Recently I was criticized on two separate occasions by Debbie Nathan about anonymity in blogging and by extension journalism. I also received a comment on my blog from Steve Fisher, who I believe is also a journalist, about allowing anonymous comments on the blog. In the case of Fisher, he questioned why I allow anonymous comments on my blog adding that individuals should “stand behind” what they say. Debbie Nathan, on the other hand, seems to be offended by some comments that were posted years ago on the El Paso Forum, an online forum that I ran and because of this she argues that being anonymous “takes away the vast majority” of the writer’s “authority.”
Nathan goes on to write unless they “are living in a repressive state or a state with no rule” and are worried about “retaliation,” an author should not be worried about “enemies.” She adds, “If you can’t take having some people mad at you, then get off the pot and forget blogging.” Nathan adds that “anonymous blogging is the utter bane of El Paso: it’s a kind of disease that started in the early aughts [sic], during the Caballero administration, with a site facilitated” by me. I believe she was referring to my El Paso Forum message board but I also blogged on the El Paso Metro and the El Paso Tribune at that time. [Facebook ChucoPedia page April 17, 2015]
Debbie Nathan also argued that the Newspaper Tree’s Sidney Hall Maven, an anonymous writer, “was exposing a lot of corruption in the city” and as a result it could be argued, “that he or she could have risked an insider position” by being identified. Her problem with the Sidney Hall Maven is that the individual could be “a politico who is still operating.” Nathan added that a blogger should be someone that is writing about their “observations and opinions.” She concludes with “everyone has the right to blog their own worldview – just don’t mischaracterize it as ‘journalism’. It’s not journalism unless you hit the street, or the books, and talk to people and do research.”
As a long time blogger who started blogging about El Paso politics before anyone else did I believe my personal experiences are germane to the discussion about anonymous blogging. Nathan and I agree that the news media in El Paso is severely lacking. This is the reason why I am sometimes forced to write news reports in order to fill in the missing blanks. I can’t offer you my opinion on issues that have not been reported in the news. I have attempted various times to create a news outlet but I have lacked the resources to get traction on my various attempts.
That leaves blogging. The comments made by Nathan are a result of someone asking if they should get into blogging. Of course, I support blogging and have even created a free platform for anyone wanting to get into blogging. I even encourage anonymous blogging.
As with any tool, it can be used for good and for bad. This is true for anything in the world. For example, water. If you drink too much of it, it can lead to water intoxication. Likewise, a gun, it can be used for saving a life or taking one away.
We have to accept that anything can be used for good or for bad – it is the nature of life.
Are anonymous authors dangerous? As with anything, some can be dangerous while others have led to fundamental changes in society. I can offer you many examples of how anonymity can make a difference but I will limit my examples to two very poignant examples.
The Federalist Papers and WikiLeaks.
The Federalist Papers were written anonymously by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay. They were published in the late 1780’s. The authors’ reasons for writing the essays was that they wanted to influence a favorable vote for ratifying the Constitution of the United States. I am no expert on the Federalist Papers having only read them as part of a class assignment but I remember, from my studies, that at the time there was much controversy about ratifying the constitution. Much of the debate was a back-and-forth by anonymous writers in the publications of the day.
WikiLeaks, for its part, has ushered in a new era on the way information flows. Whether you agree that all information should be free or that certain information should be controlled does not matter because WikiLeaks has forced governments and citizens across the world to have a discussion about the role of government in keeping secrets. WikiLeaks has promised and in some instances has failed (Bradley/Chelsea Manning) to keep the identities of document leakers secret.
Regardless, all of the documents it has made available are not only used by journalists as original source materials in many news reports but it has given many of us an unprecedented look into the inner workings of government and large corporations. Some would argue this is good while others would argue that it has damaged many individuals.
WikiLeaks has also shown us that there is no guarantee to anonymity when certain thresholds are crossed as evidence by Manning’s 35-year sentence.
As with the water and the gun example I gave you earlier, the issue of anonymity comes down to personal freedoms. The choice to write anonymously and the choice to read an anonymous author is a fundamental freedom inherent in all of us.
The US Supreme Court ruled in 1995 that “protections for anonymous speech are vital to democratic discourse.” The ruling added, “anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority.”
Anonymity can be dangerous to the author and to the readers but fundamentally it is a right that all of us have to make for ourselves. It is a choice we have that is the key to anonymous authors.
Anyone can be an anonymous blogger and the cost to blog can be little or nothing. What makes a blogger viable in the scheme of things is the number of readers the bloggers attracts.
If a blogger has only themselves and a family member reading what they write then it won’t be long before the author gives up writing altogether. Even if the blogger persists with only a handful of readers their influence over the issue is nonexistent meaning that the blogger has no influence and as such very few, if any, of the protagonists involved in an issue may be aware of the blogger. Without readers, the blogger has no influence over the debate. They write in obscurity.
Therefore, the true power lies not with the blogger but with the readers whether the blogger is anonymous or not.
For as much as an anonymous blogger can be a bane to someone, they can also be the problem to lackluster journalism.
