who all know each other personally) is that it focuses too much on the personal background and politics of the individual. This feeds the very type of ad hominem nastiness typically associated with the problem of anonymity.

For those of us who use pen names, whether we have any degree of influence depends entirely on the quality of our arguments and our writing. No one is going to read Orwellian Spin for any reason other than what's actually posted on the blog. This means that in the marketplace of ideas that J.S. Mill envisaged, my blog will sink or swim on its content -- not my professional connections, party affiliations, or net worth. It also means that I won't get a pass because I'm a professional or a politico who can count on a base of support. It's important to keep in mind that comments from anonymous sources are dismissed much more easily and frequently than comments from professional journalists. A newspaper editor who says something stupid will still get a lot more respect (and get cut a lot more slack) than an amateur who makes a mistake.

I've tried to walk away from my blog and refrain from posting comments on others, in part because of the time and energy it takes away from my other responsibilities. But I keep getting pulled back by the sense that NL needs a stronger, more sustained public opposition to the Williams administration. Whatever label you want to put on the current state of the provincial polity (I've recently used the term collective bipolar disorder), there is a pressing need for a more critical, and more comparative, assessment of the Williams government.

- Winston Smith

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Recent comments

  • Geoff
    July 27, 2010 - 14:53

    I agree with pretty much everything Winston has to say here. And there is a place in public discourse for anonymous comments. I realize there are instances where someone cannot go public with their views - the most obvious example being a public servant who wants to say something critical of government. However, I am big on disclosure. That is, if someone wants to post an anonymous comment on my blog, I will allow it if they offer the reason why (and fear of retribution is definitely a valid reason). My policy is a blanket one, and I reject anonymous comments of all types, including those that are complimentary.