Monday, November 5, 2007

Anonymity as Credibility

As I mentioned previously, anonymous blogging makes more sense in a regime whose government is not representative. A very good article in the Asahi Shimbun today "Sizing up China: Internet posing a sensational and credible challenge."

Here is the kicker:

Chinese prize the Internet because it is a relatively free forum to express their opinions. According to a 2005 survey by the Chinese Academy for Social Sciences, 60.8 percent of Chinese respondents said that people have more opportunities to criticize the government on the Internet. The number was much greater than 24.2 percent in Japan, 20 percent in the United States and 10.1 percent in Sweden.

"People's enthusiasm for the Internet is the flip side of the government's tight control of the conventional media," said a reporter of one of China's state-run news agencies, who declined to be named.

She said that she often writes news and opinions on her three anonymous Web blogs that she cannot write in the company's wire reports.

"The irony here is that the Internet is viewed as a credible media, because of its anonymity," the reporter said. (IHT/Asahi: November 5, 2007)


joejoejoe said...

An excerpt from Bruce Barry's book Speechless:The Erosion of Free Expression in the American Workplace discussing the experience of Lynne Gobbel, an Alabama factory worker. (via Crooked Timber)

"Gobbel had a John Kerry bumper sticker. Her boss informed her that the owner of the factory, Phil Geddes, had demanded that she remove the sticker or be fired; he also told her “you could either work for him or John Kerry.” Geddes had on a previous occasion inserted a flyer in employee paycheck envelopes pointing out the positive effects that Bush’s policies as president were having on them. “It upset me and made me mad,” said Gobbel, “that he could put a letter in my check expressing his political opinion, but I can’t put something on my car expressing mine.”

Henry Farrell of CT discussing the same:

"More generally...countries or US states where people can lose their jobs for expressing certain political opinions are likely, as a result, to be places where people’s effective ability to exercise free speech rights in certain important situations are going to be stunted and diminished. The abstract right to express your support for a political candidate or position isn’t very useful if you think that you’re going to lose your job if you try to exercise it."

If Lynne Gobbel wants to participate in a political forum as LilLynn2000 because she fears reprisals at work she should be able to do so without restriction. You are free to take pseudonymous or anonymous comments (they are different) with any size grain of salt you choose but you should know that the policy you are advocating (posting in your full name) does more to chill the free exchange of ideas than promote it.

Citing the U.S. as a free and open society is wonderful but there are very real and common examples of retribution for people who speak openly about controversial topics that you continually ignore such as the Goebel example above and the recent SCOTUS case Garcetti v. Ceballos.

It's all well and good to have an academic debate about this topic but academia is an outlier when it comes to speech restrictions, workers, and the workplace. Think tanks and universities have the most open speech policies of any workplace in world. Most people who comment on blogs have different experiences and circumstances from your own and the threats that you casually dismiss are all too real for millions of Americans.

Devin Stewart said...

Joejoejoe, duly noted!

We put together this group of academic institutions and think tanks to try to create a weight for or a public reminder of the importance of good behavior on the Internet.

Why? So the government doesn't feel the need to step in and regulate, spoiling it for everyone.

I can see what you mean when you say anonymity is sometimes justified in American discussions. I just worry about the insults and general lack of civility that comes with it. See our posting on the Public Editor's essay in the New York Times (above). When anonymous, people tend to say things they wouldn't normally say otherwise, and they aren't accountable.

Can we agree that the discourse need to be decent whether anonymous or not?

verplanck colvin said...

insults? some blogs like to "moderate" comments that are "uncivil". Too often, the definition of "uncivil" is merely a pointed critique.

And yes, sometimes a swear word (of which I won't print here for fear of being "moderated") is used. So what? A good argument can often be enhanced by a well-placed curse word.

I remember back in the Deborah Howell WaPo affair, the WaPo pulled all of its comments for the very reasons you cite (and have for a commenting policy). However, some folks at the Daily Kos archived them. Of the hundreds of comments, only a handful (less than 10, IIRC) were truly "over the line" (cursing for the sake of cursing, derogatory personal attacks, etc.)

