Protect Anonymous Comments Online

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Requiring real names may have a significant chilling effect on free speech.

There has been a lot of discussion in recent months about requiring citizens to use their real names when making comments on government websites.  Further study is necessary, but our preliminary study indicates that far too many voices would be left out of a national conversation if citizens were prevented from participating anonymously.

We believe users should be able to create and control their own persistent online identities.  Identities should be persistent so that websites that allow users to rate/vote can give more weight to users that have demonstrated credibility.  Identities do not have to be connected to a legal name for several reasons.  That is what we mean by anonymous comments.

Here are other reasons why anonymous comments must be protected:

1. As of yet, there’s no enforceable solution that would work on a national level which can ensure that someone’s user name is the same as their legal name.  Half measures would just create confusion.

2. Anonymity isn’t the issue. A persistent reputation system that rewards good ideas and punishes misbehavior can solve for all the advantages of using real names, such as developing person-to-person relationships and encouraging constructive contributions.

3. Our country has a rich history of brilliant political authors writing with pseudonyms– those people had strong reasons for doing so and those reasons are just as important today.

4. Allowing pseudonyms decreases the risk of cognitive biases such as the “yes-man syndrome” where people agree with leaders even though the leader’s ideas need improvement.

5. Some people won’t participate because they cannot contradict the position of their employer. This limits out expert opinion.  We saw this with members of the US Public Health Service Commissioned Corps during our survey.

6. The dialogue would instantly be less inclusive because people are not used to using their real name online in discussion forums– this immediately raises a red flag and rumors start flying (refer to the controversy– whether justified or not– about the White House collecting email addresses this summer).

7. Strong, fair, transparent moderation systems should be our focus because they are absolutely necessary and can minimize the harms of abusive speech.

8. An idea should stand on its own merit; if it depends on the credentials of the author to be credible it needs more work. Building a community online that does not rely on credentials gets us much closer to a true meritocracy of ideas. Giving equal status to pseudonyms puts the focus on the idea rather than the author– this can stimulate a more honest discussion.

9. Features which develop and sustain a sense of community (such as group features and person-to-person messaging) should be our focus rather than this issue anonymity because such features will build resiliency and community norms which, in turn, are essential for fair moderation.

10. Requiring real names will have no effect on some people who are going to use a pseudonym anyway. Having them break the rules the first minute they sign up can start them off in a negative mindset accentuate their negative behavior.

11. While we can hope for the best, we have to work in the world that we live in. If an American has a name like Hussein (or many others) they will be discriminated against whether we like it or not.

12. When people exercise the freedom of the press or the freedom to assemble, they can do so anonymously. Requiring real names limits free speech.

13. Site administrators should be careful when writing participation guidelines.  Merely suggesting that users should use their real names will automatically place users with pseudonyms in second-class status.

We welcome anyone else’s thoughts on this subject.  Please feel free to comment below.

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4 Responses to “Protect Anonymous Comments Online”

  1. Data about Anonymous Online Comments and Citizen Participation with Government « AthenaBridge | Intelligence, connected. Says:

    [...] Here is another post which specifies reasons why anonymous comments must be protected. [...]

  2. Tim Says:

    Nice list of arguments.

    I wonder what opportunities there are to design systems that offer more flexible ways of dealing with identity. For many of the participation scenarios I’m aware of, neither a strict real name requirement nor a complete laissez-faire approach seem to provide the right structure.

    As an alternative, an online participation system might well require participants to sign up with their real name or even verify their identity (as part of their account information). Yet participants could choose if and to what extent they want to share their real identity with the other participants or the general public (via their profile and privacy settings). In case the system was hosted by a neutral third party provider, participants might even be able to shield their private information from the convener organization.

    This approach would also allow us to differentiate between various activities participants are asked to engage in. Some processes would require real names, other might work better if participants stayed anonymous.

    Finally, participants could be empowered to choose as a group which level of anonymity (or revealed identity) they prefer. For example, a group of participants engaging in small-group dialogue could choose to reveal their real names only if and when all of them have expressed that they are comfortable with it.

    I think it’s worth exploring these dynamics.

    • lucas Says:

      Tim, your suggestions above are excellent. The most progress I’ve seen along those lines is with the Information Card Foundation’s pilot projects with the Federal Government: http://informationcard.net/blog/open-identity-initiative-2009-09-09

      Requiring real names simply seems like a lazy (and ineffective) solution, while innovating our way toward better online dialogue has so much potential. I look forward to hearing the results of the Information Card Foundation’s pilots.

  3. Anonymity in Public Participation « Intellitics Says:

    [...] Anonymity in Public Participation Published on December 3, 2009 in Ideas and Research. 0 Comments Tags: identity. Following their recent informal survey, Lucas Cioffi just shared a comprehensive list of arguments why requiring citizens to register on government websites with their real names may not always be such a good idea: Protect Anonymous Comments Online [...]

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