Online Anonymity: Painful and Priceless

The old joke had it that when you're online, "no one knows you're a dog." The idea of online anonymity has been taking a beating recently, in part because of such celebrated cases of fraud as the Gay Girl in Damascus blog, which turned out to have been written by a 40-year-old man in Scotland. Alicia Shepard, former ombudsman for National Public Radio, came out swinging in a piece for the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University against the anonymity of commenters, which she calls "an exercise in faux democracy."

Allowing people to be anonymous isn't the problem. It has real value for society that shouldn't be dismissed so quickly.

The fact that someone might want to set up a blog and pretend to be a lesbian in Damascus (as Bobbie Johnson described it in that recent post) is definitely somewhat disturbing—in part because it was revealed that the creator of the blog had perpetrated the fraud for several years, taking in several knowledgeable writers on the Middle East (including Global Voices Online staffer Jillian York, who wrote about her experiences in a blog post).

Still, as online media veteran Dan Gillmor pointed out in a piece for The Guardian on the "Amina" affair, the fact that someone can pretend to be a gay blogger in the Middle East without being discovered also means that real lesbians and other persecuted people in Damascus or anywhere else can post their thoughts online, which can be a powerful force for democracy and human rights. Should anonymity (or what is actually pseudonymity) only be allowed for those who can prove that they really are political dissidents?

"Laws Disallowing Anonymous Speech?"

If so, who would do the proving? Says Gillmor: "What we should all fear is what too many in power want to see: the end of anonymity entirely. Governments, in particular, absolutely loathe the idea that people can speak without being identified … I fear there will soon be widespread laws disallowing anonymous speech, even in America."

Along the same lines, there has been a lot of discussion recently about how online activity of all kinds—including blog comments—would be better if anonymity were outlawed or restricted in some way. Shepard, the former NPR ombudsman, says there would be "more honest, kinder, civil exchanges if people used their real names."

This is something we feel pretty strongly about at GigaOM. It's something I felt strongly about in my previous job managing the online community of a major national newspaper that got tens of thousands of comments a day. Did we get a lot of hateful comments? We sure did. We used a Winnipeg-based company called ICUC Moderation Services to handle the worst, which NPR also uses. The ability for people to speak their minds about important topics without having the words attached to their real names is important. I think one of the main reasons media sites have such terrible comments is that their writers rarely, if ever, engage with readers.

Facebook Is Not the Solution

One of the solutions that Alicia Shepard and others have reached for when it comes to blocking anonymous comments is to hand over commenting functions to Facebook, allowing only those who log in with their real identities to comment. As we've noted before, this restricts the conversation by default to those who want to attach comments to their real names—and those who want to log in via Facebook. That might reduce spam or trolling, but what about those who have something worthwhile to say, yet prefer to remain anonymous? They are effectively excluded.

Dissidents in the Middle East who wish to make themselves heard about conditions in their countries (a group that Jillian York has argued is ill-served by Facebook rules requiring real names) aren't the only ones who might want to remain anonymous. As the ombudsman at The Washington Post (WPO) noted in a recent post about the benefit of allowing anonymity in comments, there are plenty of issues that people in the U.S. and elsewhere might want to speak freely about without having the comments attached to their names whenever someone does a Google (GOOG) search. They deserve to be able to do that.

In the end, the ability to speak anonymously isn't just an attribute of what Alicia Shepard calls "faux democracies." It's something that has played a key role in the rise of real democracy in countries such as the United States because it allows people to speak to the powerful without fear of persecution. We shouldn't toss that kind of principle aside so lightly just because we want to cut down on irritating comments from readers—or prevent the occasional blogger from pretending to be someone they are not.

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