Here we go again — a new attack on anonymous speech, misusing the facts ripped from the current headlines about a case of one person’s slimy online attacks on another. So, as what Maureen Dowd today called the “Case of the Blond Model and the Malicious Blogger” gains publicity steam, Dowd and too many other commentators seem to be missing some key points and drawing the wrong lessons.

To refresh your memory, if you haven’t heard about it, this case involves Liskula Cohen, a model who was on the receiving end of some vile comments next to suggestive pictures, posted under a pseudonym on one of gazillions of such blogs at Google’s Blogger service. Cohen’s lawyer persuaded a judge that the posts were arguably defamatory, and the judge ordered Google to turn over the email address and other logged information it had about the blogger. The company, after first denying Cohen’s request and saying she’d need a court order, then complied and handed over the information. The data trail led back to a Cohen acquaintance named Rosemary Port. Cohen, in a demonstration of her own better instincts, said she would forgive Port instead of suing her.

That’s where this nasty little incident might have ended. Unfortunately it appears to be heading off in new directions.

Port says she’s going to sue Google, arguing that she had a right to confidentiality. Give me a break. I’m a privacy nut, but I believe Google did exactly the right thing in this instance, in part because it obeyed a clear order from a judge who also did the right thing.

No one can dispute that we have a category of human slime that uses online anonymity (or, usually more accurately, pseudonymity) to attack other people. These people, classic cowards, hide behind the virtual bushes to take potshots, and they do so with the ugliest kind of satisfaction.

But as Cohen’s case shows — the postings about her weren’t even close to being the worst material I’ve seen from anonymous sources –  online media creators aren’t exempt  from defamation laws, though it may take more effort to find out who they are. The judge in New York, Joan A. Madden, looked at the facts and, in my view, correctly decided that Port’s blog postings were sufficiently crude to justify Cohen’s plans to file a defamation lawsuit — not that they were absolutely defamatory, but that they were within the ballpark that could justify letting a jury decide.

Port, for her part, told reporters that almost no one would have known about her sleazy behavior had Cohen not gone to court in the first place and had Google not turned her name over. Talk about twisted logic. Cohen, and most likely some of their mutual acquaintances, knew about it. And the likelihood, given the Internet’s staying power, is that at least some others would have seen Port’s remarks, too. Let’s hope the courts toss any lawsuit from Port into the nearest trash can.

But, as sometimes happens, the larger case is growing, in part due to the large amount of attention it’s received from media of all varieties — newspapers, TV, radio and, of course, blogs. It’s turning into a morality play that could have a real impact on the issue of anonymity. If that impact comes in the form of helping us to establish new norms of behavior, great. If it turns into new laws, watch out.

One of the norms we’d be wise to establish is this: People who don’t stand behind their words deserve, in almost every case, no respect for what they say. In many cases, anonymity is a hiding place that harbors cowardice, not honor. The more we can encourage people to use their real names, the better. But if we try to force this, we’ll create more trouble than we fix.

People who’d ban anonymity don’t seem to realize that it’s technically impossible unless we’re willing to turn over all of our communications in every venue to a central authority — a system that would herald the end of liberty. They can’t really want such a regime, can they? Meanwhile, even that kind of structure could and would be hacked by motivated types, though with more difficulty.

Moreover, anonymity has crucially important value. We need it for whistleblowers, for political dissidents in dictatorships — for those who have important stories to tell but whose lives or livelihoods would be in jeopardy if their identities were exposed.

In other words, to save the heroes who tell us about vital matters, we have to recognize that we’ll also have people who use free speech to ignoble ends. When they cross the line to defamation, they deserve the woes they may bring on themselves.

But we don’t want, in the end, to turn everything over to the lawyers. The rest of us — the audience, if you will — need to establish some new norms as well.

We are far too prone to accepting what we see and hear. We need to readjust our internal BS meters in a media-saturated age.

So start with this principle: When you read or hear an anonymous or pseudonymous attack on someone else, you should not just assume — barring persuasive evidence of the charge — that it’s false. Assume that the accuser is an outright, contemptible liar.

This wouldn’t solve the problem. But it would help.


