Blogger Anonymity and Outing

Irksome, Politics & Current Events

Patrick beat me to the punch today talking about how Ed Whelan of NRO outed the anonymous blogger Publius at Obsidian Wings. Walter Olson had an overview.

I want to make three points: (1) why I blog anonymously, (2) why I disagree with some people — including some people I respect — that there is anything inherently wrong with anonymous blogging, and (3) why I think that Whelan's action — while entirely legal and protected by the First Amendment — was worthy of contempt.

I. Why I Blog Anonymously

I blog anonymously. Perhaps I should say "anonymously", because I have revealed sufficient details to let a clever person with some time and skills determine my identity. (Patrick, by contrast, is more circumspect; it would be extremely difficult to out him based on his writings here.) One journalist has actually done so; he wanted me to source a trial story I told about a judge for an article he was writing about the judge's career. It's only a matter of time before I annoy someone with sufficient smarts and time — or sufficient money to hire someone else with smarts and time — who outs me to "the public." When that happens, I will accept the social consequences of what I have written.

So why do I blog anonymously? There are a bunch of reasons. Central to all of these reasons is my style, and the content of this blog. Some of the things I write about are serious, and sometimes I even treat them seriously. But anyone who reads this blog knows that my favored tools are satire, sarcasm, and ridicule, which I think are potent weapons in the fight over ideas. People don't like being made fun of. Moreover, some people are functionally incapable of understanding irony, sarcasm, and satire. Other people are offended easily, and particularly by pop culture, sexual references, and the various forms of juvenile self-indulgence occasionally featured here to the extent it amuses us. So:

1. I blog anonymously because of my employment. When I started, I still worked for a big law firm. Big law firms are notoriously unfriendly to employee blogging, and mine would not have appreciated me addressing controversial issues (or, probably, using other than PG language) under the same name featured on their web site. That consideration no longer prevails; I'm a partner in a small firm now, with much more freedom. However, I still don't want to buy trouble for my partners. More about that below.

2. On a related point, I blog anonymously because I have clients. Now, some bloggers I respect — Scott Greenfield and Marc Randazza, for example — run small firms and blog rather vividly under their own name despite having clients capable of Googling them. It may be that Marc and Scott are more confident in their relationship with their clients, or that their array of clients is different than mine. Mine range from small-time criminals to substantial corporations, and at least some of them might be upset by my blogging. I don't expect that they would be upset in a he-made-an-unfair-anonymous-attack-on-someone sense. But they might be upset in a we-disagree-on-[social issue] sense, or a you-made-fun-of-people-who-support-[candidate] sense. Certainly I would no longer feel comfortable telling dumb-client stories, which I feel illuminate the condition of being a lawyer. (I never make clients identifiable to others in such stories, though many would recognize themselves, and most might resent a lawyer complaining about clients as a class).

3. I blog anonymously because I have opposing counsel in hard-fought cases, as well as judges and their clerks. If I wrote this blog under my own name, it would not surprise me at all to see some civil opponent dropping a footnote saying something like "It is not at all surprising that Ken would take such a stance, given his inflammatory and inappropriate language about . . . ." etc. I'd also worry about my clients being treated more harshly by the District Attorney's Office and the U.S. Attorney's Office (especially that office, given it's current leadership) based on criticisms of them. In short, I'd worry that expressing myself freely in this forum could harm my clients — even though in a just world it shouldn't. (For what it is worth, I have not, and never would, call out a litigation opponent by name here, and use my anonymity as a weapon in a case I am litigating.)

4. I blog anonymously because I would prefer that I — and my office, and my family — be free of threats and harassment. We make fun of people here. Most of these people will never notice us. But some might. And some of those people have large audiences prone to (depending on your perspective) (1) acting out on their own initiative, or (2) taking broad will-no-one-rid-me-of-this-turbulent-priest hints. I seriously doubt that Michele Malkin noticed when Patrick made fun of her hilarious freakout over a scarf. But bear in mind that when Malkin reprinted the contact information of some Santa Cruz anti-military-recruitment protesters, some of her audience deluged the protesters with abuse and death threats. For that matter, unhinged people on the other side of the spectrum directed death threats and abuse at Malkin when her contact information was published in retaliation. Some of the people we write about have nasty, batshit-crazy followers. I'd prefer not to have any devoted fans of Debbie Schussel calling and screaming obscenities at my secretary.

5. I blog anonymously so that I can write freely about chosen subjects while minimizing the very small, but actual, risk of physical violence. I wrote a post about a white supremacist turned judicial candidate who lives in the next town over, in the neighborhood where I grew up. I thought it was a worthwhile and important thing to write about. But given the choice between not writing about it at all, or writing about it under my real name and exposing my (non-white) kids to even a small chance of retaliation, I probably would have chosen not to write it at all. One of our posts about race here drew a visit from a white supremacist who has been indicted for threats against a juror. The danger of physical violence is small, but it exists.

