Whether they may or may not be well-founded in reality, people have very real fears about what government does with private information. If the White House moves toward requiring real names during online dialogue, it will exclude too many voices from the national conversation.
To test this hypothesis, we decided to do a small scientific experiment with a random sample of 50 American tourists in front of the US Capitol yesterday morning (it would be wonderful to see this survey repeated on a larger scale). We asked whether they are more likely or less likely to participate in a national online conversation about health care if they were required to provide their real name. Here are the four questions we asked:
- President Obama and Vice President Biden may be holding a national dialogue online about national health care. Would you be more or less likely to comment on the White House website if you were required to use your real name? A lot or a little?
- If it was four years ago and President Bush and Vice President Cheney were holding a national dialogue online about the Iraq War, would you be more or less likely to comment on the White House website if you were required to use your real name? A lot or a little?
- How would you describe yourself on the political spectrum?
- How often do you comment on blogs, news articles, or similar discussion websites? (never/rarely/sometimes/often)
These were the results:
- 38% would be “less likely” or “a lot less likely” to participate online with the Obama/Biden Administration if they were required to use their real name
- 40% would be “less likely” or “a lot less likely” to participate online with the Bush/Cheney Administration if they were required to use their real name
- 48% would be “less likely” or “a lot less likely” to participate online with at least one of the administrations if required to use their real name
- 26% changed their mind depending on which administration was in charge
We find the last statistic particularly important. 26% of the sample population would change their mind depending on who is in charge. Unfortunately when we make a policy, it doesn’t change as easily as the public can change its mind. That’s why we must make a policy that all Americans are happy with, regardless of which administration is in power.
The resiliency of our democracy comes from our institutions, and such policies form the foundation of our institutions. The new administration has fortunately established a precedent which gives equal weight to anonymous comments on the White House website.
The survey allowed people to label themselves however they like or to decline to state where they stand on the political spectrum. We aggregated the self descriptions into the following broad categories:
- 53% of people on the left are less likely to participate with at least one administration if required to use their real names.
- 28% of people in the center are less likely to participate with at least one administration if required to use their real names.
- 47% of people on the right are less likely to participate with at least one administration if required to use their real names.
- 50% of people in the other categories are less likely to participate with at least one administration if required to use their real names.
For the purposes of this survey, we didn’t want to force people in categories so we let them use any words they wanted to describe themselves. Here is the above chart broken down by self-described categories:
On the flip side of the discussion– in support of anonymity, 24% would be “more likely” or “a lot more likely” to participate with at least one of the administrations if required to use their real name, some stating that they would “really like to tell them what they think” by signing their real name.
One unexpected benefit of doing the survey was that we interviewed a few officers from the US Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. One of them mentioned that their job prevents them from joining political conversations about health care and another from the group disagreed with him. They had a back-and-forth conversation and concluded that the regulations weren’t clear. Regardless of what the regulations actually allow, they intimidate health service officers from using their real name in online conversations.
We suspect that the situation above might be more common than we think in many other industries where people aren’t forbidden from stating their opinion, but they surely wouldn’t want their boss to know their political opinion, especially if it goes against the official position of their employing organization.
So we stand for anonymity on the principles of fairness and inclusion, even though it may reduce the quality of discussion. We also stand against “separate but equal” status for anonymous commenting– our position is that if the instructions in encourage using real names but allows anonymous comments, those making anonymous comments will be relegated to second-class citizens, and their ideas will not be given full weight.
More data about our survey population:
- 36% female, 64% male
- 100% American citizens or residents
- 100% tourists from outside DC with enough time and money to travel to visit the US Capitol building– this indicates that they would probably also have the time to comment on the White House website in a national dialogue; more data is necessary from people that do not have that luxury to find out how they can be included.
- frequency of commenting online:
If you’re interested in playing with the raw data it is here. We’re interested in diving into this in a deeper way, so please contact us with your critiques and suggestions.
UPDATE: Here is another post which specifies reasons why anonymous comments must be protected. Also see Ken Gilligren’s extension of these concepts to include
- The public case for anonymity in the context of participation
- The private case for anonymity in the context of mutual respect
- The corporate case for anonymity in the context of innovation