Please visit the new home of Majikthise at bigthink.com/blogs/focal-point.

« Why I love the blogosphere: Razor blades, biting, and blow jobs | Main | Bush before and after »

June 17, 2006

Pseudonimity, outing, and blogging

Anonymity is a big issue in blogging and it's only going to get bigger. Last week, I had an interesting discussion with a group of young journalists at YearlyKos. The entire convention was abuzz with the news that Armando, a front page poster on Daily Kos, had quit blogging after the National Review Online published his real name and revealed that he had worked for Wal-Mart as a corporate lawyer.

I was surprised by how much these journalists seemed to resent bloggers who guarded their identities. They felt that fake-namers enjoyed more freedom of expression (or less accountability) than they did. Money also came into it. Some people remarked that it wasn't fair that they, the full-time journalists, had to take heat for a pittance while other people were using pseuds to command a large audience while holding lucrative corporate jobs.

The journalists also insisted on their absolute right to out anyone they wanted.

At YearlyKos, you could see new social norms being hammered out. Some prominent pseud-users were doing panels, press conferences, and even TV interviews. Several journalists scoffed openly at bloggers who went on television using pseuds.

Obviously, this level of semi-pseudonimity was only possible because reporters and bloggers understood certain implicit ground rules: Refer to people by their preferred moniker, if someone tells you their real name and their pseud ask whether it's okay to use their real name. And, most importantly, never out anyone unless you have an ironclad journalistic reason. (There was disagreement on the last item, but in practice, the reporters at YK seemed to understand the seriousness of the "no outing" rule.)

As a real-namer with journalistic tendencies, I have a slightly unusual perspective on the anonymity issue. I'm aware that writing under my own name is luxury that most people can't afford.

It was generally agreed amongst the journalists that at-will employment was the real problem, not nosy reporters.

"Who wants to work for someone who can't accept your politics?" someone asked.

"People who need their jobs," I said.

Personally, I like blogging under my real name. It's easier that way. Writing under one name is a good way to make sure that I get the full measure of credit and blame for what I write.

I tend to think more carefully before I sign my name to stuff. Writing under my real name is also an impetus to stand up and be counted on certain issues where I might not have otherwise have done so.

There's a certain cachet that comes with writing under your real name (or an entirely believable pen name). Real-namers don't necessarily deserve more credit than their pseud-using counterparts, but I'm happy let other people's biases work in my favor.

Being out also spares me the hassle of keeping track of who knows my identity and who doesn't. Over the years, I've gotten to know a lot of people who blog and comment under pseudonyms. I'm always impressed when they share their real identities with me. Non-bloggers and real-namers often assume that pseudononymity is the easy way out. That's not necessarily true. If you're not out, you're taking a leap of faith every time you reveal yourself.

Even if you never out yourself, you're still at the mercy of others. Some bloggers, like Thersites of Meta-Comments, have been outed for purely frivolous malicious reasons. Piss off the wrong person and put your career in jeopardy.

In rare cases, the identity of a pseudonymous blogger is a legitimately newsworthy topic in its own right. For example, I think it was perfectly legitimate for bloggers to point out that the Washington Post's erstwhile conservative blogger Ben Domenench had written some incredibly offensive stuff under the handle "Augustine." I'm sorry that Armando of Kos got outed, but there was a real story there: Wal-Mart lawyer front pager at major liberal blog.

A handle can give writers more freedom of expression. I know people who are pseudonymous because their writing could get them fired, or because they're afraid that their political opinions might bring down the wrath of the current administration, or because they want to discuss very personal subjects without implicating themselves or their loved ones. If it weren't for pseudonyms, these people wouldn't be part of the discussion, and the blogosphere would be much poorer for it. Frivolous outing is a particularly insidious way of silencing people you disagree with.

Unfortunately, the more a pseudonym frees you to express ideas that are incongruent with your other identities, the bigger the potential cost of being discovered. At least when you're out, people have less to hold over you.

