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Another Perspective

Where the Blogs Have No Names

The Internet has become a great soapbox for ordinary citizens, but there is increasing controversy around the trend of anonymous political blogging. In 2006, it was estimated that 55 percent of Americanbloggers post under a pseudonym. But along with the explosion of anonymous blogs has come a whole host of problems. Some bloggers have used their anonymity to spread false information without ramifications. Others have used it to launch personal attacks against friend and foe alike.

This has led to appeals from all over the political spectrum for regulation. Some blogging platform providers such as Tumblr are taking action on their own and shutting down anonymous blogs. The European Union entertained a proposal last fall to prohibit anonymous blogs. In the U.S., some have asked that the FCC categorize anonymous political blogs under campaign finance laws subject to regulation, but so far the FCC has declined.

In today's era where we live transparent lives, thanks to Facebook, friends and organizations recording our every move online, anonymous speech has become more valuable. It is too easy now to Google a writer's name and attack them personally on the internet for everyone to see, sidetracking a real discussion over politics into a discussion of the writer. And with a few strokes of the keyboard, someone’s reputation can be decimated. Many writers would not provide valuable information if they could not do so anonymously.

On the other hand, it is useful for readers to know background information on a writer; not only does it provide context but it exposes their biases. Anonymity permits writers to perhaps falsely persuade people they wouldn’t otherwise. If someone is writing about abolishing gun laws, it would be relevant to know if they have a history of violence as a gangster.

Anonymous bloggers have provided worthy contributions to political dialogue. One of the most famous anonymous political bloggers, Allah Pundit, is widely cited as a reputable political writer. The blog existed from 2003-04, and then shut down, reemerging as a contributor in 2006 to Michelle Malkin’s Hot Air website. Allah Pundit's blogging is credited with helping discredit a 60 Minutes show attacking President George W. Bush’s National Guard record.

Our country began with notable anonymous political speech. The Founding Fathers used anonymous political writing to generate support for passage of the U.S. Constitution. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay authored the Federalist Papers anonymously using the pseudonym "Publius." Hamilton, a lawyer, also used the pseudonym Publius in three letters attacking Samuel Chase, an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Today in some states like Arizona, attorneys are prohibited by the state bar from criticizing judges. Anonymous sites like azjudgesreview.blogspot.com have popped up containing information about Arizona judges.

Without sites like that, meaningful criticism of judges would be impossible, since few in Arizona know anything about the judges except the lawyers who practice in front of them. Common Sense, a pamphlet written anonymously by Thomas Paine that became a bestseller in the U.S. and England, is credited with igniting the American Revolution. If Paine’s identity had been exposed, he could have been arrested.

So far the courts have diligently protected the right of anonymous political speech. In the 1995 case McIntyre v. Ohio Clean Elections Commission, the U.S. Supreme Court stated, "Protections for anonymous speech are vital to democratic discourse. Allowing dissenters to shield their identities frees them to express critical, minority views.…Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority." Attempts to discover the identity behind anonymous blogs haven’t gotten very far in the courts.

A woman who ran a popular anonymous blog bashing Sarah Palin, The Mudflats, was outed in an email newsletter by Alaska Democratic Rep. Mike Doogan. Doogan was irked that she had posted a piece critical of an email he'd sent constituents. Local newspaper Anchorage Daily News had protected her identity. Doogan defended his outing of the blogger, who went by the pseudonym "Alaska Muckraker," by comparing her anonymous attacks to the Ku Klux Klan's ability to hide in their pointy-white hats and sheets. 

The outed blogger posted a response on her blog:

It said in my "About" page that I choose to remain anonymous. I didn't tell anyone why. I might be a state employee. I might not want my children to get grief at school. I might be fleeing from an ex-partner who was abusive and would rather he not know where I am. My family might not want to talk to me anymore. I might alienate my best friend. Maybe I don't feel like having a brick thrown through my window. My spouse might work for the Palin administration. Maybe I'd just rather people not know where I live or where I work. Or none of those things may be true. None of my readers, nor Mike Doogan had any idea what my personal circumstances might be.

Clearly all of these reasons are not equally persuasive. It is one thing to use an anonymous pseudonym to protect someone from an abuser who might find them. Protecting one's job depends on the exact circumstances. Least credible is the defense of not wanting a best friend to see the real you.

Another problem with anonymous blogging is it carries less credibility. It is all too easy to dismiss what is being said when someone doesn’t put their name on it, because their motives are suspect and many times there is no way to verify the accuracy of their writing. Considering over half of all blogs are anonymous, that is a lot of additional information clutter on the Iinternet for people to sift through in search of verifiable information.

