The anonymity pandemic

Dr Brian Edwards

For around 45 years I’ve been broadcasting and writing in New Zealand. My occasionally forcefully expressed liberal/left opinions have over that time attracted both agreement and disagreement, approval and condemnation, sometimes deserved, sometimes not.

Rob Muldoon used to refer to himself as ‘a counterpuncher’, adding that he always hit his opponent back harder than his opponent had hit him. I like both the term and the approach and readers of this blog will know my responses to critical comments can range from reasonable disagreement to dismissive rejection to outright cruelty. I generally regret the outright cruelty and have been known to apologise for it when taken to task.

But, whatever my faults, I have at least always put my name to my opinions. In those 45 years I have never said or written anything anonymously or hidden behind an alias or nom de plume.

There are of course occasions in which anonymity is prudent and justifiable. But the commonest reason for not putting one’s name to one’s opinions is not having the courage of one’s convictions – cowardice. And nowhere is this more evident than in comments on blog posts where opinions are rarely expressed under the writer’s own name.  

Such anonymity is still generally unacceptable in letters to the editors of newspapers and magazines. When a correspondent’s name is ‘withheld by request’ it is normally because publication of the name could cause distress or harm to the writer, their associates or family.

Talk-back radio opened the floodgates of anonymous comment. Vetting of callers is nigh on impossible and token at best. The ‘seven second delay’,  intended to prevent the broadcast of obscene language or defamatory statements, is beyond useless. The boundaries of what is acceptable on radio talkback range from the anodyne to the intemperate to the inflammatory to the vile, the most rabid being temptingly good for ratings.  And none of these callers, whom we and the programme hosts know only by what may or may not be their real first names, are or can be held accountable for what they say.

Could anything be worse? Well, radio does not have the permanence of print. And the print equivalent of talkback is the blog and the readers’ comments which follow it. In theory the blogger can ‘moderate’ those comments and decline to publish anything untrue, offensive, gross or defamatory. But with the more successful blogs attracting many hundreds of comments every day, it’s unlikely that much careful reading, let alone judgement of their contents is involved. On the contrary, the writers of these blogs appear to regard the unrestricted freedom of their anonymous correspondents to say what they want, in whatever way they want, as a healthy expression of democracy. But it is, in my submission, a democracy of the gutless whose commonest weapon is abuse hurled from behind the ramparts of their anonymity.

Could anything be worse? Well yes. More contemptible by far than the anonymous correspondent is the anonymous blogger, particularly in a democracy like New Zealand where freedom of speech is limited only by the laws of defamation.  Such lack of spine contrasts starkly with the courage of those anonymous bloggers and pamphleteers who are the advocates of freedom and democracy in totalitarian societies.

Can I put my money where my mouth is? Well, perhaps not entirely.

If you want to have a comment published on this my, you have to supply an email address [NBR allows fully anonymous comments, which are reviewed by NBR staff before being published - Editor]. This gives me at least some idea of who you are. I can, for example, write directly to you. In that sense, noone who offers a comment on this site is entirely anonymous.

But most correspondents write under an alias or nom de plume. Though the more regular become familiar and in a sense ‘recognisable’, the fact remains that you, the reader of this blog, have no idea who they are.

A few brave souls write under their real names.

Those who don’t will no doubt object to being accused of not having the courage of their convictions, let alone of cowardice.

They will think the accusation unfair, arguing perhaps that they merely wish to protect their privacy and are entitled to do so.

They can rest easy. I don’t intend to change the rules. But I would be interested to know how each person who comments on this site without stating unambiguously who they are, justifies that position. Feel free.

Media trainer and commentator Dr Brian Edwards blogs at Brian Edwards Media

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17 Comments & Questions

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That's too puritanical and frankly a bit naive, Brian. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that it's in the publisher's interest to allow anonymous comments as the comments are likely to be more controversial. This, in turn, makes them more likely to be commented on and increases site visits.

If you force people to sign their name then you will lose all that as many people (employees, in particular) will either not be able to comment at all - or at best comment in a more politically correct (and by definition less interesting) manner.

I think the NBR has it about right, balancing the defamation risk with the right to free unfettered (ie, anonymous) speech. Although I do wonder whether there is an NBR commentators 'black list' who get special attention from the editors...

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I agree, Brian. If you can't put your name to your post, don't bother.

Penny Bright

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Perhaps the point you are overlooking is that mistrust of government and its agencies is increasing daily!
Anonymous

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Rob Muldoon was great at "one-liners". He said "the art of a counter-puncher was to hit back first".

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This is an understandable but methinks somewhat limited view of things in the internet age. And without intending to cause offence, I must say it's a view I've seen mainly propagated by older generations. Typical reasons include such things as spurious reviews of restaurants or hotels, or nasty anonymous blog posts about such and such.

