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.”
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.