Incognito blogging; a few things on pseudonymity

I was appalled to learn that for no good reason Mr Justice Eady had ruled to expose ‘Jack Night’, incognito blogger from the Lancashire Police Force and recipient of an Orwell Prize.  When Eady was quoted:

“…the judge said it was often useful, in assessing the value of an opinion or argument, to know its source.”

and

“More generally, when making a judgment as to the value of comments made about police affairs by ‘insiders’, it may sometimes help to know how experienced or senior the commentator is.”

I thought that was a crock. I’ve written before about withholding identity on the Web, advocating a different idea of accountability which involves readers applying their critical faculties to the writing itself rather than, as Justice Eady seems to favour, judging a piece on the basis of the identity of its author. For example, if a piece is didactic but not transparently evidenced, doesn’t flag gaps or areas of uncertainty, passes off opinions as statements of fact, employs rhetoric while being fundamentally insubstantial, is generally one-sided, or doesn’t articulate its reasoning processes, then it should be recognised as a polemic or partisan opinion piece, and given according influence and status. We can do this ourselves; we don’t need a name. This should be the focus of any transparency trend.

It is interesting to note that, for judges, “source” merely means name, not reputation.  Judges – and specifically, it should be noted, scoundrels who are guilty of misconduct themselves – tend to strongly value their own privacy. In contrast, bloggers who hope to withold their names are not asking for their misconducts to be hidden. Pseudonimity, unlike anonymity, permits an identity – i.e. some accountability – without attaching this to the name by which you are known in the eyes or your state, or your family and friends.

The best thing I’ve read on this is Catherine Bennett in yesterday’s Observer. I think it’s an excellent piece and cute with the conceit of sunlight-as-disinfectant constrasted against the shadowy obscurity Night Jack required to write candidly. She observes:

“Blogging’s revival of anonymity, long after publishing and journalism moved on to personalities, is surely one of its more interesting achievements. For as well as liberating writers to be more mischievous or truthful than they would dare to be under their own names, anonymity also means they must be judged, at least at first, on merit. On the net, there is not even the imprimatur of a publishing house, newspaper or loyal circle of influential supporters to reassure new readers.”

I think that most bloggers I know of would agree with that.

In the US, the Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that the right to anonymous free speech is protected by the First Amendment – see for example McIntyre vs. Ohio Elections Commission.

Here’s a guide to anonymous blogging from the Electronic Freedom Foundation.

A worrying post-script, Bozeman, Montana local government employers are demanding that job applicants surrender their login details for social network sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, I feel less vindicated in my decision to be pseudonymous on all of them than I thought I would. It’s not just that I’m politically committed and occasionally indecorous, and therefore would be exposed to prejudice – it’s that people should refuse to allow prospective, or even just putative, employers to dominate their prospective employees personal – and private – lives in this way.  I think in this situation I would try to persuade the employers to treat these login details as they would references. I’d stall until I had an invitation for interview, or better, a job offer. Then, I’d refuse to provide them, and get an equal opportunities or human rights lawyer on board if they told me to sling my hook.

But so far, Bozeman’s candidates have acquiesced.

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2 thoughts on “Incognito blogging; a few things on pseudonymity

  1. The irony is that on the same day that The Times exposed the identity of Night Jack it was also advising Iranian bloggers on how to maintain anonymity.

    And of course, we can now expect The Times to reveal the identity of ALL its informants – NOT!

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