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.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 2, 2017
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.
— Maajid (@MaajidNawaz) July 5, 2017
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:
My view: if you have something to say online, you should sign your name. If you won’t sign your name, you shouldn’t say it.
— David Frum (@davidfrum) July 6, 2017
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.