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Oct 7, 2010

Pseudonyms and Anonymity – a Previously Unpublished Case Study.

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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13 comments

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13 thoughts on “Pseudonyms and Anonymity – a Previously Unpublished Case Study.

  1. dpantelis

    I think that anonymity helps people to say things they would never say with their names down of a comment, especially when they reveal something against somebody.

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  2. blinkybill

    I think you get a broader range of opinions if you allow anonymity, along the lines of the Asche study and normative conformity.

    A quick look through the blogs on site alone shows the influence of peer group pressure and the damage caused by one or other of these charmers

    http://www.politicsforum.org/images/flame_warriors/

  3. comfis

    The matter of anonymity is serious! I am blogger for 6 years and still didn’t realise if you should remain anonymous or not

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  4. Michael Cordover

    I believe firmly in the right to pseudonymity and I don’t find this a convincing case against. The person described here didn’t use one continuous identity to contribute to debate. The person used several separate identities on various sites to make personal attacks.

    The “outing” of this person is only relevant because multiple identities belong to a single individual – in the vein of anonymity. The fact that their motivation is perhaps misplaced loyalty to the company that provides their IP is less relevant, I’d say, than the fact that their commentary was venomous and unproductive. If they posted with a consistent pseudonym they’d be annoying and a troll, but there’d be no reason to out them.

    Anonymity and pseudonymity aren’t sacrosanct. They are, however, presumed rights. To breach them there must be good reason. That’s all I (and others) claim.

  5. Ben Harris-Roxas

    Nice to see a considered comment from Jason Wilson – The Ghost Who Types!

    The case Margaret describes is an interesting counterfactual and I struggle with it as a non-journo. It illuminates the question of where the line should be drawn quite well.

    Clearly the Fairfax Media ISP user was trolling and not making the sort of positive contribution to public debate that Grog was. Their goal way to be destructive. That being said, I’m still not convinced it would have been in the public interest to out this person.

    Some strong reasons for identifying them are cited in the article: they worked in an industry they commented on, they were unfairly attacking others, and their actions were ethically questionable. None of these were true in Grog’s case. A critical factor Margaret describes in deciding whether to name this person was the implicit agreement that exists between websites and commenters to preserve their anonymity. I think the more important issue is who would have benefitted from knowing?

    Naming them would have curtailed their online activities, exposed them to ridicule and scrutiny by their peers, and possibly have cause them to lose their job (sound familiar?). But how would the public have benefitted in more general terms?

    I acknowledge the thorny issue of the media making decisions about what the public should know. These determinations are made every day however, and are a critical function of any outlet, if not their entire raison d’être.

    I agree that there is no right to anonymity in all circumstances, but the public interest test should be set pretty bloody high. I was recently told by a journalist that “I’ve thought about this a lot and I think a piece is in the public interest if I’m interested in it.” Not good enough, frankly.

    This is a complicated and at times confused issue, as my rambling and semi-contradictory comment illustrates. The rest of the 21st century will be a battleground over the concept of privacy and, as Jason alludes to, this has been a consciousness-raising episode for me and others.

    Well done to Margaret and Crikey for leaving the story alone. If only all journos and media outlets thought the same way.

  6. Daniel Bond

    Margaret,

    Another enjoyable and thought-provoking article. I always get a bit excited when there’s a new Content Makers post, and I’m seldom disappointed.

    Others may be making the argument, but I don’t recall ever saying that the right to anonymity or pseudonymity is sacrosanct. I agree with Julie Posetti: identification should be the gold standard on the part of those offering comment. However, as Jason Wilson points out, there is a long and rich history of anonymous and pseudonymous writing, often in cases where the writing would not have been possible otherwise. Though writers should identify themselves to the greatest extent possible, I believe that respecting a writer’s choice not to identify him- or herself should be the gold standard of behaviour by readers.

