Features, Free Speech, Satire

In Defence of Anonymity

Few recent events have united public opinion more than CNN’s petty, vindictive and astonishingly self-defeating investigation into the life of an anonymous Redditor who had created a mischievous GIF aimed at the station. It had repurposed a clip of Donald Trump clotheslining WWE CEO Vince McMahon at Wrestlemania by putting a CNN logo on McMahon’s face.

Many thought it puerile and obnoxious when the President tweeted the GIF out to the world but when the media giant targeted its obscure, anonymous creator—discovering his real-life Facebook page and implicitly threatening that they would expose him if his postings annoyed them again—their bullying angered even Trump’s liberal critics.

One did not have to like “@HansAssholeSolo” to dislike the power imbalance. Being so dense as to think that people would side with the multi-billion dollar corporation says something about the delusions of the media classes.

Still, some sympathised with the network. Most of them were journalists. David Frum, the Atlantic columnist, proclaimed:

Predictably, this did not go down well on Twitter. “Spoken like someone who does not fear for their safety,” wrote “@SaucissonSec”. “What works for some, doesn’t work for all,” added “@LostinCornland”. The pseudonymity satirist behind “@DaShareZ0ne” preferred to send Frum an obscenity and exclamation marks.

“@SaucissonSec” had a point. Mr Frum has the privilege of job security. Some columnists appear to achieve a kind of journalistic tenure. They can be disastrously, unapologetically wrong —as Mr Frum has been about military intervention in the Middle East—and yet face no loss of prestige, never mind income or influence.

Being a journalist also tends to mean that one holds fashionable opinions. Journalists, after all, do a great deal to determine what opinions are fashionable. It was Frum who, in an infamous column titled “Unpatriotic Conservatives,” did a lot to force the anti-interventionist Right into obscurity in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq.

My point is not merely to browbeat Mr Frum. He must draw readers or he would not be commissioned. Yet it remains true that others are not half as fortunate. Their bosses can be less tolerant of real or perceived failings, and they can have less to rely on if they lose their jobs. One off-colour joke can be enough to earn one walking papers, as, for example, the unfortunate Justine Sacco discovered when she tweeted a provocative one-liner about AIDs in Africa. After tweeting, Sacco got on a plane and landed in Africa to find that the media, thousands of people and a certain future president of the United States had been calling for her head.

Others hold controversial opinions that could make working with colleagues and clients difficult should they be known, as well as unnerving or enraging real or potential employers. In diverse societies, full of individuals and groups with fragile sensitivities, the alternative to the status quo is not open, honest dialogue but nervous, grudging silence. We might dislike opinions—we might even detest them—but it would be stiflingly oppressive to deny citizens space for dissent.

Sometimes anonymity protects us from physical harm. Many private citizens have been attacked or threatened by Islamic militants, from the great novelist Salman Rushdie to the obscure organiser of “Draw Muhammad Day”, who was driven into hiding by outraged would-be assassins. Anonymity allows critics of Islamic intolerance—ex-Muslims and liberal Muslims prime among them—to express themselves without fearing for their safety.

Many esteemed writers have adopted pseudonyms. Who has heard of Mary Anne Evans, Samuel Longhorn Clemens, Eric Blair and Brian O’Nolan? Far fewer than have heard of George Eliot, Mark Twain, George Orwell and Flann O’Brien. The Federalist Papers, on which the United States was built, were published not under the names of Hamilton, Madison and Jay but the mysterious “Publius”.

This tradition has persisted. John le Carré was born Edward Cornwell but Foreign Office officers could not publish under their names. When he began writing, the columnist Anthony Daniels chose the sobriquet Theodore Dalrymple—”a name that sounded suitably dyspeptic”—so he could continue a career as a prison doctor. The incisive cultural critic Ibn Warraq wrote under an assumed name for years as he produced his invaluable critiques of theocratic and jihadist ideology.

Online, of course, the anonymous have flourished. From Weird Twitter to Frog Twitter, anonymous personalities on social media inform and entertain millions of people. Personally, I would take “@Spotted Toad” and “@Pseudoerasmus” over most Anglo-European opinion columnists, and I enjoy “@dril” and “@dasharez0ne” more than many comedians.

Putting aside these practical benefits, anonymity can—and I emphasise can—have advantages for online discourse. Anonymous people can be anyone, and can express themselves—should they so please—without their ideas carrying the baggage of their job, age, looks, education et cetera. A great pseudonymous psychiatrist once wrote, “I don’t matter. It’s debatable whether my ideas matter but for sure they matter much more than I do.”

