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The politics of identity in blogging

There are as many reasons to take up blogging, as there are bloggers. Some write to tell friends about the holiday they are having, some write to share the things that they have learned about the garden they keep or the food they love to cook. Some write because the have a burning passion to save the world, All are to be found when you brose the blogs that are out there.

To my mind there are two classes of bloggers, those who write in their own name and those who choose to write under an assumed name. I tend to respect those who write under their own name a great deal more than those who use a pseudonym. Mainly because putting one’s real name to what you write gives it more gravitas and a greater sense of truth to what is being said. This is especially the case when it comes to any pieces that deal with politics or religion. Put simply If an author is willing to affix their name to their opinion they have to be honest and truthful because there are penalties if they are not.

Of course there are some very valid reasons to take up a Nom de plume and they can range from a desire to be discrete about your opinions for professional reasons, like a desire to write about the law when that is what you teach or practice. To a desire to write biting satire when you move in the most serious social circles. However the good and honourable writers who use a Nom de Plume impose the same limits upon their writing that they would if they were writing in their real names. They do not slander and defame in the expectation that they have the impunity of anonymity. They use a Nom de Plume in an entirely respectable manner, just as everyone knew that Eric Blair was George Orwell the names of many of these writers are known but everyone is prepared to let that fact remain unspoken because they are not abusing the privilege of their anonymity on the Internet.

There is however another group of bloggers who write under an assumed name and they behave very differently indeed, very often young, they write under a pseudonym because they believe it gives them a licence to attack others or to propagate their political opinions like electronic terrorists. They think that the secret of their true identities will never be discovered so they are prepared to say anything, create any fiction or lie to achieve their political goals. Dr Goebbels’ well worn principle of telling a lie often enough will make people believe that it is true is their stock in trade and under the mask of the easy anonymity of the internet they will try very hard to assassinate the character of those they decide to target.

A blogger, who writes in their own name, who has been the subject of such behaviour, has no real recourse unless they can discover the identity of their attackers. And even then it is both difficult and expensive to seek redress through the civil courts. Often the best sort of redress is to be had by naming and shaming the miscreant. This course of action can bring you the satisfaction of taking away your attackers “licence to lie” but it can also make you the target of further abuse from other anonymous bloggers of the same political persuasion and they will probably try to argue that your exposing the name of your abuser violates that persons “right” to be anonymous or that you are violating their right to privacy. Both claims are based on erroneous understandings of the law and of what is ethical, as I shall explain.

Before the invention of the internet the common person had very few avenues to make their opinions known to the wider world, if they were talented enough with words they might write a book and get it published or they could discuss their thoughts with those they knew in their daily lives or write letters to the newspapers. If what they wanted to say something contentious they could even take up the paint pot and do some graffiti to make their point. All of these options to a greater or lesser extent required the author to own what they wanted to say, even a graffitist had to be prepared to be caught and face the magistrate, a letter to the editor had to be signed (even if the name was to be withheld), the author of a book may use a Nom de Plume but it’s publisher had to know who the author was or at least accept legal responsibility for any civil litigation. There were checks and balances that ensured a more civil social debate.

Our laws pertaining to Libel, Slander and Defamation were framed under the primacy of print and this means that they are not always up to the task when the abuses that they were intended to address take place in cyberspace. A slander or defamation can be created; do it’s worst and then quietly disappear, or it can be propagated on so many different sites that it is impossible to seek adequate redress or to make an effective rebuttal either. As I said earlier there is a general belief that there is a “right” to be anonymous in cyberspace. Frankly I don’t know where such a notion arose and all that I assume is that because it has been possible to be anonymous that people assumed a it was in some sense a right. Well in pre-internet society we never had a right to be anonymous in fact every aspect of our lives is predicated upon us having a verifiable identity, from the proof of our birth to the fact of our deaths it is fundamental that we have a consistent name. We can under our law call ourselves any name we please without registering that name, but it is under the proviso that we are not doing it for the purposes of fraud, at which time such creation of a false identity becomes subject to criminal sanction. We can formally change our names and thousands of people do so every year for reasons serious and trivial. This little exploration of how we deal with our real identities in the real world should make it clear that we don’t have the right to change our identities like underpants. Although the Internet makes it possible to take on any identity that we choose, there is nothing in the history of discourse that provides a precedent to support the notion that anonymity on the Net is a “right” there is not one scrap of legislation, not one statute that imparts this right to anyone at all. It has only ever been inferred from the ease with which one can create any number of different online personas. I doubt that the government in any jurisdiction will ever legislate to give the people a “right” to be anonymous it would be a madness that would destroy all civil discourse.