6. Anonymous blogging provides an additional level of protection against SLAPP suits and other legal harassment. I have not made any knowingly false statements of fact about anyone here. I believe I have not made any recklessly false statements of fact about public figures or negligently false statements of fact about private ones. However, as a litigator and a consumer of news about SLAPP suits, I know that people who write harsh things about thin-skinned and self-righteous people get hit with frivolous law suits all the time. It's entirely possible that someone like Matt Ivester (whose name, Googled, returns a #1 hit for this blog) will file a frivolous lawsuit against me. Anonymity makes that marginally harder.

II. Why Anonymous Blogging Is Acceptable

I wouldn't blog anonymously if I thought it were indefensible.

I won't go into the long history of anonymous advocacy in this country; I don't deserve a comparison to the people who figure prominently in that history. But anonymous commentary is nothing new.

Here's why I think that anonymous blogging — at least the way we do it here, and the way most bloggers do it — is cool. A lot of it has to do with how different actual anonymous blogging is from the caricature of anonymous blogging put forth by critics.

1. Blogging is link-and-fact based. When I disagree with somebody — or bash them or ridicule them — my work has to stand on its own merits, with such supporting evidence as I link to. I'm not blogging by saying "Richard Warman, infamous censor of Canada, is a bad person because I saw him performing an unnatural act upon an unwilling opossum in the Arby's drive-through." I'm not claiming knowledge as a secret witnesses or anonymous tipster. I'm commenting on information equally available to everyone else. Critics of anonymous blogging try to compare it to a whispering campaign or anonymous sources or unsigned notes accusing a victim of misconduct, but blogging is not like that. A person comes here, they read my post, and they either find the arguments I make supported by logic and reason and the evidence I link to, or they don't. My identity doesn't enter into it.

2. Critics complain that anonymous people can bash with impunity. But while that might be true of people who act by email or comments on other blogs, it isn't really true of bloggers. "Ken at Popehat" can get a reputation on the internet for being unfair, untrustworthy, or prejudiced just as quickly as Ken RealName can. On a net driven by links and Google, if I behave in a way that people find reprehensible, they can spread their views of me just as easily as I can spread my views of my subjects. Bloggers obviously want people to read their work, and are concerned with the reputation of their work. Everyone who has read political blogs knows that some writers become notorious based on instances of misconduct (plagiarism, sock puppetry, unhinged abuse, stupid arguments, etc.).

3. We provide as close to an open forum as we can consistent with excluding pure trolls and marketers. I've never deleted a response from a non-crazy non-troll who wanted to address the substance of a post. I link to posts disagreeing with and critiquing mine. If someone emailed me a defense of conduct I had blogged about, I would print it here.

4. Finally, to me there is an element of adolescent schoolyard puffery to the you-must-blog-under-your-own-name school of thought. The underlying ethos seems to be one of cinematic masculinity — "say that to my face if you are going to say it," and so on. Why should I respect such an ethos? This is not a schoolyard. And this is not court. No one has a right to confront the person ridiculing him on the internet. We're supposed to be a society that settles things through laws and words, not fists. If I've written something about someone that is illogical or unfair or rude or cruel, the internet offers infinite opportunities for that person and his supporters to rebut me in kind. The sentiment that I must criticize, if at all, under my own name seems to be an argument for empowering people to make real-world threats. Moreover, it seems to be a plea for an opportunity to make ad hominem arguments — in fact, just the sort of ad hominem arguments about law professors that Whelan resorted to as part of his outing.

But as I said, the day someone outs me, I'll take my lumps and accept the social consequences of what I've written here.

III. Why I Think Whelan's Action Is Worthy of Contempt

Let me be clear: Ed Welan had every legal right to do what he did. Publius has no right to be free from private individuals using their investigation skills to suss out his ability.

But there are plenty of things one may do legally that make one an ass, and worthy of scorn.

Ed Whelan's reasons for outing Publius strike me as petty and self-involved. Whelan got exercised over some law wonkery; he didn't like Publius making fun of him for what Publius saw as Whelan's fumbling of an argument about Supreme Court nominee and Judge Sotomayor. Whelan feels that Publius' attacks on his advocacy and writing and logic were unfair. He may well be right. But the way he framed it is revealing:

Exposing an Irresponsible Anonymous Blogger [Ed Whelan]

One bane of the Internet is the anonymous blogger who abuses his anonymity to engage in irresponsible attacks. One such blogger who has been biting at my ankles in recent months is the fellow who calls himself “publius” at the Obsidian Wings blog.