Anonymous blogging is also criticized for unfairly setting up an unequal playing field. While one person is criticized by name, identified and held accountable publicly for their actions, the other person criticizing them is not.

With strong legal support for the right of anonymous political speech, some form of anonymous blogging is probably here to stay. Blogging is the new journalism and there is a reason why journalists have fought for years to protect the anonymity of their sources. If it wasn't for the protection provided to "Deep Throat," by Woodward and Bernstein, President Nixon probably would have never been forced to resign.

The worst elements of anonymous blogging may ultimately resolve themselves without government stepping in. Many bloggers are outed, and numerous bloggers have lost their jobs over it. There are various ways to figure out the identity of an anonymous blogger without going through legal channels. People talk, and make technological mistakes revealing their identity.

Ultimately, the First Amendment provides freedom of speech. The free exchange of ideas promotes accountability.

Letter to the Editor

topics:
Technology, Blogging

Rachel Alexander is co-editor of IntellectualConservative.com

View all comments (41) | Leave a comment

BPT| 4.30.09 @ 6:35AM

Some important issues here. I am happy to use my real name but I don’t have a problem with nameless bloggers (especially women from Muslim communities and communist regimes). Why? Because for many people around the world free speech is a life and death issue, and I’m glad you raised this issue.

Pingback| 4.30.09 @ 7:49AM

The American Spectator : Where the Blogs Have No Names | Webmaster Tools links to this page. Here’s an excerpt:

The American Spectator : Where the Blogs Have No Names | Webmaster Tools

Pingback| 4.30.09 @ 7:52AM

Where the Blogs Have No Names links to this page. Here’s an excerpt:

…legal channels. People talk, and make technological mistakes revealing their identity. Ultimately, the First Amendment provides freedom of speech. The free exchange of ideas promotes accountability. Read More Share and Enjoy: Related posts: Politicians in Pajamas “All the world is a stage,” Shakespeare wrote. “And... Calling Things By Their Right Names There is a Chinese proverb that…

Tim| 4.30.09 @ 8:41AM

There is also the real possibility that some maniac will begin stalking you out of hate or love.

Pecos Pete| 4.30.09 @ 9:39AM

I guarantee using your real name can result with stalking, or something like it. In the past I have used my real name when writing letters to the editor of TAS and then found my email inbox receiving unpleasant mail from a person who used Google to track me down.

It is a new world out there.

Appleby| 4.30.09 @ 10:00AM

On the other hand, wouldn't we all like to know who "Dave Matthews" is really, and write her headmistress to let her know what this brat is doing when she ought to be doing her homework?

philhoey| 4.30.09 @ 10:22AM

99 and 44/100% of the time I use my real name. But that is a personal choice. With modern communications it would be very easy for an overzealous organization (public or private) to trace down where people live and demonstrate in front of their homes - just because of an honest difference of opinion. It is very very dangerous to stifle the free exchange of ideas. For those who are interested I am a Jeffersonian Democrat. For the uninitiated – read some of his works and you will understand why the writings of Thomas Jefferson are not often taught in the school system.

Kevin D. Johnson| 4.30.09 @ 11:06AM

While I agree that anonymous blogging can be abused like any other legitimate communication medium, it is also quite useful especially in a society that is on its way (given current trends) towards socialism and perhaps even fascism. Soon, having your identity known could very much be a matter of endangering yourself and your loved ones and in that case I see little alternative for the common man to raise his voice as necessary in the fight for freedom even if it means that he must do so anonymously. Even the Church has engaged in anonymous commentary--the Reformers used it quite often in places like Catholic France and considered it a powerful weapon to dispute a corrupt religious establishment.

Al Adab| 4.30.09 @ 11:23AM

Frankly, the promise of open debate which the ability to comment on articles held forth has been lost as all too often the blogs simply become tasteless, ad hominim attacks. Diatribes against writers, Christians, liberals, conservatives et al dominate leaving little room for reasoned debate. More rational thinking and give and take of ideas would be a grand improvement. Those who respond, like this author, should try to focus and maintain a high level of civility within the debate context. Trash language and invective quickly become old. The question of anonymity however raises some questions. Still Silence Dogood, Publius, Federal Farmer, Helvetius and others are a distinguished part of our past. The writting should respect that tradition.