When the argument has been won about any claim to a “right” to anonymity don’t be surprised if your interlocutor then tries to argue that revealing the true identity of a previously anonymous blogger violates that persons right to privacy. Our right to privacy in the real world is the result of a long evolution of what we understand the difference between the public and the private to be. We all agree that certain aspects of our lives are an entirely private matter and not something that should be the subject of public discourse, for instance anything to do with our most intimate relationships is generally, and quite legitimately, not a topic for public discussion of speculation. Likewise the details of our children, where they go to school, or any part of their lives are not matters for public discussion. These are some of the aspects of our lives that we all, as a society agree are private matters. However when you write and publish on the Internet, even under a pseudonym, this is not a private act, it is a very public one that like any form of public pronouncement contains the obligation for its authorship to be acknowledged, especially if that pronouncement concerns an identifiable individual who writes in their own name. Here I will cite the only exception to my suggestion that an anonymous blogger can reasonably be named if they use their anonymity to attack other bloggers and it is when the other bloggers are, like them, equally anonymous. Then it is very much a level playing field and both parties can go at it hammer and tongs. With no possible impact upon either in their real lives. But when one blogger is anonymous and the other is not there is no equality and no incentive for the anonymous individual to behave in a civil manner.

Fortunately most bloggers do behave civilly even when they use a Nom de Plume because they have instinctively realised that if they act in a civil manner then they will get the same in return and then no one is going to care about their anonymity, it will be respected and even when they make the inevitable slip that may lead to their real name being discovered they will not be subsequently named by anyone.

I began my blogging using the pseudonym “Niceperson” not because I had anything to hide but because it seemed to me that everyone used a Nom de Plume and that was the way to play the game at the blog I was frequenting. I was quite shocked at the venom sprouted in comment threads especially when someone like myself dared to offer a contrarian view. When the identity of that blog’s owner became an issue and I subsequently had named him in my own protean blog I was almost entirely ignorant of any etiquette de blog, even so I knew instinctively that there were lines that should not be crossed, I took care not to disparage or defame the chap I named as author of that blog I knew that my own anonymity was never going to last forever. So when after just ten weeks when someone put the pieces together and worked out who I was it was of no great consequence at all. I continued to pursue the issue of that chaps authorship of his blogs mainly because he claimed to have a “right” to be anonymous and because the actuality was that other parties had definitively named him months before I did. His claim to actually be anonymous was a very hollow conceit indeed, that cried out to be denounced. Now with the benefit of hindsight I should have allowed him to maintain that conceit, but at the time with the to and fro of argument such a possibility seemed inconceivable to me then.

Now you can either make yourself a very small target and only write about the uncontentious topics like cooking or gardening and barely raise your head out of the blogging trenches. Write about politics, religion or current events and you have to be just as ruthless as the anonymous attackers that will inevitably take you on and you have to find a currency that they will respect. The revelation of their true names is inevitably what they really fear and they fear it not because of what you might say about them but because of the things that they have themselves written and published in the mistaken belief that they would never have to answer for them. I am reminded of the image created by Dickens of the ghost of Jacob Marley in the beginning of “A Christmas Carol “. The heavy chains forged by his meanness and a lifetime of sins burden the spectre for all eternity. It is no different for a formally anonymous blogger who has used that anonymity as a licence to behave despicably. Once their name is known they will have to carry the chains that they have forged and those chains will clank about their person forever. Then again there are individuals who genuinely realise the error of their ways and take a real shot at redemption I for one am happy to forgive those that admit their error and apologise to those that they have wronged.

We as bloggers have the same duty to the truth that underpins any notion of journalistic ethics. We are after all the citizen journalists of this new millennium but in the absence of a bloggers association to codify and monitor the way that we behave there is no prospect that every new blogger will even appreciate that there is any code of decent behaviour unwritten or not. If I may I am going to suggest a few basics tenets that all new, and not so new bloggers should follow.

# Always write about others as if you were known to them, even if you are using a pseudonym
#Be generous to those you debate with in blogs and respect the blog owner as if you are a guest in their home.
# Always remember that the persons you are talking to are real people even if they have the most bizarre pseudonyms they can be offended and hurt by things that are said about them, just as much as you can be hurt.
# Try to persuade rather than just argue .You may think that you are scoring a great victory with that smart-arse put down but you may just be starting a cascade of insult and invective that will ultimately be pointless.
# Seek out blogs that reflect differing views to your own and engage in polite debate, you will learn more about debate and you will learn to appreciate the different perspectives on contentious issues as well.
# Be good-humoured, even in the face of obvious hostility. With the exception a very small number of journalists who are paid by their organisations to maintain a blog most bloggers do it for fun and pleasure and you can earn respect and friendship, even with radically different people by being cool and calm rather than combative and hostile.
# If you do have a dispute with a fellow blogger, in the first instance try to settle your differences privately via email (if they have one available) because once your dispute is being played out in public all sorts of malicious non-entities will try to butt into the argument often making a settlement all but impossible. But if that fails, be happy to walk away. There are millions of bloggers out there and you can’t expect a warm reception from all of them.

