AGAINST DOUBLE-SIDED ANONYMITY IN JOURNALISM. Last spring I was briefly involved in an unpleasant blogstorm for making the case against double-sided online anonymity, but the sorry case of Lee Seigel revives my concerns. Let me be clear: I have nothing against people using pseudonymns to write in comment threads (except when, as in Lee's case, they're writers working under the expectation that they always take public responsibility for their work), or who author blogs while cloaking their identities. It's a free country, and pseudonymous speech has a long tradition in American politics and a strong legal basis for continued protection. However, I was and remain disturbed by the way newspapers and magazines quote from bloggers and commenters whose identities they do not even make an attempt to determine. So far I have lost this battle, and badly -- even The Washington Post quotes anonymous blog commenters without always confirming their identities -- but I do believe journalists will eventually have to come around to my position. As I said last spring, it's one thing to quote someone whose identity you know, but who wishes to remain anonymous -- and it is quite another to quote someone whose identity is unknown even to you, the reporter.
Siegel proves, for those who need proof, why such a standard is necessary. Sock puppetry, uncool as it is, is not a rarity online. You can never know who it is you're reading unless you ask, and if someone declines to be identified -- not publicly, but to you, off the record, in private, on a not-for-publication basis -- there is a high enough risk that that person is someone who is trying to use anonymity for nefarious purposes that a reporter's suspicious instincts should be activated. I know for a fact that several active commenters on Daily Kos are either Capitol Hill press secretaries, who post comments defending their members, or campaign workers. That makes them sock puppets for their causes, even if they win praise, in some quarters, for defending their bosses.
A journalist who quoted one of them as if he were quoting some random person on the Internet, however, would be presenting readers with a seriously distorted view of whatever issue was being discussed. That's why I believe journalists have an obligation to determine, as much as is practicable, the identities of the people they are quoting -- or else not quote them at all.
Such a standard would decrease the power of sock-puppeting online, and would also put an end to the ridiculous genre of news stories and political press releases that center around the outrageous thing some pseudonymous commenter said on a blog. The GOP, in particular, has taken to this form of accusation against blogs with vigor, and any journalist who cites such comments and the controversies around them without attempting to determine the identity of the actual commenter is opening himself or herself up to being played for a patsy by a political staffer who may well have stirred up the whole controversy for electoral ends. Online, you never know who you're quoting unless you check.
On a side note, I know this is a controversial topic, but I won't be able to weigh in again today since I�ll be on the road.
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(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)