One of the best things about blogging is that there's no one right way to do it. As bloggers, we're not bound by institutional policies or professional bloggers' codes of ethics. Everyone is free to weigh the costs and benefits of transparency vs. privacy. I read a wide range of blogs whose authors run the gamut from total secrecy to complete transparency. Writers earn my trust by making sense and supporting their assertions with independently checkable facts. I regard some pseud-users as unimpeachable authorities and some real-namers as very dubious, and vice versa. Readers can make up their own minds about whom to trust.

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
https://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d8341c61e653ef00d8346dd06569e2

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Pseudonimity, outing, and blogging:

» Being ethical -- and being prudent -- with pseudonymous blogging. from Adventures in Ethics and Science
I'm following up on my earlier post in the wake of the outing of dKos blogger Armando. At Majikthise, Lindsay Beyerstein had posted an interesting discussion of the issues around pseudonymous blogging, and whether it might sometimes be ethical to... [Read More]

Comments

Alon, you have not explained why it is relevant. I suspect you think it signals inconsistency and therefore reduces the blogger's credibility. This need not be so, however.

On a daily basis, many lawyers work for unsavoury clients - criminal or otherwise. They do so because it is their job, and the administration of justice requires it. This does not discredit their personal views.

Your example about the NSA liberal (and there probably are a few, even if they don't blog) doesn't help your case. I'm surprised you'd expect to know about it. What obligation is there to foster such expectation, especially if it harmed national security?

If I read a letter to the editor in any magazine, arguing for a point of view, and the person is "legal counsel to such-and-such" or "managing director of the council for the advancement of such-and-such," then if the argument concerns the company or industry or government agency they're working for, then they should sign their title as well as their name. If they don't, and I find out that they've tried to pose as "just a concerned citizen," then yes, the reason for their advocacy needs to be stated.

So, if, for instance, Lindsay was commenting upon pharmaceutical legislation in such a manner as to protect her patrons, then it would be good journalistic practice to say "(full disclosure: I worked for company x in year y)" or something of that nature. Though this is a blog and not strictly a newspaper, the principle is the same.

If such is not the case, if the story doesn't pertain in any way to the employer of the poster, then I would find outing to be obnoxious. I'm open to arguments that it's obnoxious in any case, but, for instance, if I knew that a right-wing poster here who didn't make any sense was actually working for Karl Rove, I would know his or her propaganda for what it is: a paid political announcement.

interesting post - i obviously have a bunch of random scattered thoughts on this, but here are a few off the top of my head:

1 - I'm not sure people understand the consequences of "outing" and how potentially serious it is. for instance, in the legal world, i suspect I couldn't get a job at DOJ or a single US Attorney's office (or perhaps any government job period) if i were ever 'outed.' and even in the private legal world (i.e., firms, in-house), it would only make things very complicated. for one, it would inevitably piss some people off. and two, superiors woudl always say "what do you mean you don't have time, you had time to write on your little blog page I saw." i toy off and on with academia too, and i've heard that it really hurts your tenure chances.

2 - i wouldn't care about all this stuff if it were only me, or if i were 22 and right out of college. but now i'm married, have a child, and there's a lot more at stake. it's nice to be all thoreau about leaving your job, but it's more complicated than you think (especially if you have student debt that doesn't sleep)

3 - to shift gears a bit, one frustrating part of pseudo-blogging though is that you can't capitalize on your name to get things published, go on radio, etc. again, i'm certainly not a big fish (or even a medium fish), but i've had to turn down a radio spot b/c i wouldn't tell them my name. those are the sorts of things that ultimately lead to bigger and better things and those are generally denied to pseudos. i have no doubt, for instance, that in 20 years, we'll be seeing people like Yglesias, Ezra and Lindsay on major op-ed pages and tv shows and what have you. risk and reward i guess.