Malcs| 4.30.09 @ 11:58AM

A fairly poor article on an important subject that bears distinct traces of the resentment we now witness so often in attacks from traditional media on new, frequently amateur journalism online. Writers have posted columns anonymously in print journals for many years, though this article conspicuously fails to mention the fact. Nor does it address the points raised by the anonymous blogger it quotes in anything like adequate detail, merely listing them along some hypothetical scale of reasonableness which it fails to elaborate in, well, _reasonable_ fashion. While we're on the subject of reason, there seem to me two crucial errors in the article. One is the ill-disciplined failure to distinguish between the medium of anonymous blogging and the subject of libellous or ad hominem attack. The other is the inconsistency in logic which leads the writer to claim that anonymous blogging is problematic both because of the reputational damage it can inflict _and_ because it lacks credibility. If anonymity had such a deleterious effect on the credibility of the content of these blogs, what damage could it possibly do? These inconsistencies of argument do rather tend to suggest that the article is one more example of an organ of the press scrabbling around for reasons why new media are bad and require some special legal treatment.

Big Leo| 4.30.09 @ 12:05PM

In my town, I am a public figure. True, it's not a very important town and I'm not a very important figure, but the last thing I need is for everything I post to be quoted and discussed by the people I work with. And while it would be interesting to have Dave Mathews personal information, how would it be if he had your phone number? New friends like him I don't need.

Anthony| 4.30.09 @ 12:09PM

Ms. Alexander, You were about to fall into the leftists "censorship" trap, but you managed to avoid doing so, good for you. I am immediately suspect and rather jaded over the hand wringing and concerns about anonymous bloggers and those who use pseudonyms. I do both.
The immediate facist nanny state mentality for control of the internet because of its downside for crudeness, vulgarity and ad hominem attacks, all of which I have experienced on this and other blogs, is yet another straw dog that must not be allowed to take on a life of its own. This charade is nothing more than an attempt to keep certain political thoughts out of the public domain. Unlike the elites, I have faith in people that they can read blogs and discern from the manner and content therein how much validity to place upon them. Even the worry over false information by a crafty and seemingly well referenced blog is flimsy; just note how bloggers at TAS have responded to Dave Matthews and others, few rational yet fact challenged entries. They are dispelled immediately.
Freedom of speech means exactly that, the more the better. We must take the good and the bad of robust talk, just as we do face to face with fellow humans. But censorhship for our own good? forgetaboutit!!

Gill O'Teen| 4.30.09 @ 12:14PM

Was it that long ago that Sarah Palin's email account was hacked? What about the attacks on Joe the Plumber? Weren't those attacks on a citizen guilty of asking The Anointed One a question conducted by the government? By all means, we must make it ever easier for obumah's national security farce, better armed and equipped than the military, to track down all us "terrorist" dissenters.

By the way Rachel, I see your namesake is the morning-line favorite to win the Kentucky Oaks tomorrow at Churchill Downs. I saw her race this past winter. She is one fast filly.

Pingback| 4.30.09 @ 12:18PM

Blog Youtube Blogs Live | World News links to this page. Here’s an excerpt:

…over the world! [...] Where the Blogs Have No Names But along with the explosion of anonymous blogs has come a whole host of problems. Some bloggers have used their anonymity to spread false information [...] Social Web Blog: YouTube RealTime invites for Social Web Blog readers Last week you may have read on the YouTube blog that we launched YouTube RealTime, a persistent toolbar on YouTube which allows you…

Michael L. Hauschild| 4.30.09 @ 2:46PM

My real name by the way, and proud of who I am and what I believe in. I would say to any one of you in person what I place in here in print.

Sean Parnell| 4.30.09 @ 5:42PM

The author of this piece is right, anonymous speech has had a great historical impact, and is protected by the First Amendment.

Unfortunately, the government still compiles and makes available to the public a list of millions of Americans' political beliefs and affiliations, through disclosure of their contributions to political candidates and to causes. Donors to both sides of the Prop 8 initiative in California have been harassed and in some cases lost their jobs.

There may be some rationale in disclosing large contributions to candidates and political parties, but I can't see any value at all in disclosure of contributors to organizations that are independent of candidates and therefore pose no threat of corruption.

