Enthusiasms is an edited stream of consciousness, by Simen.

In Defense of Anonymity

The anonymous, from the whistleblower to the common crook, are in need of defense. The campaign against anonymity has many fronts, ranging from the erosion of mechanisms of obtaining anonymity (through the law) to an incessant chipping away at its intellectual legitimacy (through association with various evils). In the wake of the July 22 attacks in Oslo, a number of commentators have blamed online anonymity for both a polarization of public opinion and for providing an illusion that extremist views are more common than they really are. Major newspapers that have provided pseudonymous comment sections are being urged to reconsider, and a few are even calling for further legal measures to prevent anonymity. Many of these commentators are probably just using recent events as further rhetoric ammunition cementing opinions they have held for years. (I would link to more examples, except many of the recent comments have been in the printed pages of newspapers.)

Large parts of Anders Behring Breivik’s manifesto consist of cut-and-pasted material from other sources, some properly cited, others not so. The source Breivik has copied most prolifically is the Norwegian blogger going by the pseudonym Fjordman. Breivik and Fjordman share a concern about Europe’s future, and particularly about what they consider to be the invasion of a foreign culture (Muslims) and the destruction of traditional values. But nowhere in Fjordman’s writings do we find the illogical leap from dissenting opinions to violent action. That is a leap Breivik made on his own, and furthermore, although Breivik was clearly an admirer of Fjordman’s, the two never had any direct contact. As could be expected, Fjordman has written several posts distancing himself from Breivik’s actions. But for some, apparently, that is not enough. He should show himself, shed the cloak of anonymity. The public has a right to know the face behind the opinions that were shared by a terrorist and a mass murderer. I would argue the opposite: it’s more important than ever that Fjordman remain anonymous. And I think a defense of the whole concept of anonymity, and especially online anonymity, is in order.

The quality of public discourse has taken a dive since the 1980s, that golden decade before the internet exploded. Traditionalists and curmudgeons and old media kingpins are fond of pointing out the misspelt, often illogical and certainly not well-written blog posts and Facebook updates of the average person. But they miss the point: there is now much more public discourse than before. The degree of participation in public discourse we find among the general public in 2011 was nothing more than the intellectual’s wet dream in 1961. Naturally, since most of everything is crap, much of what we find online is not as well-reasoned, civil and lucid as one would like. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that more people than ever are writing for an audience and discussing politics, art, religion, technology, science and other issues directly with people they would otherwise never encounter. What went on in French salons in the 1700s is now happening on the internet, and not just among the elites. The enormous upside of this, even if it does not translate into higher voter turnout or direct participation in democratic processes, is frequently ignored by critics of anonymity.

The assumption that only people with something to hide would want or need anonymity is doubly pernicious. Not only is it false, but it contains the assumption that having something to hide is automatically bad. But there’s both hiding a crime committed and hiding a surprise birthday present, and then there’s the third kind of hiding, the hiding of attributes (e.g., sexual orientation) which should not, but frequently do influence people’s attitudes negatively. The fact that one of these (crime) implies a fault on the part of whoever’s hiding something doesn’t mean everyone with something to hide is at fault.

In fact, hiding is a necessary prerequisite of ephemerality. If we do not hide certain things from the future, we can’t have discussions that don’t retain the potential for haunting us forever. The political discussions in those French salons were not broadcast to the entire world and stored forever. Today, most similar discussions are carried out in public or semi-public fora. You could argue that this is a bad thing, but it’s a fact we have to deal with: if you want to participate in the public conversation, in a conversation with strangers about things you care about, you’re increasingly reliant on fora which are open and which retain your opinions potentially forever. We can trace the intellectual evolution of the Richard Dawkinses and the Noam Chomskys of the world because they are public intellectuals and have been writing for major publications for decades. But now everyone is a public intellectual, and I’d argue it’s a right for us not to be, if we don’t so desire, and I think it’s unfair to exclude those who don’t want to be public intellectuals from the public conversation.

If I’d written all my online comments, all the blog posts and forum posts and social media updates under my full name, you’d be able to do a quick Google and find all my opinions ranging back to when I was thirteen. It’s pretty obvious that I no longer hold all the opinions I held when I was thirteen, but at the time I held them dearly and deeply, and didn’t always express any reservations. Those forum posts date-stamped in my intellectual past don’t contain context. They don’t point out that I was thirteen and immature and I have since changed my opinion. I don’t want them all to cling to my name forever. The fact that I was allowed to remain pseudonymous has allowed most of those discussions to become ephemeral. They happened, and they still exist recorded in online archives, but they are no longer easily traceable to me, the 2011 me who no longer has those opinions.

Should we simply exclude everyone who desires ephemerality from online discussions? Should we mandate that if you want your discussions to be ephemeral, they should never, under any circumstance and for any period of time, see the light of day?

The fact that I was writing under a pseudonym allowed me to hide many things about myself, such as my age. Because I didn’t specify my age, I was able to participate in adult discussions from an early age. My skills in public debate, such as they are, I have obtained only because I was able to practice for many years in a real, but insulated environment. If people had known my age, they might not have taken me as seriously, not allowed me to participate or allowed me to do so but ignored all my arguments. Instead—and for this I am eternally grateful—a number of adults (who may or may not have suspected my age) have engaged me in real, rational debates on a number of topics. This is how you learn how to behave in a public debate. This is how you learn how to become a real participant in our democracies. Isn’t that what all the public intellectuals desire? An educated, politically active populace? A population of people not only willing to, but also capable of contributing to public debate?