However, this view does not sufficiently integrate a couple of very important factors, namely:

1. People discount the extremes of the internet world, and work on averages: No one believes the ridiculously glowing review of a 2-star hotel as a 5-star hotel; most discount it as an abberation likely posted by an owner or staff member. Likewise, no one really believes the one scathing review amidst a pile of average to high reviews. Outliers are factored in.

2. Anonymity on the internet is critical to discourse. The internet has enabled a level of honest discourse and divulgence the likes of which have not been seen before. It also enables freedom of expression, especially in the face of dictators and stifling bureaucracy - there would have been no Arab spring without online anonymity. Anonymity is likewise very important to wider communication that facilitates human rights (also see wider discussion lambasting the UN's desire to control the internet).

One only needs to look at a social discussion site such as Reddit - where divulgence of anyone's personal details is strictly forbidden - to appreciate some of the advantages gained by discourse equipped by strict anonymity. Identities are good for a certain level of conversation, but preclude other levels.

In line with point 1, anonymous discourse on the internet tends to be moderated by readers; extreme outliers are discounted, while meritorious comments are recognised for what they are.

3. Anonymity is important for protection of people online. There will always be misguided mob behaviours occurring, and lives can easily be damaged by misguided mobs welding their pitchforks in anger. There is no way you will ever be able to force accountability for statements on every person in the world, so taking anonymity away from a limited group will only result in malicious action or damage through misguided action.

This moderator post on Reddit.com highlights issues around protecting online anonymity in discourse: http://www.reddit.com/r/AskReddit/comments/13s0o9/modpost_personal_infor...

Let people identify themselves if they wish. For anonymous comments, internet users are generally grown up enough to take outliers with a pinch of salt, and sift the wheat from the chaff.

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If you have the courage of your convictions then why are you concerned with anonymous content? If you are no coward why do you seek to tie your opponent down? A case of the pot calling the kettle black. Surely it is what is said, rather than who said it, that matters. A name... what's in a name?
The bravery you exhibit by putting your name to your content is disestablished with your criticism of the anonymous. You should be their champion, then your own declaration would carry more weight.

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I can find no logic in this comment at all. It's gobbledygook.

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Some commentators like Edwards and Bright make a living out of their comments. Most of us make a living out of other sources. To require disclosure risks our income. Should people who comment be limited to only those who make a living out of it? The world would be a very much poorer place if comments were limited in that way. The tracing of the email is enough. Anonymous is as good a name as any. What difference if it is Smith, Jones, or Clark? Who bothers reading who wrote it? It is what is said that is important. The real test is the number of likes or dislikes.

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For the record, I don't make a single cent from my website. I earn my living as a broadcaster and media consultant.

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Brian - essentially I agree with where you are coming from. However, as is so often evidenced by many of the NBR comments, we have become a society of emotional ideaological divide. Nothing has evidenced this more than continuing reactions to the last Labour Government and how it is categorised - similarly in reverse now for the current Government.

I find these days that my ideaological views are "tested" before being taken on for projects and assignments. Neutrality is insufficient. Increasingly, you must be actively committed to your employer's point of view.

There is little room for any sort of rational dialogue that allows alternatives to be discussed.

I try in my NBR comments to provide rational contributions and I see that at times it does have an influence on otherwise overly emotional contributions that are significantly factually incorrect.

Regretfully though, I feel I have to do it anonymously since neutral rationality is too often not considered a positive quality and quite frankly I can't afford to lose work because of it.

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Brian, surely the truth of the message is more relevant than who the messenger is? If the message is merely opinion, then what does it matter as we all have opinions and they are subjective by their nature. Anonymity does have its merits and even the Courts recognise this when receiving evidence.

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Brian
If I'm reading a comment, I don't care if it's a John Smith or a Tom Brown.
If it bothers you so much, why don't you enable your site -- that only verifiable registered posters can make comments? Hell, make it a precondition of registration -- that a copy of a driver's licence or birth certificate or passport, be posted in with any application to being able to post comments on your site. And, of course, witnessed by a JP.

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Is this an appropriate time to point out that making divulgence of identity mandatory online is what China is trying to do right now?

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It would be appropriate if I had suggested anywhere that the state should compel people to do it. I haven't.

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Hello Brian - my comment was certainly not intended as a personal barb toward yourself, but as a reference to the dangers of us even opening the door to such an approach as China's.

Cheers

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I posted two comments yesterday but this site changed them to "Anonymous" - go figure.
Anyway, I don't put my real name as my employment contract says that I must not use blogs etc in a context that my employer may disagree with. So I don't take the risk.

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Look, it did it again.

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