Understanding anonymous speech

Note (12th Sep 2012): The point of this blog post is NOT to discuss the behavior of the @UN_Nepal twitter handle. Although that handle’s activities are shameful, I am no more interested in @UN_Nepal’s twitter activities. This is more about the very unclear and contradictory attitude practiced by other respected people of our society vis-a-vis anonymous speech.

A good thing about societies where democracy is not just a name for the political system but also a part of daily culture is that people mind their own businesses. Minding one’s own business is manifested in many different ways like respecting the rights of individuals and not interfering in others’ private sphere while practicing one’s rights. The right to privacy is one case of minding one’s own business.

In our society, lack of democratic culture is not just a specialty of the form of governance, but also of our personal cultures. We are fond of poking our noses into others’ affairs- we love minding others’ business. We are also full of contradictions like demanding a democratic treatment from the state while not practicing the same in our lives. If you observe carefully, you can extend this also to many famous, well known and “democratic” people in your social circles; they’re so devoid of that democratic acumen, of that moral integrity required of the defenders of democracy.

Concerning the allegation of cowardice or hiding: I think it is a matter of minding one’s own business.

Take the example of anonymous speech on the internet and how our contradictions are exposed while dealing with this subject.

Let me start with a tweet regarding my blog on the UN mission in Nepal. The @UN_Nepal twitter handle responded to a mention of my blog saying it “won’t dialogue with anonymous bloggers.” Whether or not to dialogue with anonymous bloggers is a matter of personal choice and there’s nothing wrong in not wanting to dialogue with someone.. However, the UN’s twitter also chose to ignore similar questions by others, including a famous Nepali writer who is not anonymous on twitter. Surely, the problem does not seem to be anonymity, but the views expressed. My blog did not try to exploit anonymity by indulging in defamation, insult or similar questionable (or illegal) acts, but raised valid, logical and well-formed questions and arguments.

But then, I have also been frequently surprised by some well known personalities (not excluding writers, journalists, editors) and friends. Their opinion of anonymous tweeting or blogging amounts to cowardice, hiding, unqualified of attention, undeserving of response and so on.

Q: What kind of anonymous speech is bad?
A: Any speech that can be qualified as bad, e.g., hate speech, defamation, personal assault and so on.

In our society, it is no more surprising to see and read racist speech and hate mongering even by people writing under their real names. Not only has it become acceptable, but also fashionable- most writers and newspapers won’t publish any criticism of anything without a racist slur on some communities or hateful labeling of some people. I think in such a situation, a valid counter-argument may require similar tactics, blurring the line between good and bad speech. But still, whatever scale applies to normal speech, also applies to anonymous speech.

Q: Are all anonymous bloggers/tweeters bad?
A: Like I said before, many people use pseudonyms to say what is out-rightly improper, wrong or illegal to say. Instead of using logic and arguments to express their views or question others’, they use pseudonyms to mask their wrongful activities. We see many online commenters, bloggers or twitters using pseudonyms to hurl personal abuses. A more recent example I have faced myself is a twitter handle that goes by the name of a ground in central Kathmandu- I’m told it is a platform used by a group of unknown whiners for spreading hate-speech and personal insults. Lumping all anonymous bloggers with such distasteful examples and generalizing them with blanket adjectives is not ok.

Q: How to understand anonymous speech?

  1. First, anonymous speech is respected as a constitutional right in many countries because it is considered a prerequisite for free speech. A latest example is a court ruling in South Korea.
  2. Some other reasons why people choose to write under pseudonyms are explained here.
  3. In repressive and semi-repressive regimes, anonymous speech is how dissidents can practice any speech. In countries with poor record of freedom of expression and press, using real names to air views not liked by the powerful forces may result in death, kidnapping or other kinds of trouble. In Nepal, several journalists have been killed, silenced or kidnapped for airing views that were not liked by the powers-that-be.
  4. Free democratic societies benefit from anonymity,as it permits those with unpopular views to air them without fear of punishment or arrest
  5. Earlier this year, results of a study published by Disqus revealed that pseudonyms are more likely to post quality comments and they are the drivers of online discussion. Maybe this shows that gross generalization and stigmatization of pseudonym bearers is unnecessary?
More on anonymity:  Right to anonymous speech is a constitutional right in some democratic countries. I wish we had a society as free as that.  I'm reminded of the "Tascon List," which is a list of people who signed a petition against Venezuelan Prez. With the Nepalese public sphere in the hands of Chavezians, I wonder of that's why people are after the names of anonymous writers. People in the Tascon List were systematically discriminated, including during job applications and government services.

A post on the subject on my facebook page.

Major concern:

Freedom of expression and press on the internet is a very important issue. In the past, only journalists risked reprisal for what they wrote or said. But today, news of bloggers being abducted, jailed, threatened or kidnapped by governments, political parties and criminal groups is becoming common. Such dangers apply to anonymous bloggers as well, often they’re in more risk than others. In such a situation, responsible members of a society are expected to understand different issues surrounding freedom of expression and anonymous speech. At times of repression, such an understanding is expected to convert to solidarity. By only appearing concerned over the arrest of a cartoonist in India, but being antagonistic to anonymous speech in one’s surrounding, one’s democratic credentials are highly tarnished. It is better for citizens who believe in democracy and freedom to arrive at a common understanding about subjects as fundamental as these. After all, a strong united voice will help us all in times of trouble or in protecting our liberties during normal times.

Finally, concerning the allegation of cowardice or hiding: I think it is a matter of minding one’s own business.

Clarification: While hate speech might be undesired in a civilized society, they cannot be banned. Also, anonymous writers who abuse others have the right to free speech, and if someone is offended, they can try legal, personal or technical measures. However, using pseudonyms to settle personal disputes or to abuse others is not a civilized practice because personal disputes require the person to identify himself. Therefore, abusive and personal writings while done under pseudonyms only weaken the argument.


5 thoughts on “Understanding anonymous speech

  1. Pingback: » Understanding Anonymous Speech. Story of …
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  3. First, the very important thing about anonymous speech is that it should be good and constructive rather than bad (‘Any speech that can be qualified as bad, e.g., hate speech, defamation, personal assault and so on’).

    With that point cleared, I believe that authorities and accountable institutions (such as UN_Nepal) should look at the merit of the questions or issues raised rather than looking at the person raising the question / issue. If the question is valid and issue serious, they should answer that without being biased about who was it.

    • I agree with you- my point also was that the same yardstick applies to all kinds of speech. Civilized and logical speech is always preferred.

      About the second point: the point of this blog post is not much about the UN_Nepal’s behavior (I think it is wide out in the open), as it is about the very contradictory and shameful behavior shown by other respected people vis-a-vis anonymous speech.

  4. स्वतन्त्रता कुण्ठित भएको बेला छद्मनाममा लेख्नु त ठिकै होला तर यही प्रयोग गरेर अरुलाई भने जात, लिङ्ग, वर्ण, भाषा, नश्लको आधारमा टिप्पणी गर्ने छुट भने छद्मनामवाला लाई त रह्यो नि होइन र ! अाखिर मुखुण्डोले अनुहार मात्र छोप्दैन जिम्मेवारी पनि त छोप्छ नि। तर एउटा बिरोधाभाष भने यही ब्लगमा भएन र, जहाँ तपाई अाफै नै माइला बाजे र सौरभ को हुन् भनेर खोतल्दै हुनुहुन्छ।

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