    I agree with you that in exceptional circumstances, an investigation is warranted. But as others have said above (and you have acknowledged), nothing that would justify the outing of the Fairfax Vigilante applies to the case of Grogs. And though there may be circumstances in which his job would be interesting (a point that I’m not yet willing to concede, but that’s a discussion for another time), Massola knew months ago that none of them applied; Grogs is precisely what he said he was on his blog (a mid-level public servant with no insider knowledge). Analogously, it would be newsworthy if an Australian company were found to be using child labour overseas; if the production practices of a company are investigated and found to be entirely above board, that is not news.

    You suggest that one consistent pseudonym does not preclude abusive behaviour, whether under other pseudonyms or anonymously. But neither does identification. You, for example, post under your real name (or so I believe — I have no proof that Margaret Simons is not a pseudonym, nor do I care at all if it is), but we have no proof that you don’t spend your evenings gleefully trolling Twitter from a pseudonymous account or making anonymous edits to Janet Albrechtsen’s Wikipedia entry.

    Although I comment under my birth name on Twitter and in blogs, there are fora where I use a pseudonym. In online games and many forums, abuse is commonplace and some users aren’t very discerning about shifting that abuse out of the virtual world and in to “meatspace.” Pseudonymity is the norm on the internet, for many reasons besides perpetration of trolling and hypocrisy. Often they’re connected with legitimate safety and privacy concerns, which further increases the necessity of respecting those pseudonyms wherever possible (How did News Ltd. know that Grogs hadn’t received death threats via his Twitter account and was using the pseudonym to protect his family?). When the internet was new, users were cautioned in the strongest possible terms against ever identifying themselves on the internet; the fad for using real names did not emerge until very recently when Facebook became popular.

    My thesis is this: A pseudonym is an identity. People may have more than one identity — this has always been so — and in the online space in particular, there is no real reason to privilege the one associated with a birth name. The motivations for using one or the other are many and varied, and we should have a very compelling reason for linking two of a person’s identities to each other against his or her wishes.

  7. jason.wilson

    One more thing, lest I appear too snarky in the previous comment – the important thing to realise here, I think, is that this has been a somewhat “radicalising moment” for many, perhaps including myself. It’s difficult for many people not to read this as an attempt to restrict access to public commentary. Anonymity is not a right, but free speech is, or should be.

  8. jason.wilson

    Hi Margaret. Another nice post, and an interesting case study giving us an insight into a particular piece of editorial decision-making in this area. I think Crikey did the right thing, personally, mostly because I’m not sure about the news value here. But then, maybe the omitted facts would make a difference to that opinion.

    Again, though, I’m not sure we actually disagree. From my post:

    Anonymity and pseudonymity are not a right, but nor is writing under your own name an obligation. If you are writing pseudonymously or anonymously, you’re part of a history that started long before the current model of bylined journalism did, and certainly before the current occupants of the Canberra Press Gallery got Twitter accounts. What you are doing is not wrong. Any suggestion that it is should be understood for what it is – an attempt to restrict public speech.

    I don’t think your post changes my view, indeed I think yours and my posts are completely compatible with each other.

    The suggestion has been made by journalists (it was made to me again over a beer with one last night) that having your “real name” exposed might just be the price you pay for “putting yourself out there”. Not in special circumstances, not if you abuse pseudonymity, just because that’s the way it is. i.e. it’s more or less an obligation that attaches itself to public speech. That strikes me, to say the very least, as self-serving bullshit, as I hope my post made clear. I won’t rehearse those arguments again.

    What I will say is that we appear to have lost an interesting voice in Australian public debate because… well, why was it again?

    Meanwhile, “real journos” who don’t write the “mere opinion” that bloggers do have returned to being bloodhounds on the trail of the facts. Why today, we found out that

    1. The Prime Minster is a clever politician. Also, she ate some chips.

    2. Joe Hockey is ambitious. He will need his party’s support to become leader.

    3. Peter Garrett wholeheartedly supports the government’s education policy.

    Grog was belling the cat on this sort of nonsense, and spoke to the frustrations of a lot of news consumers – especially the most switched on ones, who you’d think “serious media” would want to be pitching itself to. Instead of listening, from the outside it looks like journos decided to circle the wagons and shut someone down. They seemed more interested in preserving their own privilege than extending freedom of public speech.

