Pseudonyms and Anonymity – a Previously Unpublished Case Study.
Yes, its more on Grog's Gamut.
Oct 7, 2010
Yes, its more on Grog's Gamut.
Yes, its more on Grog’s Gamut.
In this post I will argue that the point of difference between most reasonable people in this debate is one of where to draw the line, rather than one of fundamental principle.
Some people are suggesting that bloggers should have a RIGHT to anonymity and/or the use of pseudonyms. But I think that on reflection, we might find that what we are disagreeing about is WHEN and HOW bloggers should identify themselves. I want to try and demonstrate that very few people would really argue that there is an AUTOMATIC RIGHT to anonymity and/or the use of pseudonyms in all circumstances, whether by journalists or by bloggers.
This post is spurred by Daniel Bond, who commented on this previous post of mine, in which I argued that it behoved those committing acts of journalism – whether they be professionals or not – to identify themselves. Bond argued:
You seem to be conflating pseudonymity with anonymity — a common mistake in this debate. By maintaining a consistent pseudonym, Greg was honest in his trade. Through his blog, Twitter, other blogs where he commented with the same handle, anyone could read the history of his writing, and call him out on any hypocrisy if they found inconsistency. He could be analysed and criticised for his writing, in comments and on Twitter — much more accountability than is available from many at the Australian (Massola himself being a notable exception). We don’t have journalists’ home phone numbers, addresses, or in fact any detail at all of what they do outside work. Why is what Greg does outside his blogging any different?
It’s a good point, and Jason Wilson on the same thread has also challenged me to answer it.
I want to do so through use of an example. To whit, an article I wrote earlier this year that was not used in Crikey, precisely because we all felt squeamish about the implications. To run the article would have meant going a long way to “outing” someone who was contributing to online debate using not one, but three different pseudonyms. We decided not to do it. Did we do the right thing, or not? I would be interested in people’s views.
Some background. In February this year, there were allegations that the Sydney Morning Herald had hacked in to a state government website to get information. The allegations were denied. That was the peg on which I hung this report, which as I say was never published. In the version below, I have removed details that would identify the IP and the pseudonyms concerned, for obvious reasons. This results in an awkward read at times, for which I apologise. I have inserted material in brackets to try and make it clear. Here’s the unpublished story.
The Sydney Morning Herald has denied claims that it has hacked in to a state government website to get information, and I have no reason to doubt its account of how it obtained the relevant information.
But there is another part of this story. A few of us in cyberspace have noticed that at least one Fairfax Media computer is indeed being used for odd purposes online.
A while ago, I ran this story (details removed to avoid identification. The story concerned the ABC, and referred to documents that had leaked.)
A commenter responded:
[The comment accused me of receiving the documents from named ABC senior executives, and suggested that I was insane)
Now, no sensible journalist gets into a debate about who their sources are or are not. I will just point out that at the time of leaking, the document was available to thousands of ABC staff.
But the venom of the comment, combined with the knowledge of the names of senior ABC personnel, made me curious enough to do a bit of detective work on the IP address (the unique computer identifying number) of the commenter, who went by the name “Denis” (I have changed the name here) and gave a hotmail email address (untraceable).
The IP is [details removed] Regular readers of the blog will see that “Denis” has posted a number of comments critical of me, Eric Beecher and the ABC. For example, on a comment on a post in which I criticised Fairfax CEO Brian McCarthy for attacking the new ABC Open project:
[A venomous and personally abusive comment accusing me of favouring the ABC unfairly)
And earlier, these comments on posts run as part of my “Journalists should not work for free” series on the rates paid to freelancers.
(Another two comments accusing me of hypocrisy and being infantile, and abusing various editors of independent media outlets.)
All fair enough, and the fact that someone disagrees with me would not on its own cause me to out them.
But when I started sleuthing I found this.(link removed to the relevant entry on the Sam Spade sight that tracks IP addresses). My correspondent was using a Fairfax Media computer.
On its own, I probably wouldn’t think this worth mentioning, but for the fact that I found “Denis’s” footprints elsewhere. In August last year the same IP address was used to make an aggressive comment (link removed) on another media blog. The author of the blog (name and link removed) had run material accusing Fairfax of manipulating Nielsen Netratings data to boost the figures for its The Vine site.
This time the IP address was used to post a comment under a different name, “Philipl” (name changed). The comment was a defence of The Vine.
(comment quoted here, but I’ve removed it because it would enable the IP address to be traced)
The author of this blog (name and link removed) had also done some sleuthing, and included a note to the effect that the comment had come from inside Fairfax Media
Interesting, particularly since all the comments posted from this IP address could be understood to be undermining of Fairfax critics and supportive of the company interests.
But the thing that makes it worth reporting is that this IP address has also been used for alleged multiple instances of sabotage of Wikipedia between September 2005 and September last year, as you can see here. (link to Wikipedia user page removed to avoid identification of the IP address) .
The topics that were vandalised seem pretty randam – including [details removed. They concerned a school, and an entry concerning an animal welfare lobby group] In February 2007 the IP address user – after being repeatedly urged to establish a user account and to stop vandalising – was blocked from editing Wikipedia. When the block expired, the vandalism continued, with “unconstructive” edits to the pages on (a festival), and. Most interesting of all, Fairfax Media. Here, the user made a number of frivolous changes which he or she then reverted. [details removed] The user was ticked off by the Wikipedia community [details removed] but the vandalism continued, with the insertion of edits to the biography of [an academic, details removed] ”. This was caught and corrected by the community. Then came an insertion tothe entry on [a Fairfax newspaper. Other details, including references to the staff of that newspaper, removed]
The conversation on Wikipedia about the vandalism is classic. The Wikipedia community rumbled this person as a journalist too:
[an extended quote followed, and has been removed, in which the Wikipedia moderator accussed the person of lack of integrity as a member of the press.]
Is this the same Fairfax IP address that has been detected making numerous attempts to hack in to the NSW Government transport website about 4000 times? I have no idea.
Nor do I doubt the reporters’ assurances that they got the information in other ways.
You would have to say, though, that it’s interesting.
Now, the point of running this story in this form now is because I am still not sure that we shouldn’t have run it at the time. But on balance, we decided that by allowing people to comment anonymously on Crikey, we are entering in to an implicit agreement that we won’t out them. That’s why the story was canned, and that’s why I have done my best to avoid outing this person now, while trying to illuminate the issue.
But there is clearly an argument that we SHOULD have outed the person. The reasons include:
. Their identify as a Fairfax Media staff member was relevant to the way in which their contributions could be understood and regarded.
. They were vandalising public resources.
.They were abusing and attacking other participants in public debate
. They were displaying questionable ethics, particularly if they were journalists.
Now I am not suggesting for a minute that any of these things apply to Grogs Gamut.
What I AM suggesting is that there are circumstances in which it is at least arguable that an anonymous or pseudonymous online contributor should be outed.
If, for example, Grogs Gamut or another blogger was actually using the pseudonym to disguise the fact that he was a political staffer, then surely that fact would be relevant, and something that both people he approached for interview and people reading his post should know. His consistent use of a pseudonym would not have been sufficient to cover the concerns. And how would we know that he WAS using a consistent pseudonym. He might be using two or three. We wouldn’t know. (And once again, I am not suggesting that any of these things are true of Grog. ).
So the point I am making is that what we are arguing about is where to draw the line.
We are arguing about WHEN transparency about identify is important.
I think that if we reflect, we can all agree that there are times when it is.
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