22 Responses to “‘Skanky’ Blogging, Anonymity and What’s Right”
  1. Hi Dan,
    It’s great to read your take on this issue. I’m grateful for the acknowledgment that anonymity in some contexts, esp. under repressive regimes, is the only way in which we can bear witness to stories, events and processes otherwise hidden, or censored. At the same time, I completely agree that the difference between anonymity and pseudonymity is often easily distinguished – particularly in cases were the Internet just provides an easy vector to defame.
    More here.
    Sanjana Hattotuwa, Editor, Groundviews

  2. Rick Haglund says:

    Dan: Did I read your last paragraph correctly? If someone accuses you of being a rapist and baby killer, in the absence of evidence,  I should strongly suspect it’s true?

  3. Rick Haglund says:

    That’s better! But maybe it was just me.

  4. Afi Scruggs says:

    I’ve been following this episode because I’m writer/former columnist who still gets savaged by anonymous and pseudononymous posters.
    For me, the issue isn’t anonymity. As you’ve pointed out, it’s slander and defamation. That kind of speech, even if it is “opinion” wanders into a shadowy legal area that can be dangerous for independent posters – as Ms. Port found out.
    I agree with your objection to Ms. Port’s claim of privacy. There’s no privacy on the web. Maybe that reality should be a consideration before posting anything.
    Thanks for a great analysis.

  5. Anonymous says:

    This comment is false.
    (Am I blowing your mind?)

  6. Dan, great post. More helpful fodder for those of us who are constantly fending off attacks on the ability for readers to post anonymously. I was particularly fond of your point, “People who’d ban anonymity don’t seem to realize that it’s technically impossible unless we’re willing to turn over all of our communications in every venue to a central authority — a system that would herald the end of liberty.”
    It’s a point I’ve made often to anyone who will listen. Even Facebook, which prides itself on “requiring” real names, can live up to that requirement.
    Thank you.

  7. Tom Mulvoy says:

    Dan,
    I believe we at one time shared a common employer, the Globe of Boston, and I think your analysis makes some good points. I have an issue with only one area of “comments” on websites and that is those operated by newspapers. Why do newspapers  like the The Globe feel obliged to invite readers into their “homes” (their websites) and let them savage the newspaper’s journalists anonymously for the paper’s entire online readership? Reduced to the absurd, it’s the equivalent of inviting someone into your home and telling them it’s okay to relieve themselves on your living room rug; you won’t tell anyone who they are.
     

    • Dan Gillmor says:

      I tend to rank most comment threads even lower than unsigned blogging, especially when they become the kinds of places you allude to. Newspaper comment threads turn into cesspools not because of the anonymous (or pseudonymous) comments, but because the no one moderates what’s going on. Either it’s considered too resource-intensive to do this, or editors don’t care. Either way, that guarantees a degree of sludge.

      It seems to me that there should be one rule: civility. All else stems from that. It means no personal attacks, principally. And it’s enforceable, often with the help of the community that wants to have a conversation.

      Having said this, I do think that newspaper journalists (virtually all traditional media folks from any medium) tend to have too-thin skins. We dish it out better than we take it, by a long margin. I have to suspect that one reason newspapers don’t insist on better behavior in their comment threads is that the toxic stuff they invite then becomes a reason to dismiss it as entirely crap….

  8. Bob Higgins says:

    I just re-read Dowd and still can’t find a place where she advocates banning anonymity. You seem to be arguing a point she never made.
     

  9. Steve (UK) says:

    You *would* have done had you been “pseudonymous”.
    :-)

  10. Delia says:

    Dan,

    Seth’s experience with it is a very good example as to why those who are not making money off this should NOT disclose their full name online, regardless of how much they are pressured to do it.

    Anonymous baseless personal attacks are one thing (most people don’t give much credence to those) but the same sort of attacks from those currently in power are a very different story.

    Delia

  11. [...] to this issue having to do with whether Google should “out” people who write potentially defamatory material, but it’s too complicated for a quick [...]

  12. Ironically, I’m even one of the relatively few people who has done social activism (censorware decryption) with real reasons of  I-need-to-be-anonymous-for-fear-of-being-sued. I’ll briefly note it’s not all it’s cracked up to be :-(.

    What Dan was saying earlier (“honorably sign your name”) is basically that I put my social capital – what little there is of it – behind my writings. But that doesn’t make it true or false – plenty of shameless liars put their names to their writings too.

    Fundamentally, it’s all about retaliation, and why it’s avoided. You can want to avoid retaliation because you’re telling an uncomfortable truth, or a contemptible lie. And an onlooker can’t easily tell. Which is a rephrasing of your reason that Dan’s argument, while presumably well-intentioned, is not all that meaningful.