Related to what Publius said: If one is committed to blogging under a pseudonym and not being outed, one has to be committed to REALLY keeping it a secret -- no panels, no bios, no webpages, no comments on other blogs, NOTHING where your real identity and your blogging identity are connected.

I'm not saying it's *right* to follow the breadcrumbs and out someone who is trying to keep blogging life and real life separate. However, it's *prudent* for the would-be pseudonymous blogger to make being outted well-nigh impossible.

following up on Dr. FR, I think the lesson of the "big love" season finale applies here (for i am in big love withdrawal since that roman -- ooh, that damn roman -- outed the hendriksons). they got outed because the first wife wanted to publicly accept the mother of the year award yet keep her polygamy private (having her cake and eating it too in some respects)

anyway, if i keep to myself and you out me, i think it's a big deal. but if i go to yearly kos, go to conventions, and appear on the radio and do other things to try benefit publicly from my blog, i think it's more fair game to get outed.

if i recall, duncan black got outed during the dnc convention. that sucks, but if he were truly committed to staying private, he shouldn't have gone.

On a daily basis, many lawyers work for unsavoury clients - criminal or otherwise. They do so because it is their job, and the administration of justice requires it.

So, for example, if Focus on the Family asked you to represent it, arguing in front of the Supreme Court that abortion bans are Constitutional, you'd do it?

BTW, who do you work for and who are you related to? I mean, where does it stop?

If I were to write a lengthy piece about innovative educational methods and how the online education business Prep2Go pioneers e-learning, I'd have the prudence to mention the fact that my father happens to own Prep2Go. It's all about context; since Wal-Mart is big enough an issue for the American left, I expect any liberal American blogger who doesn't focus on a single (and different) issue to disclose any ties to it.

Remind me never to recommend Prep2Go's "Not Using Inapposite Comparisons" course. Of course if Armando were to "write a lengthy piece" on Wal-Mart, he'd be obligated to disclose any financial relationship he had with them at the time. That doesn't in any way support your position that any non-specialized liberal blogger is required to disclose any financial relationship she has ever had with Wal-Mart. In fact, if anything, it just provides a vastly more reasonable alternative position.

Lawyers, real estate agents, accountants, interior decorators, architects, and the like all represent a wide variety of clients. Those clients might include Wal-Mart, or rapists, or GE, or some other entity your proposed critical mass of concerned liberals care about. Requiring absolute disclosure of all those relationships even when a blogger chooses not to discuss any of those clients in her blogging would effectively disqualify a huge percentage of potential bloggers who would prefer not to call down a full professional audit. I, for one, like a model of blogging that provides spots for people with active professional lives. It'd be a pretty silly, uninsightful blogosphere if the only people who could take part were, say, the seventeen-year-old children of businessmen. See Exhibit A.

And in the interest of Alon Levy's disclosure policy, I, in my reckless youth, on several occasions purchased condoms and lubricant at a Wal-Mart in *****, **. It was next to the hotel we preferred, I had usually had a few drinks, what can I say? Wal-Mart's effective stocking policy and prime real estate selection - fueled, no doubt, by roughshod exploitation of the proletariat - subsidized my intercourse, for which I will be forever tainted as a liberal commenter, I'm sure.

Those clients might include Wal-Mart, or rapists, or GE, or some other entity your proposed critical mass of concerned liberals care about.

There's a big difference between criminal and civil law. If you're a defense attorney, you're obligated to take on cases in which your client is guilty. If you do pretty much any other kind of law, you're responsible for who you represent. If you defend an anti-abortion statute whose Constitutionality is being challenged, you're effectively anti-choice.

That doesn't in any way support your position that any non-specialized liberal blogger is required to disclose any financial relationship she has ever had with Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart is sufficiently mainstream a liberal issue that every generalist liberal can be expected to disclose relevant skeletons in his closet. Similarly, every liberal can be expected to disclose anti-choice, anti-gay, pro-war, or anti-union skeletons.