Sean Parnell
President
Center for Competitive Politics
http://www.campaignfreedom.org
sparnell@campaignfreedom.org

Pingback| 4.30.09 @ 5:48PM

The American Spectator : Where the Blogs Have No Names | theblogsecrets links to this page. Here’s an excerpt:

…bloggers have used their anonymity to spread false information without ramifications. Others have used it to launch personal attacks against friend … See the rest here:  The American Spectator : Where the Blogs Have No Names Next Category: Uncategorized Written by admin · Filed Under Uncategorized  Tagged: along-with, and-hostile, attacks-against, coerce-using, explosion, has-come,

vivi| 4.30.09 @ 7:08PM

1. Ms Alexander, Mudflats is not a "Palin-bashing" blog. It's a shame you simply reprinted a paragraph in the Anchorage Daily News, which made the same false assumption. Bad journalism.

2. "Gill O'Teen", Sarah Palin was illegally conducting Alaska government business on that secret Yahoo email account. Furthermore, that was not the only secret - and illegal - Yahoo email account on which she was conducting Alaska government business. Kind of not like Joe the Plumber, ya think?

BigSlick| 4.30.09 @ 7:08PM

Sean Parnell and Anthony (WAR?) on the same page here.

Things that make ya go hummmmmmm.....rrrr.

Dirk Potters| 5.1.09 @ 7:27AM

Ms. Alexander,
Hope you noticed that talking heads from the Republican Party announced yesterday that they are are attempting to re-invent or the party image.

As long as the Republican Party stays "conservative" and continues to move away from some of its Libertarian ideals, the GOP is doomed to a deep grave. Those are the people that have abandoned both the Republican party and the conservatism.

By merely asking the question of the legality of anonymous blogging, it is obvious to many that the Conservative Republican mindset does not undersstand the true nature of Liberty nor Freedom. When will they get it through their heads that most aspects of morality, good manners, and common sense should not be legislated?

Captain Showbiz| 5.2.09 @ 7:51AM

A co-worker recently found that campaign contributions she had made (she didn't tell me to whom, but she is decidedly left of center) were posted on a web page. That's fine. That's legal. After all, it's public record. Along with her contributions was an internet map to her house. What was that all about? Well, you know what it is about. If we're going go have free expression, we're going to have to have the ability to post anonymously given attempts by some to intimidate.

Rightwoman| 5.2.09 @ 4:01PM

Simply put, it is a 1st amendment right to state an opinion. All through time, once there are more than two people, the third one or another has an opinion about the the others. It is how we assess.

Free speech pays a price as opinion becomes derisive quickly. I know that I had a few very angry souls hack an old site, attempt to post very inappropriate information. I post under my own name often, but did note it was a cost of open exchange.

I track my sites and take down truly nasty comments. But then, I do not engage angry ones with more anger. I only offer ccasional humor and then let it go. If we only allow the people who agree or choose to fit in, we become the entities we chide--Controlling and close-minded spinners only here to push an agenda who offer nothing for growth or intellectual discovery.

Pingback| 5.10.09 @ 11:55AM

Blog Blogs Youtube Surprise | World News links to this page. Here’s an excerpt:

…early when Ryan [...] Where the Blogs Have No Names But along with the explosion of anonymous blogs has come a whole host of problems. Some bloggers have used their anonymity to spread false information [...] Social Web Blog: YouTube RealTime invites for Social Web Blog readers Last week you may have read on the YouTube blog that we launched YouTube RealTime, a persistent toolbar on YouTube which allows you…

Pingback| 5.10.09 @ 1:56PM

Blog Blogs Surprise Update | World News links to this page. Here’s an excerpt:

…saying. [...] Where the Blogs Have No Names But along with the explosion of anonymous blogs has come a whole host of problems. Some bloggers have used their anonymity to spread false information [...] Tags: blog, blogs, surprise, update This entry was posted on Thursday, April 30th, 2009 at 10:51 am and is filed under Blog. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can

Pingback| 5.10.09 @ 1:57PM

Blog Youtube Blogs Swine | World News links to this page. Here’s an excerpt:

…saying. [...] Where the Blogs Have No Names But along with the explosion of anonymous blogs has come a whole host of problems. Some bloggers have used their anonymity to spread false information [...] Tags: blog, blogs, swine, youtube This entry was posted on Thursday, April 30th, 2009 at 11:17 am and is filed under Blog. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can

Pingback| 5.11.09 @ 3:34AM

Blog Youtube News Today | World News links to this page. Here’s an excerpt:

…the Backside of [...] Where the Blogs Have No Names But along with the explosion of anonymous blogs has come a whole host of problems. Some bloggers have used their anonymity to spread false information [...] Social Web Blog: YouTube RealTime invites for Social Web Blog readers Last week you may have read on the YouTube blog that we launched YouTube RealTime, a persistent toolbar on YouTube which allows you…

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