There are probably many other things that we could claim are the foundations of good blogging practice but the seven points I cite here is the very minimum that we should all try follow. And if we did I expect that the number of flame wars and bad blood between different blogging factions would be substantially reduced.

It may be a brave new world where the World Wide Web interconnects us all but that has not changed human nature and although the anarchy of this new medium has plenty of champions it is also a challenge for those of us who respect good manners and polite discourse. Now I don’t know if the suggestion that conservative bloggers are more willing to write in their own names is correct I but I suspect that the decision to write in their own names is not predicated on your political persuasion at all but that it is based more on the confidence you have in your own opinions and if you have any professional reasons to keep your blogging as a separate part of your life.

Cheers Comrades

😉


12 Comments

  1. Iain, excellent post. I post under a pseudonym but much like you have suggested, try to write as I would if my name were published. I choose the Nom de Plume option because whilst I stand by my views, I don’t want my personal views colouring those of people I deal with professionally. My friends know I have a blog; professional acquaintainces don’t.

    I don’t understand bloggers who make differences of opinion personal. As far as I’m concerned, they’re childish and unreasonable, particularly when they choose to lower themselves to name-calling and vitriolic spurts.

    I like your guidelines, Iain. Some people would do well to follow them. It’s just an opinion, after all, and everyone has the right to voice them – regardless of whether the rest of the blogging world agrees.

  2. Craigy says:

    Two points Iain,

    1. Why do you think you need to be the ‘net policeman’ and ‘out’ people. You haven’t explained why you can’t just leave it alone, you know, have a thick skin and just get on with it. It’s all a bit PC Iain.

    2.When you stated above that “I was quite shocked at the venom sprouted in comment threads especially when someone like myself dared to offer a contrarian view.” you weren’t being very honest. If I remember, you and your horrible mate (or sock puppet) David Tan (a pseudonym which you never challenged) were the attackers most of the time. You can’t re-write history to make yourself look like the ‘niceperson’ Iain. Your ‘niceperson’ didn’t follow your ‘code’ now did he.

  3. Iain says:

    BC
    thanks for your comments and I think that yours is a good example of a legitimate use of a Pseudonym.

    Craigy, Craigy , Craigy…
    Point one I do not “feel the need to Out people” at all and given the crap I cop from the likes of you and your friends from the left there is nothing in it for me when I do name a scrote like Matthew French but as I say in my essay there is a very strong argument for naming anonymous bloggers if they abuse that anonymity to slander and defame “real” people.
    As for your second point read my essay again and you will see that I concede that with the benefit of hindsight I would act differently if I faced the same situation now. It is called learning form experience.I bet that there are things that you did in the past that you would do differently now 🙄

  4. craigy says:

    Iain; Iain; Iain;

    “there is a very strong argument for naming anonymous bloggers”

    Then you do feel the need to ‘out’ people, your answer is contradictory.

    All I, PKD and others have done is match you at your own game from time to time, which in the past has made you appear angry and hypocritical. As you learn from your many mistakes and become more moderate, so have I.

    Your friends, on the other hand, seem so arrogant and aggressive I doubt they will ever change. Strange company you keep Iain.

  5. PKD says:

    Then you do feel the need to ‘out’ people, your answer is contradictory.

    Precisely right. And Iain, if you really feel that you’ve been slandered *and* defamed, then the logical end game for you is a lawsuit now you have spent all that time outing the guy. The fact that you haven’t proves that all you was doing is stalking, which is pretty sad really.

    All I, PKD and others have done is match you at your own game from time to time, which in the past has made you appear angry and hypocritical. As you learn from your many mistakes and become more moderate, so have I.

    Hear, hear. There’s nothing I despise more than hypocrisy – and you still commit heaps of double standards Iain. I mean, I’d love to debate you Iain on serious topics again, like Col Davis admission this week that the Hicks trial was politically motivated after all (maybe you missed it? ;)), but I just can’t see you entering an honest debate.

    But even I’ll agree with Craigy and admit that you had moderated a way since your bad old BWW days, so there’s hope for you yet…but now that you’ve gone back to stalking, writing blogs pretending to be someone else and all that crap that I have to wonder if you’ll ever get there?