Alon: That's not an accurate statement of the law at all. Criminal defense attorneys have plenty of freedom to pick and choose their clients unless they are public defenders or working by court appointment. And when exactly did Armando defend an anti-abortion statute before the Supreme Court?

And, since disclosure is so totally awesome, feel free to go ahead and answer the question Armando has posed to you. Whom have you worked for? Better yet, whom have you worked for to support yourself?

And if the answer is "no one ever," where do you get off telling people who do have to work for a living that they have to choose between blogging and their careers? Isn't it a little bit possible you're not in a great position to assess the tension between all the relevant factors?

Whom have you worked for? Better yet, whom have you worked for to support yourself?

No one who has come under fire for abusive labor practices, rampant racism and sexism, or monopolistic behavior.

Like I said, I'm sorry that Armando was outed. It's unfortunate. If I'd known, I would have maintained the same standards of discretion regarding his identity/occupation as I do for all other bloggers and commenters whose identities I happen to learn.

On the other hand, I respect journalists' right to make their own decisions about what is and isn't newsworthy. Balancing the consequences for the individual against the public's right to know is difficult. However, I won't say that the NRO violated journalistic ethics. There was a juicy story there in the sense that people might be curious about the identity of a guy who commands a readership larger than most daily newspapers. It wasn't just brute intimidation.

Armando, why do you think I didn't use Thersites' name? I'm curious to hear your hypothesis.

Actually, I don't know Thersites' real name. I didn't know him before the outing incident, and I never went back and read the comment or the subsequent post) that revealed his name.

Disclosure is totally different from newsworthiness. I don't think Armando had a responsibility to disclose anything about himself. If you read someone who blogs under an obvious pseud, you've got to accept the fact that they're withholding all personal information, including potential conflicts of interest.

However, even if a blogger has no obligation to disclose facts about themselves, it doesn't follow that everyone else has an absolute obligation to keep that blogger's identity a secret. You can't expect other people to keep your secrets for you. You can expect decent people not to go out of their way to screw you for no reason. Even so, you can't demand that people effectively cover for you when you leave a lot of identifying information in plain sight--i.e., doing TV interviews, attending conferences, etc. In general, I'm against outing because it's pointless and destructive--but I'm not prepared to say that everyone has an obligation to refrain from revealing someone's identity just because that person would prefer if we all refrained from discussing it.

In Armando's case, perhaps. But what if it turned out that many or most of the "concerned citizens," who lobbied so vehemently on blogs to convince us that President Bush was without responsibility for saving New Orleans, or that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were linked, were actually paid by Karl Rove to make the President look good? And what if their work on behalf of the President moved public opinion to support a war that made absolutely no sense, or not to support FEMA funding and management which were desperately needed? Would they not have a responsibility to disclose their patronage?

If their insistence were simply propaganda, then they have a responsibility to disclose, and their failure to do so is newsworthy. Of course, they probably would not disclose this information, but as with many reprehensible things that won't be enforced, we still have the right to know the truth and to demand change, even if none is forthcoming.

If it's germane to the story, yes someone is responsible to disclose whose pocket he's in. In Armando's case it may be debatable whether this applies, but are we agreed that someone's patronage is definitely material to the story, the blogger should disclose at least that relationship, if not his or her actual name?

>but are we agreed that someone's patronage is definitely material to the story, the blogger should disclose at least that relationship, if not his or her actual name?

Should read, "are we agreed that _if_ someone's patronage etc. ...?"

Lindsey:

You write "Disclosure is totally different from newsworthiness. I don't think Armando had a responsibility to disclose anything about himself. If you read someone who blogs under an obvious pseud, you've got to accept the fact that they're withholding all personal information, including potential conflicts of interest."

I strongly disagree with this. We are discussing ethics.