Of course, one can defend the use of X while still deploring its misuse. With anonymity comes responsibility. One should not lie about oneself (as in the admittedly hilarious case of the self-proclaimed Gay Girl in Damascus, who turned out to be a bloke from Scotland). And one should not abuse or intimidate other people.

Thousands will regardless. It is regrettable, of course. Anyone who has spent time posting on Twitter will have experienced storms of abuse from anonymous accounts. Others endure serious death threats and harassment. (Not only the journalist behind the CNN story but his wife and parents have apparently been targeted.) In extreme cases of misbehaviour—such as that of the infamous troll “Nimrod Severn”, who enjoyed posting graphic insults on memorial pages—it can be justifiable to expose the anonymous.

But we should be glad that people have this option. It allows the average citizen to interact with others, let off steam and explore subjects without incurring disproportionate social consequences. It allows exceptional citizens to enrich our culture without being compelled to wedge their talents into a business model. It allows critics of the violently intolerant to criticise without being threatened and abused. We might wish that our society was adult enough to make their pseudonyms redundant but as yet this is fantastical, so good luck to them—whoever they are.

Ben Sixsmith

Ben Sixsmith

Ben Sixsmith is an English writer living in Poland. Visit his website: bsixsmith.wixsite.com and follow him on Twitter @bdsixsmith.
Ben Sixsmith

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Filed under: Features, Free Speech, Satire

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Ben Sixsmith is an English writer living in Poland. Visit his website: bsixsmith.wixsite.com and follow him on Twitter @bdsixsmith.

20 Comments

  1. P. K. Adithya says

    Internet anonymity certainly has its merits, as the author has pointed out. However, I would like to make the opposite case while using my real name, to illustrate my point. (This is copied from a comment I had posted on my Facebook profile).

    I understand that this is a bit of a unique situation and that people have different opinions on how CNN ought to have proceeded. One of the main reasons this is a unique situation is that America now has a president who amplifies garbage like this GIF. This would never have happened under any of the previous presidents in my lifetime.

    Under a normal president, this GIF would have never seen the light of day. Someone posted a somewhat violent GIF on some forum – who cares? A media organization hunting down the creator would have been laughable, even sinister on the part of the organization. But today, it is visible to millions of people because the president has tweeted it approvingly.

    In these circumstances, it is of interest (at least to me) to know exactly what kind of voices the president is amplifying. The main reason CNN was justified in tracking down the creator was that the GIF was rather violent. If it turned out that the maker was a person who regularly encouraged violence against the press from the anonymity of the internet, it would have been important to alert the country to what exactly the president was encouraging, with his recklessness.

    As it turned out, that wasn’t quite the case. The creator was largely a coward and not as tough as his internet persona, so CNN showed him some mercy. But he had also been posting anti-Semitic material.

    The main reason it is almost impossible to spread anti-Semitism without anonymity is that such bigotry has been stamped out of public life through social policing. If it is the case that we now have a president who doesn’t care about undoing such progress by validating anti-Semites, I suggest that all principled and conscientious people fight to counterbalance this force. That may necessitate a change of attitude towards “mere GIFs” once they have been tweeted by the president.

    • P. K. Adithya says

      Sorry for the poor wording at the top – I meant to say that I’d be making the case for CNN’s course of action. Not a blanket case against internet anonymity.

      • I do agree that Trump was being peurile and obnoxious (befitting of his character). I do not agree with Mr Sorrell-Till that it was a “physical threat”. Indeed, I think that is a bit absurd. GIFs are commonly used in an allegorical sense, and even if we took Trump’s use of this one literally, well — wrestling is fake. Still, there are a lot of nutters in the country and he should refrain from stirring up their more feverish fantasies. While as a conservative I do believe much of the media is in effect an arm of the progressive agenda, I agree with Peter Beinart that Trump has a childish need to settle scores and this could have sad consequences outside of his closeted make-believe TV world.

        However, I still think CNN’s behaviour was disgraceful. Anything that one could need to know about “HanAssholeSolo” – which, in my opinion, is little if not nothing – was contained within his public postings and unless he turned out to be Joe Biden expressing his secret Alt-Right beliefs there was no public interest in knowing who this obscure anonymous person was. I also do not agree that expressing anti-semitic opinions in the privacy of a Reddit forum comes close to the kind of behaviour that makes doxing justifiable (nor, by the way, would I suggest that tankies should have real identities exposed). That would have ominous echoes of the Stasi.

        Mr Sorrell-Till accuses us (or me?) of being monotonously anti-SJW. Quillette has a primary focus on the academia and as the left dominates its intellectual culture a focus on leftist ideas is predictable. But our editor has also published articles on reducing meat consumption, the influence of parenting, data encryption and, er, sadomasochism. Just one of my articles – as of few contributors who would claim to be on the right – has been related to SJWs. I am not the editor and do not agree with everything on the site but I think you are being unfair.

