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Pseudonyms and Anonymous Sourcing

While looking over the 49(!) comments on my posting defending free speech the other day, I decided there were two topics I wanted to treat in a blog entry rather than in comments.


Some of the comments revolved around the propriety of outing Gryphen’s secret identity with some saying it was unethical to do so and others claiming that the mere act of writing on important public issues while using a pseudonym was itself unethical.

My contribution to the topic was:

I made no comment on his loss of anonymity. I’m not blaming that on anyone. My personal feeling is that adopting anonymity gives one a false sense of security. In the age of the internet, particularly when blogging against someone with devoted followers, any “secret identity” is bound to be uncovered. That’s why I blog under my own name. I don’t mind others trying to hide as long as they use a consistent handle, I just don’t think they’ll keep their identity under wraps for an extended period of time.

I’d like to talk about this concept a little more. Writing under a pseudonym or pen name on political topics has a long and distinguished history going back to the Federalist Papers when Founders Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison wrote under the pen name of Publius in the late 1700s.

I believe that from a speech standpoint a pseudonym provides accountability. A person writes under her pen name and if called on misuse of facts or making stuff up can’t hide behind the “I didn’t say that” that anonymous blog commenters can.

So I don’t think using a pen name is itself bad for public discourse. If people feel like they need to hide, I’m open to that. I’m not especially for outing people. Outing people is a form of Ad hominem attack to me. You don’t care about their facts or sources, you are arguing the writing shouldn’t be trusted because of the person hiding behind the pseudonyms.

In a few specialized cases, this could be legitimate. For example, it would be worthwhile to know that a blog purporting to be from an American Jihadi was in fact written by Dick Cheney to try and scare us. Or if a blog purporting to be that of a homeless man trying to get by on the streets of New York was actually being written by George Soros. But unless the outing is to show the writer isn’t in a position to know what he’s writing about, it’s not useful or conducive to public debate.

Having said the above, I stand by my comment that while potentially desirable, pen names are not sustainable in the age of the Internet. There are too many places where you can make a slip, too much public information and increasingly, too many people with an ax to grind with too much time on their hands to maintain secret identities for long.  If this country started contemplating a new Constitution, any politicians daring to write under Publius, “Joe the Plumber” or any other pseudonym would be outed faster than you could say “anonymous staffer.”

Anonymous Sourcing

Another issue that came up in comments was the appropriateness of using anonymous sources. My feeling is that except for one circumstance, anonymous sourcing is worthless at best and evil at worst. It’s bad whether its a blogger, the New York Times or Fox News. The path to the Iraq Occupation was paved with anonymous sourcing about fictious WMD. When it’s simply testimony, I think anonymous sourcing should be avoided for a number of reasons, but chiefly because it gives us no basis for determining the veracity of what’s being said. Does the person have an agenda? Does the person criticizing the public figure have open lawsuits or some sort of vendetta going on? Is the person in a position to know what is being claimed? None of these things can be known without the identity of the source.

The one instance where I can tolerate an anonymous source is when they produce a document that is made public and can be verified.

Two made up examples showing the contrast:

Scenario 1: People are being abused in US military prisons

A) Story with unnamed sources says people are being tortured in military prisons. – Not credible.

B) Story with unnamed sources that provided Red Cross and FBI reports documenting prisoners being shackled to walls, given electroshocks, sleep deprived for a week at a time and other forms or torture. – Credible.

Scenario 2: Sarah and Todd are Splitsville!

A) Blog entry with unnamed sources saying that Sarah and Todd will be divorced soon. — As much as I like Gryphen, not hugely credible. What if his sources have an ax to grind? Or are lying to Gryphen on Sarah’s behalf?

A) Blog entry with unnamed sources who provided a copy of Sarah and Todd’s signed separation papers that is posted for people to examine. — Credible.

NOTE: As I said in comments in the original posting, I am taking no position on the accuracy of the divorce story.


4 Responses

  1. I agree 100% In this day, though, can we really believe any electronic or digital media?
    The “Swift Boat” campaign against John Kerry appeared true at first glance. They had statements and documentation that proved he was a coward. It seems to me it took about 10 days for that to be debunked but many people still believe it. Sarah Palin can claim her Facebook rant was actually posted by a hacker if it backfires on her. How do you prove she actually wrote it since it isn’t signed with a verifiable signature.
    I read Gryphen’s blog daily and I do think since the GOP put Palin up as an example of a good conservative Christian family and she the rare woman who can be a mother, wife and the state’s chief executive, when that falls apart it should be reported. Not to prove that a woman can’t do all that, but that THIS woman can’t. Gryphen should not have reported on it however, until he had proof not just hearsay.

  2. Hi Phil, Thanks for stopping by. You bring up a great point about authentication of comments. I expect it’s only a matter of time before some political campaign is majorly disrupted by a well done fake video. I won’t take bets on which party would go there first.

    A decent book of fiction that deals with this them is called Killing Time by Caleb Carr. The book mostly deals with a group of people whose approach to making people question evidence is to commit a series of forgeries of historical evidence. They plant evidence that Winston Churchill plotted World War I and that George Washington was murdered. Trouble is, people buy the conspiracies as genuine.

    The book has an extremely weak ending, but the overall concept of not being able to trust any evidence posted electronically is interesting.

  3. You bring up some good points in a very objective manner. In history classes, we teach students to evaluate a source on both authority and reliability (among other things.) An anonymous source cannot be evaluated on either. As you said, providing documentation changes things, though.

    I use only HistoryGoddess on general blogs, but not for newspapers. There I will use my real name. For some reason, probably not that valid, a newspaper seems more public and deserves my real name, if I feel that strongly about something. It also serves as an accountability check for me. I am less likely to spout nonsense if I know it will be seen forever.

    I honestly don’t care about anyone’s marital status- gay, straight, Palin or not-so-Palin. I do care that a person is able to be in a supportive, loving relationship without harassment or discrimination.

    I would like permission to print and share this post with my students in a few weeks. It is one thing to yak at them about reliability, credibility, authority and all that stuff, but it is very different when applied to real life situations. Yours is an objective look at the bigger issue, and the “background story” of outing bloggers, talking about relationships, passing on stories…those are issues that students can relate to. Every one of them would have a story about a MySpace entry or rumors. Your post would be a good way to show them how adults can look at issues.

  4. Hi Jan,

    You may certain print and share this post with your students. I think somewhere around here it says that I license everything under a Creative Commons Attribution/Non-Commercial License. If not, I need to put it up soon.

    On the subject of sources and reporting, I highly recommend two books, both of which I’ve reviewed here:

    No Time to Think

    True Enough

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