The other side of this is what relevance a messenger’s identity has to the logical validity of their message. If you won’t take responsibility for your opinions and show your face, why should we listen to you? goes the chorus. But the onus should be on those who would not listen to anonymous critics to show how something as ostensibly irrelevant as the identity of a messenger has any logical relevance for the message. As I’ve pointed out before, it’s precisely in those cases when identity is important—a whistleblower, say—that traditional media allow anonymity. If someone comes to you as a journalist and tells you about the president’s scandalous drug addiction, or the atrocious working conditions at that factory, the fact that they are the president’s drug dealer or a worker at the accused factory lends credence to their story. In these cases, mainstream media are happy to allow anonymity to protect the whistleblower. Yet when the identity of the messenger is irrelevant to the credence of the message, such as in most political discussions online, suddenly identity becomes of paramount importance.

Critics rarely distinguish between degrees of anonymity. Their arguments rest on research and hyperbole regarding feelings of deindividuation in a crowd, on the idea that we lose ourselves in the group and lose our inhibitions in an environment where we have no identity that persists over time. At the same time, many of the fora critics want to taint with the bad side of anonymous are not, in fact, totally anonymous. Not all web forums are 4chan. Most of them are pseudonymous: they require registration of users, binding them to a single username, and they log IPs. Most of them also have policies against so-called sockpuppets, alternative usernames being used by one user to make it seem like their cause has more support than it really does.

Anyone who’s ever been an active member of such web forums for any longer period of time knows that one quickly gains a face and a reputation. Even if that face is the face of an avatar, not one’s real face, and even if the reputation isn’t anchored to one’s real-world identity. More research is needed to determine the degree to which pseudonymity counteracts the bad effects of anonymity, but it seems premature and unlikely to conclude that having identities that persist over time, tied to pseudonyms, does not in some way counteract the loss of inhibition we associate with anonymity.

Every publisher, whether of a small blog or a major newspaper, of course retains the right to choose whether or not they’ll allow anonymous comments. Free speech doesn’t mean the right to have your message broadcast anywhere and anytime, and without your name attached to it. But I’ll urge anyone maintaining significant web forums who have not already given up pseudonymity to keep it. It’s important, and not just for the well-known (and important!) reasons like whistleblowers and critics of totalitarian regimes.

As to the specific claims made in the wake of 7/22, that anonymous internet comments polarize the debate and give a false impression of widespread support for extremist views: there’s no doubt that anonymous debate polarizes. Debate, in general, polarizes. This happens in debates between people who write under their full names in major newspapers, and it happens on the internet. That doesn’t mean we can pin terrorism on internet anonymity. If there had been scores of commenters calling for violent action against the ruling Labor party, maybe these critics would have a point. But there weren’t. Breivik’s own comments, especially those on the right-wing group blog Document.no, are no more extreme than those of other commenters. In fact, Breivik appears more civil and less extreme than many of his fellow debaters. None of them, Breivik included, says anything that could be construed as supporting actions on par with Breivik’s bombing and shooting spree.

Furthermore, Breivik’s views, minus his conviction that violent means are justified in spreading them, are commonplace. In Norway, in Europe in general, and in the United States, although there the fear is not of Muslims but of Mexicans. The right-wing Progress Party, which Breivik was a member of before he gave up on democratic means, at one point had almost 30 percent of the Norwegian population’s support. And among them, Breivik, again if you look purely at the comments he made in public prior to his manifesto and terrorist actions, was far from an extreme outlier. At one point not too long ago, the Progress Party and the Conservative Party were at 50 percent support between them; a coalition government comprised of the two parties didn’t seem unlikely. This implies that half the population either actively desired, or at least were willing to put up with a significantly stricter immigration and integration policy.

It’s a myth that anonymous sockpuppetry gave any sort of false sense of popular support to Breivik or other terrorists or would-be terrorists. His xenophobic ideology is, if not accepted by the majority, at least significantly present all over Scandinavia, and variants of it all over Europe and the United States. The fact that a lone man took the idea too far and moved away from democratic dissent into violent action doesn’t mean the non-violent foundation of his violence isn’t prevalent. You can’t pin this one on anonymity either.

Behring Breivik himself, ironically, usually commented under the moniker “Anders B.” or his full name. He was not anonymous. And in Document.no’s comment section, he argued for turning Document.no into a traditional newspaper or magazine founded on right-wing ideology. He even makes provisions for moderating the hypothetical newspaper’s views as its distribution grows. The man who occasioned so many denouncements of internet anonymity and so many calls for the return of traditional media’s no-name-no-comment policy may have wanted the exact same thing himself.

In all those words, I haven’t even touched on legal measures to restrain anonymity. Earlier this year, Norway implemented EU’s Data Retention Directive, despite a popular outcry against it. The directive mandates that data like when and who you’re calling or e-mailing (but not what was said) is stored by phone and internet companies for significant periods of time—not just for suspected or convincted criminals, but for everyone, innocent or not. I haven’t mentioned the American Patriot Act or other measures taken after 9/11 or the London bombings. Much can be said about them, and many of the arguments I’ve presented here only gain more force when tied to the legal context. I won’t reiterate all the arguments against such laws and directives here.

Anonymity is important. For many reasons. The internet has given anonymity to the masses. It has given the masses the means to participate in public debate while still maintaining a modicum of privacy—the means by which to participate without having to become a public intellectual. Anonymity on the internet is important. People who have nothing to hide need anonymity, and some people may have things to hide that do not imply any fault on their part, and those parties need anonymity too. Yes, crooks also profit from anonymity. But it is not for their sake we need anonymity, it’s for all our sakes.

Signed, the not-so-anonymous Simen G. Edvardsen.

Jul 31, 2011