        • P. K. Adithya says

          Thanks for the response, Ben. I understand you and I hope you understand me.

          As Saul said, politics changes. Something that was only a remote threat last year can become a more serious threat this year.

          “I also do not agree that expressing anti-semitic opinions in the privacy of a Reddit forum comes close to the kind of behaviour that makes doxing justifiable.”

          I do not think this either – under normal circumstances. When the president is willing to put his thumb on the scale for these anti-Semites, I think threatening to reveal their identity becomes justifiable. I understand that you don’t.

          Circumstances can cause the necessary counter-measures to change. Yelling “Allahu Akbar” on a plane might have been only a minor annoyance in decades past. Today it must be punished more severely.

          As for CNN’s conduct and the question of whether it was really a violent threat, I propose a thought experiment – can you imagine CNN announcing that they’d tracked the creator down if the president had shared a non-violent GIF? They would have looked completely ridiculous and I would have joined the world in lambasting them. But I back them in this case because the GIF had, at the very least, an element of physical intimidation.

          Cheers and good luck to you.

    • Saul Sorrell-Till says

      I agree entirely. Frankly it drops my jaw to come here and find the only article dealing with this issue is one focused entirely on criticising CNN’s response to the president tweeting a threat of violence. The tweet itself is “petty”. Well, thanks for that. Strong criticism there. But forget the president of America tweeting a physical threat against a news organisation, in a climate in which a Guardian journalist was smashed to the floor by a GOP politician only a few weeks ago; no the real story, the real reason that this apparently centrist liberal website is angry, is because a grubby little omni-racist had his home rock upturned and was exposed to the world.
      CNN and its journalists are threatened online on a regular basis, now by the president, and for once one of the spineless types who make these threats on a regular basis has been exposed. The only reason this would be the only issue a Quillette contributor would object to is because it has simply lost its mind in its vendetta with the left. Your enemy’s enemy and all that, and I’ve looked at the selection of articles – almost every single one is some kind of deadeningly predictable pawing at the same wound: anti-SJW stuff at every single turn.
      Believe it or not, I couldn’t care less, but I loathe the illiberal-left. I spent the last couple of years shaking my head at their hypocrisy and dogmatism. But politics changes, and after 2016 there is no reasonable argument that a serious centrist can make to justify ignoring the recrudescence of right-wing populism in favour of a kind of bloodless fixation on the poxy crimes of SJWs. Or in this case, a media organisation that has been smeared right, left and centre, and threatened every day for the last two years, deciding to unveil a racist, bullying thug.

      • Ben Sixsmith says

        I will respond in more detail to P.K.”s thoughtful post but how on earth can you think I’m fixated on SJWs when this piece is a response to former Bush speechwriter David Frum? Anonymity is important for the right *and* left which is why people across the spectrum criticised CNN.

      • Shank says

        The GIF was clearly a joke, and a pretty funny one at that. Are you seriously suggesting that regular citizens should censor themselves just because Trump might arbitrarily decide to retweet them?

        The blame here lies squarely with Trump. The mad old bastard shouldn’t be retweeting jokes from random twitter accounts. Someone should take his phone away until he gets that through his thick head.

    • Even if we accept your argument that unmasking the creator of the GIF was necessary in order to establish if it contained some sinister violent or anti-Semitic message, this would not justify CNN’s decision to threaten him unless he promised to change his “ugly behaviour”. Journalism is about reporting news and events, not using the threat of exposure to bully critics of the media organisation into silence.

      If CNN believed there was a genuine story here they should have reported it, otherwise they should have dropped it altogether. Their course of action clearly had nothing whatsoever to do with public interest reporting of important issues like anti-Semitism, but was just an attempt to intimidate people into not making fun of CNN. All they have succeeded in doing is revealing their petty, self-important and unprofessional attitude to the world.

    • L Heaton says

      You are falling into the trap of citing dire circumstances as a reason to suspend rights. This has been the default excuse of tyrants in all recorded history .

  2. P. K. Adithya, Saul Sorrell-Till – you know that wrestling’s not real, don’t you? You know that DJT never really clotheslined Vince McMahon. That didn’t happen. It’s fake.
    DJT voters DO know that wrestling’s fake. Therefore, the .gif is a comedy, not a call to violence. It can only be a call to violsnce to those who do not understand that wrestling is not real.

  3. Pingback: Recent Writings… | Wandering Near Sawtry

  4. paul e matthews says

    i find it hard to believe that anyone could see this meme as an actual call to violence. do these same people think rodney dangerfield was making a call for someone to actually kidnap his wife?

