Call the Tweet Police (a slight return)

An opinion piece by Joe Humphreys in the Irish Times on the 9th of January (which I can link to here thanks to the great work of McGarr Solicitors) discusses anonymous comment on-line. In doing so he presents an argument that would appear to suggest that persons taking a nom de plume in debate are in some way sinister and not trustworthy.

He suggests three actions that can be taken to challenge “trolling”. I’ve previously addressed this topic on this blog (27th December 2012 and previously) I thought I’d examine each of Mr Humphrey’s suggestions in turn and provide agreement or counter argument as appropriate.

1. Publicly condemn it. Overall I agree with this. However who or what should be condemned? The pseudonymous comment or the pseudonymous commenter? Should you ‘play the man or the ball’, to borrow a metaphor from sports? The answer is that, in an open society the correct course of action is to either ignore the argument or join the argument. Anything else leads to a downward spiral of tit-for-tat trolling and abuse, one of the very behaviours that has sections of our body politic and mainstream media crying “Down with this sort of thing!”

2. “Develop ways of discriminating against it… … by technology that helps to authenticate people’s identities”. In my blog post of the 27th of December I address this under the heading of “Bad Idea #1”. The concept of identity is incredibly fluid. As Mr Humphreys appears fond of citing scientists and philosophers, I’m sure he is familiar with Descarte’s writings on the existentialist concepts of identity.

The idea of an “identity register” is one that raises significant technical, philosophical, and legal issues. South Korea has recently abandoned their attempts to impose a “Real Names” policy on the use of social media due to these issues, and “Real Name” policies in social media have been criticised on Data Protection grounds in Europe. In China, where a “real names” policy is in place for social media, people use fake ID to register and the Chinese government has failed to get a significant majority of internet users to comply with their law.

Describing anonymity as a “market failure” to be fixed by enforced identification equates identity with a tradable commodity. This is, ironically, the business model of Facebook, which Mr Humphreys describes as “an invention of Orwellian proportions”.

3. “Challenge the anonymous to explain why they are hiding themselves. I’ve yet to hear a good excuse…” In my post of the 27th of December I link to an excellent resource (the GeekFeminism Wiki) which lists a number of reasons why people might not be able to use their real names in on-line comment. Time taken to research this: 30 seconds on Google. They include: survivors of abuse, whistleblowers, law enforcement personnel, and union activists.

The implication made by Mr Humphreys that people choose to comment anonymously because they don’t want their employer to know they are on social media all day is disingenuous to say the least and belies a biased view of those of us who are active users of modern technologies for communication, discussion, and debate.

Finally, history has a litany of examples of people who, for various reasons have used pen names to hide themselves. From Leslie Charles Bowyer-Yin (Leslie Charteris, author of The Saint) to Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain), to Francois-Marie Arouet (Voltaire), to Eric Blair (George Orwell) there is a tradition of, in the words of preparing “a face to meet the faces that you meet” (to borrow a line from T.S Eliot) for a variety of reasons. See for more examples.

Posted in Data Protection, Ethics & Law of Information, Philosophical Musings.