September 30, 2011 | By Trevor Timm and Jillian York

On Newspapers, Public Discourse, and the Right to Remain Anonymous

by Jillian York and Trevor Timm

Update: A significant edit was made to the original piece on which this commentary is based. See * for additional information.

In a recent Washington Times editorial titled “Internet trolls, Anonymity and the First Amendment,” Gayle Falkenthal declared that “the time has come to limit the ability of people to remain anonymous” online.* She argued that any benefit to online pseudonyms has long since dissipated and anonymous commenters have polluted the Internet “with false accusations and name-calling attacks.” Newspapers, she wrote, should ban them entirely.

This argument is not only inaccurate, it's also dangerous: online anonymity, while allowing trolls to act with impunity, also protects a range of people, from Syrian dissidents to small-town LGBT activists and plenty of others in between.

Unfortunately, many newspapers have already banned anonymous comments, and while not all have offered an explicit reasoning for their policies, "civility" is often cited as justification in discussions on online anonymity.

Of course, online civil discourse is something to strive for. Anyone who’s spent time reading YouTube comment threads is aware of the vitriolic bile spewing from the keyboards of largely anonymous masses. And it is a truism that when people speak using their true identity, they are more likely to think about the consequences of their speech.

But while identification brings about a greater sense of safety for some, for others, it presents a great risk. Think, for example, of victims of domestic abuse, whose online safety is predicated on not revealing their identity or location. Or the small-town schoolteacher who fears revealing her political views to her local community but seeks solidarity online. Or the gay teenager who wants to explore communities online but isn’t quite ready to come out. Or the myriad other examples compiled by the Geek Feminism blog.

Contrary to Ms. Falkenthal’s assertion that “The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, but not anonymity,” the Supreme Court has made these same arguments about safety and anonymity for decades. In 1960, the Court explicitly upheld a speaker’s right to remain anonymous,

In Talley v. California, Justice Black wrote “Anonymous pamphlets, leaflets, brochures, and even books have played an important role in the progress of mankind. Persecuted groups and sects from time to time throughout history have been able to criticize oppressive practices and laws either anonymously or not at all.”

And in 1995, the Court upheld online speakers’ First Amendment right to remain anonymous, emphasizing, “protections for anonymous speech are vital to democratic discourse.” The court went on to say anonymous speech “exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights, and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation…at the hand of an intolerant society.”

These principles are, of course, nothing new and date back to our country’s birth. Yet Ms. Falkenthal says, “When our nation was being formed, Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin stood behind their incendiary, treasonous views in public even at the risk of being hanged for what they said,” implying that the Founding Fathers would be against online anonymity if they were alive today.

However, Ms. Falkenthal herself later admits that Paine actually wrote his most influential work Common Sense anonymously, just as Franklin got his start writing under a name that was not his own, the pseudonym “Mrs. Silence Dogood.”

But no example illustrates the importance of anonymity more than The Federalist Papers. The series of essays, published in the nation’s most popular newspapers in 1778 under the pseudonym “Publius,” were instrumental in the ratification of the Constitution. Yet it was not until after Alexander Hamilton’s death in 1804 that the public discovered the essays had been written by Hamilton, along with James Madison and John Jay.

Lest readers believe that the age of the pseudonym is dead, more recently, the right to anonymity was vital for protesters in the Arab Spring: Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who was detained for more than a week in the height of Egypt’s uprising, had anonymously created the Facebook page “We are all Khaled Saeed,” widely credited as the driving force behind the successful revolution.

Bloggers in Syria are now faced with the same risks as Ghonim amidst a brutal crackdown on anti-government protests.

The complex questions currently faced by newspapers have been addressed before. One event in the earlier, pre-social media days of blogging brought to the forefront a discussion around online civil discourse. Back in 1997, following anonymous death threats made to prominent blogger and game developer Kathy Sierra, publishing magnate Tim O’Reilly proposed a Blogger’s Code of Conduct to improve discourse in the blogosphere. Though the code would have prohibited anonymity, requiring users to sign up with an e-mail address, it allowed one to display publicly a handle or username in lieu of a "real" name.

Sierra recently weighed in on the debate, stating “I am for preserving pseudonymity, and believe that eliminating it will never stop the worst of the trolls, griefers, haters, and stalkers. There are far better ways to help reduce the worst of anonymity-fueled behavior online including plain old moderation.”

Indeed, comment moderation is a simple and low-resource method by which newspapers can ensure comments remain civil. Most newspapers with large online readership, from the New York Times, to the UK’s Guardian, implement comment moderation in some form.

There will always be those for whom a name is not a barrier toward acting abusively; for those with little to lose, there’s no reason to hide. Inversely, those who stand to lose a lot by identifying online are those who need pseudonyms the most, to speak their mind freely, without fear of retribution.

*Authors' Note: Since the Washington Times first published Ms. Falkenthal's article on September 26, she has since edited the meaning of this key sentence without noting the change in the body of the piece. In the comments section, she admits she added the words "on someone else's website" to the end of this sentence, claiming it was not her "intent in saying the First Amendment doesn't guarantee anonymity was NOT meant to be global." This change was prompted by commenters who noticed the error - many of whom, it should be pointed out, were completely anonymous.


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