  5. P. K. Adithya says

    What’s appalling about GIFgate (yes, I just coined that term) is the number of people here apparently willing to be led by the nose into a Brave New World, where it’s normal for the president of the United States to tweet material featuring violence against his critics.

    Of course the GIF wasn’t a clear call for violence. But there’s a reason why Obama, Bush or any number of previous presidents didn’t joke about things like this. No other leader of the civilized world does, either. Political violence has a serious potential to spiral out of control – and it’s dangerous for any elected representative to be minimizing its significance. Especially when, just earlier this year, a sitting member of Congress assaulted a journalist by body-slamming him.

    Normally it wouldn’t be necessary to go after basement-dwellers spewing anti-Semitism on Reddit. But since they seem to think they have one of their own in the White House, the lucky ones who get a presidential tweet should be given a taste of real life. “HanAssholeSolo” wasn’t as tough as he thought he was.

    • Your placing a lot of emphasis on “toughness” when I don’t think the man – whatever his faults – would have claimed that he would have prepared to sacrifice his career and his (and his family’s?) livelihood for the cause of shitposting.

      For what it’s worth, though, I will restate that I think Trump’s tweeting is peurile, obnoxious and provocative. The media has faults that transcend its objective pretensions but Americans should be more careful lest their culture war descend into actual violence.

      • P. K. Adithya says

        Didn’t mean it to be a rant against you Ben, it was directed at the people above sneering at the idea of a WWE meme being a threat. Completely missing the point that we shouldn’t tolerate such behavior from the president.

        Anyway, as to your first paragraph – sure, no one wants to sacrifice their career prospects for a Reddit post. But we were able to get from a racist society to a tolerant one only by making a few examples of such people. The threat of getting ostracized for racism won’t count for anything if we behave like no one should be shamed for racism. Having marginalized racism so effectively, we can now afford to question whether we went too far – which we undoubtedly did. Just like we’re now questioning whether incarceration has gone too far, after getting crime rates down from the catastrophe of the early ’90s. But the moment anti-Semitic lunacy is only one step removed from the White House, I feel like getting back in break-a-few-eggs-to-make-an-omelette mode.

        People who value norms and decency are getting demoralized by this president who respects neither, so we need to show each other that we’re out there and we’re not paper tigers. Good job CNN.

        • Oh, indeed. You’ve been a rare model of civility! But if there are people who deserve to be shamed for ethnic hatred it is people who target others with harrassment and abuse. I was clear to state that in such cases it can be acceptable to expose them.

  6. Saul Sorrell-Till says

    I didn’t say you were “fixated on SJWs”. I do believe this website is heavily skewed towards anti-SJW articles, which disappoints me considering its professed remit.
    The reason why I criticised your article is because it responded to the latest in a long line of unprecedentedly thuggish and unhinged statements from the president of the United States by focusing almost entirely on the subject of his attacks. This is how much of the right has responded to Trump’s ascension. Those who can’t bring themselves to outright oppose him traffic in misdirection, aiming fire on liberals and left-wingers and making molehills out of the president’s mountains by dismissing every aggressive, threatening, occasionally outright fascistic thing that he says or does as ‘buffoonery’.
    I don’t think CNN’s threat was a good idea. I disagree with it in principle and I disagree with it because it was inevitable the right would weaponise it and write articles like this one; articles that draw a veil over the belief-beggaring behaviour of the borderline maniac in the White House, and instead criticise a news organisation, that gets mounds of death threats every day, unveiling a bullying online troll who threatened violence upon anyone he fancied and never once expected that he would ever be held to account for it. Again, CNN tail-ending their statement with a(pretty mild) threat was both tactically stupid and unethical – but the assumption that everyone on the internet should be free to threaten death on anyone they choose without ever having their identity revealed is, to say the least, not written in stone.

  7. Wrong. Anonymity is the pacifism, the welfare-bummism, of internet rhetoric. While those of who use our own names do so at professional and personal risk, those who do not get enjoy the freedom to express their opinions while never paying a price.

    The risk the non-anonymous take would be reduced if only anonymous keyboard warriors would join us. Were the risk shared more widely it would also be dissipated. They can’t kill us, fire us all or jail us all. But the anonymous are too selfish and wimpy to do this.

    Anyone who doesn’t sign their name to everything they write is a coward. Nothing they say should be taken seriously.

    • As someone who writes under their own name, I think you’re being unfair. Sure, if everyone outed themselves there would be too many people to fire but not everyone will so individuals using their names take a real risk. I assume – though correct me if I am wrong – that you have monetised your writing to some extent but not everyone can be so successful.

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