    The ethical debate is worth having, but it misses this basic point, which is as much of an issue for media futures as technological change is.

  9. Jackol

    I, for one, believe that there is (or should) be a right to privacy. As with all rights, it is not and should not be absolute. As far as it goes it is a ‘weak’ right and will (and should) be trumped by a modest public interest argument (provided that the reasonably expected repercussions of violating it are not severe – eg if someone’s life is imperiled by their exposure, then obviously that changes the nature of the anonymity, I’m assuming we’re not including this case in these discussions).

    I do not buy Margaret’s argument that knowing Grog was a political staffer would have been relevant. The reason is simple – he wasn’t working as a journalist, he wasn’t claiming the authority of being part of a reporting body, his words were just words in the mass of the internet with nothing apart from their own worth to commend them. We don’t invest his words with any import or assumptions of being unbiased or non-partisan because … we know nothing about him beyond any other random blogger, nor should we.

    Journalists are different because (for most of them) they are even more random strangers – we don’t follow most of them, we come to them because they are part of a newspaper team or a journal team etc, and we know they are actual journalists.

    The contrast is stark.

  10. Margaret Simons

    Paddy and Tim, It is precisely because this case is at the opposite end of the spectrum to Grog that I think it is useful in asking the question “where do we draw the line”. The line, I suggest, is somewhere between the two. But where?

    And there was an additional factor in my and Crikey’s decision ot to publish. Because we invite and allow anonymous comments, we did have at least an implicit agreement with this person not to out them. Similar to, but not the same as a contact or source relationship. This is different to, say, Massola’s position.

    And as for the straw man – this post is written in response to comments on the thread of my previous post, and some of the commentary on Twitter. Some people, though not all, are arguing variously that the right to use pseudonyms (so long as it is done consistently), or to remain anonymous, is sacrosanct.

  11. Tweets that mention Pseudonyms and Anonymity – a Previously Unpublished Case Study. – The Content Makers -- Topsy.com

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Robbo and Ben Harris-Roxas, Cam MacRae. Cam MacRae said: Margaret Simons and @crikey_news might have dodged a bullet in not running this piece: http://bit.ly/9Y6Aoj IP id complicated (NAT/PAT etc.) […]

  12. Tim Dunlop

    Hi Margaret. This all turns on the fact that “some” claim anonymity as a right. Can you give examples of who has said that? I’m curious to know how wide spread that idea is as I have not heard/seen anyone say it (which, of course, doesn’t mean it isn’t a widely held view.) I’d just like to get a sense of how widely held it is or whether it might in fact be a bit of a strawman?

    Regardless, you are right, I think, to say that the real question is where to draw the line. (I don’t think anonymity is a right per se)

    In which case, the egs of Grogs and your Fairfax commenter are so wildly different as to offer almost nothing useful by way of comparison.

    If they do indicate anything it is that, if the Fairfax person wasn’t worth outing, then in what universe could it be ok to out Grogs?

    Which in turn raises the issue again: why did News out Grogs? Why did they draw the line there?

    I know you’ve said that what News did was ‘mean’ not unethical, but given the power imbalance between a big news organisation and a lone blogger (who, everyone agrees, did nothing wrong), surely that sort of ‘meanness’ rises to the level of bullying, especially if we agree (which we seem to) that there was no compelling reason for outing Grogs?

    And wouldn’t that, therefore, be unethical?

  13. paddy

    Really Margaret. WTF has this article got to do with Grog?
    Conflating his outing, with what you think you should, or shouldn’t have done to an unrelated destructive hacker/troll, seems to be drawing a very long bow.
    Plus the “what if he was a political staffer?” (But of course he’s not) Smacks of an old fashioned strawman argument.
    I think this piece would have benefited from another cup of coffee, before hitting the send button.