    Here’s hoping anyway…

  6. Iain says:

    Craigy
    the full quote offers a very significant caveat

    as I say in my essay there is a very strong argument for naming anonymous bloggers if they abuse that anonymity to slander and defame “real” people.

    So what pray tell is wrong with naming someone who has been abusing people (like myself) from the “safety” of a pseudonym?
    Both of you

    All I, PKD and others have done is match you at your own game from time to time, which in the past has made you appear angry and hypocritical. As you learn from your many mistakes and become more moderate, so have I.

    while I do find both of you tedious at times you are generally both fairly reasonable and while I don’t claim to be without sin there is no doubt that I have been the target of constant harassment for the last two years in response I have tried just about everything, I moved house (in blogging terms) I ignored my critics, I have tried playing their own game I have tied to make peace as i say at the top of the page I don’t bite unless I am provoked and boy have I been provoked..
    🙄
    PKD your suggestion that I should have sued Matthew is fine in principle but as anyone will tell you such things are very expensive and the only person to benefit would be lawyers A much better result is to name him and get the satisfaction that he will have to tread more carefully as he posts on the internet
    I sent this to someone else but it is appropriate to post it here it is a Hypothetical and I would like you to consider it please.

    Imagine that you are being assaulted by some stranger wearing a mask you
    are unable to stop the assaults but you can pull of his mask off, would you
    do it? Would you expose his face to all and say this is my attacker? In
    real terms that is what I have done here and you are yet to explain why
    that is wrong or dishonourable.

  7. Mark L. says:

    as I say in my essay there is a very strong argument for naming anonymous bloggers if they abuse that anonymity to slander and defame “real” people.

    There’s also a very strong argument for just ignoring them, Iain. Sensible people can read an insulting and defamatory comment, see that it comes from someone using a pseudonym, and decide not to take it at face value. Things whispered from the shadows are best ignored. From what I can tell your ‘get even’ mentality hasn’t helped you shake off those people who give you a hard time, if anything it’s only encouraged and increased their numbers.

  8. raydixon says:

    I’m not “taking sides” here but it is true that when you are verbally abused & insulted in your own name by anonymous posters it does get under your skin, no matter how thick it is. However, I don’t go along with “naming & shaming” the offenders because in the end it doesn’t achieve anything.

    Attacking “real” people with highly personalised insults and abusive language is a poor way of arguing in the first place but to do it under the protection of an alias is even worse as it’s the act of a coward. While it’s true that such comments are unworthy of a response I realise it’s hard to resist biting back. However, I’ve found that a dismissive reply pointing out the offender’s lack of credibility due to their abusive anonymity is the best way of handling it.

    It doesn’t stop the abuse but it gives you more credibility in the eyes of other readers.

  9. Iain Hall says:

    Mark and Ray
    I do appreciate where you are coming from here and I am going try to be a lot more thick skinned in future but please keep in mind that I have put up with a great deal of crap from a particular posse and I am really only advocating naming and shaming as a last resort when all else has failed, not as a general policy when some one gets up your nose on the odd occasion.In that instance it is easier and more effective to ban the offender and or moderate all of their future comments.

  10. craigy says:

    I agree with Mark and Rays comments Iain.

    I will add that, by your own admission, you have been guilty of inflammatory posts and attempting to get a rise from your perceived leftist enemies, even when we have told you we aren’t the strawman leftists you try and paint us as. I believe you have done this to try and impress your more extreme friends from AWH. If you applied the same standards with regards to abuse and poor conduct on the web to them, then people would be less inclined to disrespect you in the way you claim we do.

    In other words, take responsability for your own part in all this and move on, close down your attack blogs and start behaving in a way that you expect of others and then you can take the high moral ground (one day). Until then you are fair game by your own rules.

  11. PKD says:

    And I agree with Craigy Iain,
    From my viewpoint it’s as best ‘6 of one, half-a-dozen of the other’. No-one is really going to buy that you are an innocent victim of abuse while you engage in abusive activities yourself.

    If you want to win the ideological battle, you have be whiter than white, otherwise you just look like the pot calling the kettle black.

    In fact if you really do clean up your act as the others above are suggesting, I suspect an awful lot of harrassment you feel you are getting will disappear…

  12. raydixon says:

    Another legitimate tactic is to “fight fire with fire”. But by that I mean use the weapons of your enemy – irony & mockery. As long as it’s not malicious it’s a perfectly valid way of ‘squaring up’ and it earns more respect than “naming & shaming” or making rambling nitpicking posts to prove “what he said was wrong”.

    Sorry, I don’t mean to be patronising or “give you hints” on how to conduct yourself, it’s just an interesting topic and I think we can all learn from each other.

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