Ethics demands that conflicts of interest be disclosed. It is not a question of whether you can hide it or not. I do not think it is an open question as to whether you disclose conflicts of interest. You are ethically obliged to do so. The one time I had one, I disclosed it, when I wrote about the reporters' privilege.

Lindsey wrote

"However, even if a blogger has no obligation to disclose facts about themselves, it doesn't follow that everyone else has an absolute obligation to keep that blogger's identity a secret. You can't expect other people to keep your secrets for you. You can expect decent people not to go out of their way to screw you for no reason. Even so, you can't demand that people effectively cover for you when you leave a lot of identifying information in plain sight--i.e., doing TV interviews, attending conferences, etc."

Journalistic ethics (see AP code, Poynter statements, etc., in a previous life, I worked for a Media company and am very familiar with journalistic practices) clearly states that gratuitous discussion of personal information is prohibited by journalistic ethics. I expect ethical journalists to adhere to ethics. It appears that you do not believe in standards of conduct. I find your view puzzling and surprising.

You wrote

"In general, I'm against outing because it's pointless and destructive--but I'm not prepared to say that everyone has an obligation to refrain from revealing someone's identity just because that person would prefer if we all refrained from discussing it."

Neither would I. The obligation springs not just from the desire of the person, but from journalistic ethics. I am curious why you oppose outing?

You write "There was a juicy story there in the sense that people might be curious about the identity of a guy who commands a readership larger than most daily newspapers. It wasn't just brute intimidation."

I doubt anyone was actually curious about my particulars. I was no longer a regular Front Pager at daily kos. This was not a news story, this was a malicious harrassment campaign against me due to my debunking of Wayne Madsen and Jason Lopold. Their acolytes decided to maliciously attack me. That is what happened. Every ethical person chose not to use it. You yourself say you would not have used it. NRO unethically chose to use it. Even now, NRO is not arguing that they published because "people were curious." They argue falsely that I had a conflict of interest. Indeed, your view of the ethics of the matter is inferior to NRO's, which a the least recognizes that mere curiousity is no excuse.

On Thersites, I spoke from anger and I apologize to you for that. I see that you believe that there was not legitimate "curiousity" about his identity. How you came to the conclusion that the curiousity about me was legitimate but the curiousity about Thers was not is not clear to me.

I am curious what you think about curiousity regarding Digby and Hunter and other pseudononymous bloggers, not to mention anonymous bloggers.

Your views are tantamount to eviscerating pseudononymous and anonymous blogging. In my opinion, that will be disastrous for citizen blogging. Not everyone wants to be a reporter or a professional writer like you Lindsey. Do they not get to participate in the blogoshpere?

I believe you have not carefully considered what you are saying here.

Two issues are getting confused here:

1) Is it ever journalistically ethical to out a pseudonimous blogger? The consensus seems to be that it is. Even the Online Integrity pledge acknowledges that outing is permissible under some unusual circumstances.

As I argued in my original post, and as Armando said earlier, the media and the blogosphere need to take pseudonimity and privacy very seriously. Otherwise, we risk dampening the vibrancy and diversity that makes blogging such fresh and exciting medium. So, I think we can all agree that it's bad to out people for no good reason. The more complicated question is what constitutes a good reason for outing.

2) Did the NRO violate journalistic ethics by outing Armando? I think there was a legitimate story, relative to prevailing journalistic standards of newsworthiness. Armando thinks that the NRO's disclosure was purely vindictive and gratuitous. We're going to have to agree to disagree on this point. Even if you agree that the NRO crossed the line in Armando's case, it doesn't follow that it's always wrong to out a blogger.

Please let's not forget that anytime there is an "outing" in the blog sense of the term there is the potential for real harm exceeding the potential harm to someone's career. There are some genuinely crazy people on the Internets. This is not to say that something horrible will necessarily happen when an "outing" occurs, but even if the possibility is remote, that should be enough to make anyone set the bar really, really high for doing it.