The key to the debate about anonymous bloggers does not lie in creating a set of guidelines of when anonymous blogging is acceptable, as in a “repressive state,” because the moment you allow someone to set the standard of acceptability is the moment the freedom for free expression is lost. This is because someone is dictating the standard for the community. Someone’s standard of decency is different from everyone else. What would stop an official from determining that acceptable speech is only that speech that does not ridicule a public official. It is a short slippery slope that could easily lead to ridiculing a public official is equal to disagreeing with the official’s governance and thus a violation of the arbitrary standard.
Allowing the reader the opportunity to make the self-determination of what is acceptable to them is the key. Interestingly this concept also leads to policing the success of the anonymous blogger because a blogger without readers has no influence over the community.
This invariably leads us to the question about whether my stance encouraging anonymous bloggers makes me a hypocrite because I outed Ali Razavi as an anonymous blogger.
What about Ali Razavi?
My unmasking of Ali Razavi had nothing to do with anonymity in general and everything to do with showing how his blog was nothing more than an extension of political operatives. Unlike the El Paso Speaks blog, Razavi, in my opinion, was a tool being used to damage specific individuals in El Paso as part of a conspiracy by certain political factions in the city. I have no intention to identify the blogger, or bloggers behind El Paso Speak because their posts are commentary on different issues. I detect no malice coming from their blog.
Razavi, on the other hand, was a blog with the specific purpose of creating whisper campaigns against specific targets. I felt it was important to hold him accountable and thus I set out to identify him in order to document the political agenda driving his blog.
My quest to unmask him goes back to holding the author accountable for what they write and not that they are anonymous. As a reader, I can make different choices – I can read a blog, ignore it or force them to be accountable. I do not have the right to silence them but I can expose their agenda.
Just as an anonymous blogger has the right to write whatever they want they must also understand that freedom transcends across to the readers as well. I can be held accountable for my actions as an author, whether I am anonymous or not. The law has many mechanisms for that.
David Karlsruher had to write a letter of apology to Stuart Leeds for writing a lie about Leeds. Bradley Manning is in a military prison. In late 2011, Joe Gordon, a US citizen, was sentenced to two and half years in prison for ridiculing the king of Thailand on his blog.
The right to blog anonymously does not erode the right to hold authors accountable for their words.
The Ramifications of Blogging in El Paso
I write my blog under my name. Some of you have commented that I have the luxury to write because I do not live in El Paso.
Guess what, you are absolutely correct.
When I first started commenting about El Paso politics, I did so in El Paso. I was subjected to various forms of harassment for expressing my opinion about the politics of El Paso.
The fact is that I was “blacklisted” in El Paso by political figures and they applied sufficient pressure to force me to leave the city. To be clear, it was easy to leave the city because I was not a native of El Paso. It is important to note that former journalist and now Jose Rodriguez’ spokesperson Sito Negron once asked me directly if I thought it fair that I had been “blacklisted.”
I know from speaking to my clients and friends that the word around town was that anyone doing business with my company would suffer the consequences. In essence, if I wasn’t going to shut up then I would be ostracized economically until I couldn’t write anymore.
They did not want to debate my opinion they just applied whatever tools they could to shut me up.
El Paso is not a “repressive state” but the retaliation for expressing an opinion against public policy is more than having “enemies.” It is individuals using whatever means they can muster to silence you, including going after your livelihood. It is easy to argue that the “rule of law” is there to support your writing but it is a far different thing to apply the rule of law to ensure your right to express your opinion when the rule of law is too expensive, time consuming and/or unreliable to ensure your rights.
It was easy for me to leave the city but what about someone with strong ties to the community, would they so easily leave the city in order to express themselves about a misguided public policy agenda that some feel is ruining their city. It could come down to exercising their right to comment on government or to feed and clothes their family.
Anonymity can be misused as evidence by Ali Razavi. David Karlsruher and Jaime Abeytia shows us that you do not have to be anonymous to break the law, both criminal and civil. The bloggers at El Paso Speak shows us that anonymous bloggers can be successful by the fact that many read their blog.
Journalists, for their part, have historically relied on anonymous sources to expose corruption and bad government. The Pentagon Papers are a clear example of this. Many journalists have used the WikiLeaks documents as original source material for exposés. Journalists are killed regularly for their writing and others are silenced by politicians and special interests.
Debbie Nathan, herself, was “shown the door” when she tried to write about a major donor to her publication. Nathan, like other journalists, like to argue that bloggers are not real tellers of news. I am sure Dan Rather would argue that as well today, except that Dan Rather was proven to be nothing more than a purveyor of information for political purposes, thanks to bloggers. I’m sure Brian Williams believed he was a “journalist” as well.
Therein lies the problem with individuals that argue that bloggers are not news providers. Not all are but some fill a void that is left empty for many reasons, including political agendas. Rather is not on the air today because his viewership does not trust him anymore. Simply, Dan Rather cannot generate the eyeballs he needs to be meaningful to those that would view his show and thus he is not on the air today. His viewers silenced him for his actions.
This simple fact brings is right back to why I believe that anonymous bloggers are a necessary component to political discussion while also being held to account by the very people that would support them – the readers. Without readers, a blogger fails and thus the power is not on the blogger but on the readers that seek the blogger out.
(A side note: I thought about posting this essay on the ChucoPedia page but I get the feeling that Debbie Nathan would find that it is not journalism and thus it does not merit a discussion on the ChucoPedia page. Obviously, I disagree.)