As more newspapers integrate print and online operations, print editors confront a strange new world, in which all of the familiar rules are being broken. In print, letters to the editor must be signed and, in news stories, sources identified, except in specified cases. But when newspapers move online, people in forums, chat sessions, or in comments find themselves engaged in conversations with the Mad Hatter or a Salty Dog.
Mad Hatter? How did we fall down this rabbit hole?
Should newspapers be running their Web sites this way? If we require real names in print, shouldn't we do the same thing online? Aren't there ethical considerations?
It's not that simple. Anonymity and pseudonymity are not merely common to Internet culture, there is a considerable historical, ethical and legal foundation for it.
In its early pre-Web days, most Internet discussions took place on a system called Usenet. Messages commonly were signed with real names and were sent from legitimate research and educational institutions. Exceptions tended to be jokes, such as the April 1, 1984 posting from "Konstantin Chernenko" at "Kremvax," sent long before the network extended into the Soviet Union. Early public online forums, such as the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link (WELL) and many CompuServe interest groups, also were dominated by real identities. The first newspaper online site I built, at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, required real names.
But the Web unfolded in a different direction. Those cultures of identity still exist, but they have not grown at the rate of the overall Web. And once the Internet was opened to commercial access and Web sites gained forum capabilities, they quickly attracted users from other cultures more accustomed to using "handles." Many early users were young and came from dial-up bulletin board systems, where some borrowed the identities of comic book heroes such as Judge Dredd. A huge influx of users from America Online, which allowed multiple screen names per account, permanently changed the culture of the Internet.
Once a culture is established, it can be difficult to oppose. "I used to post under my real name ... but I felt like the only naked person at a clothing-optional beach," wrote "Salty Dog" in a discussion of this issue at BlufftonToday.com. And for many people, posting under a pseudonym is a protective measure. "When your 13-year-old daughter picks up the phone and hears, 'We're going to burn a cross in your yard,' ... you change your attitude toward being 'out there,'" wrote "Wiley Coyote."
Identity: Practice, Ethics and the Law
Earlier this year, I was part of an ethics symposium convened by the Poynter Institute at which a mixed group of Internet media leaders and Poynter faculty tried to clarify a number of ethical issues that are encountered when publishing online. Identity was quickly seen as one of those questions with no simple answers. Instead, it raises more questions: Who is being served? Who is being hurt?
The contextual details are important. Gary Marx, professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, confronted the ethical questions surrounding anonymity in a 1999 paper, "What's in a Name? Some Reflections on the Sociology of Anonymity." He wrote that "there are many contexts in which most persons would agree that some form of anonymity or identifiability is desirable. But there are others where we encounter a thicket of moral ambiguity and competing rationales and where a balancing act may be called for."
Marx lists a few: liberty and order; accountability and privacy; community and individualism; freedom of expression and the right not to be defamed or harassed. His list continues along those lines and ends with "the desire to be noticed and the need to be left alone"—a conflict we see being played out on MySpace.com today.
Marshall McLuhan observed that communications technologies reshape the world into a global village. Anyone who's ever lived in a small town knows that "everybody knows you" can be suffocating. One middle-aged man, a closeted homosexual in a southern community, wrote to me privately about how he felt a need to express himself in blog postings about gay rights but feared he would lose his job if his employer found out. Another frequent blogger's spouse is employed by the school district that he criticizes vigorously in his postings. For them, anonymity is essential to their ability to participate.
These issues are not unique to the Internet. Indeed, early American journalists often wrote under pen names, particularly in the Revolutionary period, when the oppressive danger was not merely a tyranny of the majority but a tyranny backed up by military force. Founding Fathers Ben Franklin, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison were among those who occasionally took advantage of pseudonyms. The "seditious libel" of which John Peter Zenger was accused included contributions from a number of anonymous and pseudonymous critics of the Crown.
But how does the law treat such anonymity today? Who is responsible for the content of these postings? Here a common Internet acronym applies: IANAL (I am not a lawyer), so an editor must consult his or her own legal resources and ultimately make an informed decision about risk.
A well-versed lawyer can cite the relevant cases—Stratton Oakmont, Inc. v. Prodigy, Cubby, Inc. v. CompuServe, Inc. and Zeran v. America Online, Inc.. The courts have struck down much of the Communications Decency Act, but the surviving portion includes a statutory "safe harbor" provision for operators of interactive services, and it is clear that Congress intended to promote the development of open conversation by freeing hosts from responsibility for actions taken by guests.
There have been several non-Internet cases in which courts have made it clear that freedom of speech does not come with a hidden price tag of speaker identification. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has said "the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the First Amendment right to speak anonymously," citing Buckley v. American Constitutional Law Foundation, Inc., McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission, and Talley v. California. In writing about continuing challenges to anonymity and pseudonymity, a briefing paper written for the conservative Cato Institute calls these ways of protecting one's identity the "cornerstones of free speech."
Even if the law ultimately shields the forum's host, there is a danger of having to defend against nuisance suits and attempts by plaintiffs to intimidate pseudonymous bloggers by demanding disclosure of their identities. In unraveling this knotty problem, it's helpful for editors to ask: Why do newspapers host online conversations, anyway? What are our real goals? To each of these questions, an editor should be able to answer with something other than "so we can get the page views."
Silenced Voices Now Heard
There is a political value embedded in American journalism, a belief that what we do is essential to sustaining our participatory democracy. Editorial and op-ed pages exist to provide a forum for discussion of issues of public interest. Almost without exception, American newspapers require writers of letters or op-ed pieces to identify themselves. Perhaps this reflects that in our culture order is more valued than freedom and accountability more than privacy, if we return to Marx's list of competing rationales. One result, however, is that many voices are being silenced by fear of social consequences.
Those voices are now being heard on the Internet, where anyone can become a blogger in the two minutes it takes to fill out a form and create an account on any of the many free blog-hosting and social-networking sites. There is no longer a scarcity of places in which public conversation and interaction can happen. Some journalists, such as blogger Jeff Jarvis, have begun to question whether the editorial page has outlived its usefulness. Community conversation will thrive even if every newspaper disappears. Is there a vital and continuing role for newspapers, or even for journalists, to play in providing such a forum for civic and social conversation?
Community conversation can benefit from a framework of goals, ground rules and leadership, and newspapers can perform a real public service by helping provide this. In online forums, five basic identity models exist, and below they are ranked from the "order" to "liberty" ends of the spectrum:
Real, verified, published names. It's almost impossible to do this without requiring credit-card transactions.
Real names required but not verified. Most "real name" forums on the net today operate this way.
Pseudonyms allowed, tied to unpublished real names. Most newspapers with Web registration systems can implement this model easily.
Pseudonyms allowed with complete anonymity.
Completely open systems—post under any name. This "most free" environment is the most abuse-prone, but a peer-moderation system (such as found on Slashdot.org) can mitigate the damage of an abusive minority.
Among these routes, there is no "correct" path, just a need to consider all these issues and strike a balance. The middle road—public pseudonyms, private identity—might be the optimal, if not ideal, solution. The mask provided by a pseudonym might entice shy persons to contribute, just as they might open up at a costume party. But as with the real event, it helps if the host knows the identity of everyone in the room; knowing this tends to keep behavior from getting out of hand.
Steve Yelvington was a newspaper reporter and editor for two decades before moving to the Internet in 1994 as founding editor of Star Tribune Online in Minneapolis. He now focuses on strategy and innovation for Morris DigitalWorks, the online division of Morris Communications in Augusta, Georgia.