There was a level of pure vindictiveness in what happened to Armando that should have made NRO back off: that the whole thing started with a clearly obsessive troll should have been a red flag. We can argue about journalistic and blogger ethics, but stalkers should not be setting the agenda. In my opinion, anyway.

Lindsay, I for one agree that it's bad to out someone for no good reason. I also agree with Armando when he disagrees with you about the following:

I don't think Armando had a responsibility to disclose anything about himself. If you read someone who blogs under an obvious pseud, you've got to accept the fact that they're withholding all personal information, including potential conflicts of interest."

I strongly disagree with this. We are discussing ethics.

Ethics demands that conflicts of interest be disclosed. It is not a question of whether you can hide it or not. I do not think it is an open question as to whether you disclose conflicts of interest. You are ethically obliged to do so. The one time I had one, I disclosed it, when I wrote about the reporters' privilege.

Armando did have a responsibility to disclose his conflicts of interest (I take his word for it that he did so, the one time he had one). Now, it's just as certain that many unscrupulous people will ignore this responsibility. But all bloggers writing stories (or even posters, in my opinion) in which they have conflicts of interest have a responsibility to disclose it. Otherwise, you have merely a paid political or corporate announcement, masquerading as news. Such advertisements are clearly marked "advertisement" in the papers, and they even use a different font for them.

"Did the NRO violate journalistic ethics by outing Armando? I think there was a legitimate story, relative to prevailing journalistic standards of newsworthiness."

I don't understand why you think the story was legitimate. It has to be something more than the fact that his firm has represented Wal-Mart.

I'm a lawyer, and I use a pseudonym to blog and comment because I want to be able to say things that might not be coincide with my client's views. I stay far, far away from what I'm working on when I blog. Nevertheless, this sort of stuff makes me happy not to have the page hits, and remind me not to try. It is a chilling effect, no doubt.

I agree that there is no absoulte right to anonymity (or, indeed, any absolute right period), but NRO's outing of Armando was unequivocally wrong. The purpotedly juicy story was unable to come up with ay case of Armando actually enagaged in a conflict of interest (eg. defending his clients against his stated ideological principles, for example.) While it may not have been to intimidate per se, it was certainly vindicative, and the motives strike me as marginally less frivilous than Goldtsien's outing Thers and his wife.

Lindsay:
Thanks. You turned over one of my favorite rocks very nicely. Not much under it but still, nice to have a little sunshine on a topic I have to think about fairly carefully now and then...especially the bookkeeping of who knows your Real Name and who does not.

You lay out the issues about ONE identity, the writer. many of us have multiple blogs and some of us live our writing lives as commenters. Multiple identities can be handy, even just for keeping your audiences and topics in their places. How does a person with only a real name do that?

I'm sorry Armando got outed. I liked his work at Daily Kos. That said, frankly he was stupid. He blogged under his real first name, an uncommon one for a lawyer; revealed at Daily Kos that he was a lawyer; revealed at DK that he went to Columbia Law School; and I believe revealed at DK that he went to Brown undergrad. With that information, and Google, anyone can figure out who he is in seconds. Google search this: Armando (attorney OR lawyer) Columbia Brown . (If you do the same thing for my name, (attorney OR lawyer), and schools, I likewise pop up as the first hit. In Armando's case, he's the first hit even if you leave "Brown" out.) Nor can it come as a big shock to Armando that there are lots of complete assholes on the Right who would love to bring him, or any noteworthy person on our side, down. It's a wonder no one outed Armando earlier. Note that when Atrios was undercover, he did not announce on his blog, "My name is Duncan. I'm a college professor in the Philadelphis area, with a Ph.D. in economics from Brown and an undergraduate degree from [wherever]."

Weird. Looking at Armando's bio, I see that he graduated from CLS the year after I did. We must have walked past each other many times. Of course, the much more famous Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg was also there, in the same class as Armando, and I never bothered figuring out who she was.

The comments to this entry are closed.