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 â€œtrollingâ€. Iâ€™ve previously addressed this topic on this blog (27th December 2012 and previously) I thought Iâ€™d examine each of Mr Humphreyâ€™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 â€˜play the man or the ballâ€™, 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 â€œDown with this sort of thing!â€
2. â€œDevelop ways of discriminating against itâ€¦ â€¦ by technology that helps to authenticate peopleâ€™s identitiesâ€. In my blog post of the 27th of December I address this under the heading of â€œBad Idea #1â€. The concept of identity is incredibly fluid. As Mr Humphreys appears fond of citing scientists and philosophers, Iâ€™m sure he is familiar with Descarteâ€™s writings on the existentialist concepts of identity.
The idea of an â€œidentity registerâ€ is one that raises significant technical, philosophical, and legal issues. South Korea has recently abandoned their attempts to impose a â€œReal Namesâ€ policy on the use of social media due to these issues, and â€œReal Nameâ€ policies in social media have been criticised on Data Protection grounds in Europe. In China, where a â€œreal namesâ€ 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 â€œmarket failureâ€ 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 â€œan invention of Orwellian proportionsâ€.
3. â€œChallenge the anonymous to explain why they are hiding themselves. Iâ€™ve yet to hear a good excuseâ€¦â€ 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 donâ€™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 â€œa face to meet the faces that you meetâ€ (to borrow a line from T.S Eliot) for a variety of reasons. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_pen_names for more examples.