I personally would rather an open community that swears every so often than a 'civil' community that hears no dissent. We are all adults, after all.

Evan O'Neil said...

verplanck, Thanks for your comment. We're striving to create the open community atmosphere you describe. Dissent is welcome. We don't delete swear words for the sake of deleting swear words any more than we allow cursing for the sake of cursing. They are powerful and colorful and can be used for good or ill.

Personally, I think the mere presence of anger and venom on the Internet, in quantities greater than one would release in normal day-to-day, face-to-face contact, is itself significant. It deserves study, not suppression.

verplanck colvin said...


Thanks for the response. The increased heat we've all seen from the blogs and their commenters is a great insight into the true nature of people's minds. I'd imagine it was always there, but never had a way out to see the light of day.

Whether it's a scathing critique of a politician or a vile personal attack, it deserves to be seen so people can know exactly what others think.

Devin Stewart said...

Verplanck, we love the spirited and passionate debate. That is what we want here. But as Evan said and our comment policy says, we don't want ad hominem attacks--that's what I meant about civility. Not only are personal attacks counterproductive, they are also tedious. Personally I have no problem with the occasional swear word. Most of them are ancient and useful words. I hope you will keep helping us to further the debate on this blog and elsewhere.

Kagro X said...

Are we talking about anonymous blogging? Or pseudonymous blogging?

I have no more idea who Devin Stewart is than I do who joejoejoe is. I can't imagine why it makes more sense to blog as one than as the other, unless you're looking for a shortcut to evaluating the content each one provides, and you think you can Google up some "credentials" for one and not the other.

Devin Stewart said...

Kagro, posting with your real name offers several benefits to the reader. To name a few: 1. it reveals some of the motivation for the post (whether the author is a paid lobbyist, politician or whatever); 2. it creates accountability (you take responsibility for what you say); 3. as you point out, it gives the reader an idea of where the author is coming from (informed research or pure pontification).

Anonymous said...

I am a middle school English teacher in an upstate NY school system. Last year I used my email address to write a letter to the editor of a local paper to comment on the district I live in and a problem with communicating to the public that they were having. I compared it to the district I work in, and have worked in for 24 years.

What I said was the truth, that our board is no more freely accessible than the other board with problems. All email to the board goes through our superintendent.

I was written up for using my work email address to discuss our educational system. I also made a comment on a forum about not wanting to go to a board meeting where I would be blindsiding the board with public comment--that I would rather be able to email them, which is less intrusive than a phone call. I felt that my opinion was the truth-- who sees the email addressed to the board-- and that I was being respectful to the board.

The same superintendent who edits the emails wrote me up. I, also, up to that point, used my name. I believe in standing behind what one says. Yes, in the internet, few would know me, but it's nice to correspond with people who you know their comments can be truly attributed to them. I hate the feeling that in this country, a supposedly free country, that people must hide behind anonymous names.

I, too, hate the namecalling and animosity I read in debate. We can disagree without bashing the person; we can converse without rude language.

This is a topic I care about personally and professionally. How can students learn to debate and converse when all around them they see venomous attacks and language not worthy of intelligent thought?

I have no idea if I'm supposed to be commenting on this blog. I'm just an 8th grade English teacher who has begun to check out the "blogs of note". Yours struck a chord with me. Thanks for listening.

~a nameless teacher who needs no more ammo to be given to our very own Professor Umbridge, the superintendent. superintendent

panoramica said...

Those naughty words reveal a lot about the person who wrote them.

Anonymity gives a delightful spontaneity to expression (and saves the writer from all sorts of unsavoury attention)(spam and worse).

Anonymous said...

Anonymity is cowardice.

Midwest to Question Mark said...

Anonymity is not cowardice when it involves protecting your personal safety as a person. If everywhere I went on the internet people knew my real name, I'd be in fear for my safety. Not because I write scathing remarks, but because I have no idea who else is reading what I have written. If they hated what I wrote enough, they would be able to find me with little effort. IP addresses are a terrible thing in that they tell you the exact location of the internet user. I use my real name some places, but that's in forums and groups where I know that that will be safe. Some places you cannot have the same kind of assurance of free speech.