  13. Delia says:

    Seth, what I meant to say was that you have received baseless personal attacks from some in power. I believe your experience
    with this is a strong argument *against* volunteering one’s identity online. As long as you are not doing anything wrong, it’s really nobody’s business WHO you are, *personally*… D.

  14. [...] ‘Skanky’ Blogging, Anonymity and What’s Right Mediactive | August 26, 2009 Particularly fond of the point, “People who’d ban anonymity don’t seem to realize that it’s technically impossible unless we’re willing to turn over all of our communications in every venue to a central authority — a system that would herald the end of liberty.” [...]

  15. Delia, yes, definitely, my experience sadly shows the negatives of standing behind what one says (it makes it very easy for bullies to kick you). Let me trying this differently: simply put, there’s good reasons and bad reasons to be anonymous. The hard problem is that the <em>reader</em> can’t tell if the anonymous person is anonymous for a good reason or a bad reason. And Dan’s post doesn’t engage with this problem beyond the trivial.

  16. Dan Gillmor says:

    Seth, readers have many ways to figure out if anonymity is justified or not. As noted, for example, an anonymous personal attack should generate a counter-response — believing the opposite — unless the attacker has persuasive evidence.

    An anonymous whistle-blower telling us about a scandal in the public sphere, while still deserving less credibility than someone using their name, may well be worth listening to.

    I’d be interested in hearing your ideas on how to help people become more literate in gauging reliability in such circumstances.

  17. Delia says:

    Seth, I see no good reason to give up my anonymity when deriving no benefits from my online presence — I believe I should be entitled to privacy.

    Dan, do you ever just read what people say? I mean the vast majority of them choose anonymity online unless they have a good reason not to (as in, they hope to make money off this and building “a name” is important to them). I’m afraid you end up missing some of the best stuff if you just assume the worst because it’s anonymous (I was hoping you would have moved away from this by now but looks like nothing has changed:)…

    Delia

  18. Dan, one of the serious ongoing critiques that’s made of your posts, by Delia and me and others, is that you tend to emphasize too much what theoretically <em>should</em> happen, to the neglect of the problem that it doesn’t. As in “an anonymous personal attack should generate” … It should, it should, it should. I tell you, it should. Do you hear me, IT SHOULD. Let me preach unto you, brothers and sisters, *IT* *SHOULD*. But … too often, IT DOESN’T. Now what? If the answer is that you’re going to continue sermonizing from the pulpit, that’s part of what I mean by trivial.

    Deeper, how to distinguish personal attack from truth to power? It begs the question to write “An anonymous whistle-blower … may well be worth listening to.”. Because the reader often can’t tell if the anonymous comment is whistle-blowing or mud-slinging. Sometimes personal attack from truth to power aren’t even obviously distinct (e.g. along the lines of “So-and-so writes this stuff because it makes him money via consulting gigs, it’s basically a manipulative sales-pitch for his corporate clients”).

    Regarding “I’d be interested in hearing your ideas on how to help people become more literate …” – remember, my ideas are almost the systemic opposite, in that the risk-shifting onto individuals is a terrible trend that’s being pushed by an unholy alliance of marketers and propagandists, who passionately want to destroy whatever remnants of countervailing institutions exist. In this context, it turns into a matter of blaming the weak for the depredations of the strong. While the sentiments are not wrong _per se_, it gets downright grotesque in comparison – something like “Because medical costs are skyrocketing and so many lack health insurance, and having a serious illness can destroy a life’s-saving and bankrupt people, I’d be interested in hearing your ideas on how to help people eat more nutritiously and exercise regularly – we need to readjust our lifestyles in a for-profit-medicine age.

    Delia – “I see no good reason to give up my anonymity when deriving no benefits” – when you put it that way, I feel rather stupid :-(.

  19. Delia says:

    didn’t mean it that way, Seth… D.

  20. [...] ‘Skanky’ Blogging, Anonymity and What’s Right – More helpful fodder for those of us who are constantly fending off attacks on the ability for readers to post anonymously. I was particularly fond of your point, “People who’d ban anonymity don’t seem to realize that it’s technically impossible unless we’re willing to turn over all of our communications in every venue to a central authority — a system that would herald the end of liberty.” It’s a point I’ve made often to anyone who will listen. Even Facebook, which prides itself on “requiring” real names, can live up to that requirement. [...]

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