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.