Look, Ed, you're not talking someone through an emergency tracheotomy over the phone here. You're blogging. You're offering your personal views on political issues. You're one of ten thousand voices of varying volumes and varying quality doing so, in an environment that remains dominated by lolcats and spam about Paris Hilton's vagina. I can see calling Jenny McCarthy an irresponsible blogger if she blogged about how people should avoid vaccinating their kids. If my co-blogger Ezra joins some local revolutionary collective and starts posting bomb recipes with sloppy English-to-metric measurements, that would be irresponsible blogging. If Patrick starts telling people to eat jars of mayonnaise that have been left out in the sun because that's what the Tarheels do, that would be irresponsible blogging. But if someone talks shit about you because they think your political views are poorly thought out, disingenuous, or offensive, that is not "irresponsible blogging" unless you are monumentally self-involved and self-important. That's the internet. The body politic will suffer no perceptible wound because someone has dissed Ed Whelan anonymously.

Whelan disagrees. He poses, as if by outing a critic he has put a mad dog down in the street for the good of the community. This is insufferable hubris, frankly. It also strikes me as petty and small. Identifying Pubius by name does nothing to rebut Publius' arguments, to the extent he has any. It only serves to lash out in anger at the source of the arguments. It's the ultimate ad hominem response.

Based on the reception so far, I suspect that Ed Whelan will carry this incident as an asterisk by his name for the foreseeable future — at least in the environment in which he writes.

Others who have written about this, and whose writing I have found useful, even if I have not agreed with it, listed in the order they are in my cache: Scott Greenfield, Jesse Taylor, John Amato, Eugene Volokh, Jonathan Adler, Ron Coleman, Will at League of Ordinary Gentlemen, Walter Olson, Michael Krauss, Mark Thompson.

Update 6/8: Whelan apologizes, and Publius accepts.

Last 5 posts by Ken White

15 Comments

14 Comments

  1. Jdog  •  Jun 9, 2009 @4:55 am

    You'll be relieved, I know, to know that I approve of your choice of anonymity. That important issue out of the way …

    … from the POV of a member of your audience, there are some stories you get to write that I wouldn't get to read if you weren't anonymous — some of the client stuff, for example. You don't, obviously, have the right to embarrass or otherwise disadvantage the clients you've signed up to protect the interests of, and as long as you're sufficiently anonymous that they can't be identified by themselves or others, you get to write about them as you please. I've watched other blawgers be very, very careful when they tiptoe near client issues — as they should, of course — but you don't have to tiptoe; you can just put on fluffy bunny slippers and stomp about as you please, not leaving tracks back to them.

  2. Dawn  •  Jun 9, 2009 @5:51 am

    I agree that people should be allowed to blog anonymously. I think "outing" someone is vile. While I have normal, human curiosity, I have never tried to find out who an anonymous blogger is. As for threatening someone, that's even worse in my mind. I agree with Jdog. As long as you don't identify your clients in any way, you should be able to write about them.

  3. E.D. Kain  •  Jun 9, 2009 @7:08 am

    Well done. It's funny, though, that it's even really that much of an issue. I mean, like I keep saying – this is blogging we're talking about. Tons of people blog with pseudonyms. It's the medium we work with and so far it's suited everyone fine.

  4. Linus  •  Jun 9, 2009 @7:29 am

    Ken, excellent post, as always. I do think, if possible, you underestimate the degree of the schoolyard that is present in the current fight, and most of the pro-Whelan commentary. There's no public policy reason that someone offering opinions must be named, the way, say, a witness to a crime must be identified (you've already pointed this out). You can't tell me that having his real name attached will make Publius more "responsible" with his opinions (whatever the hell that's supposed to mean); it'll just make him shut up about certain things that he would otherwise have commented on. That's good public policy? Stifling of debate? I'm predisposed to agree with Whelan about lots of things, but this is just a whack in the back of the head.

    And yes, Linus is not my real name, for all the reasons Ken mentioned in his post.

  5. Ron Coleman  •  Jun 9, 2009 @8:11 am

    I think anonymous blogging, unless it's about knitting or pottery, is — while not vile — borderline contemptible.

    I understand it. I comprehend it. I see the rationalization behind it. And some of my favorite bloggers, including Ken, are anonymous bloggers. I don't hold them in contempt for it, personally.

    But more or less along the lines of what I said in the essay I linked to in my post on this topic, I think one of the fundamentals of participating in a discussion, and especially when such discussion has the quality of criticism of another's work, livelihood or honor, is in fact accountability. I don't know why we're so dismissive of this — "Look, Ed, you’re not talking someone through an emergency tracheotomy over the phone here. You’re blogging. You’re offering your personal views on political issues. "

    Well, that cuts both ways, doesn't it? Ken, you write:

    But if someone talks shit about you because they think your political views are poorly thought out, disingenuous, or offensive, that is not “irresponsible blogging” unless you are monumentally self-involved and self-important. That’s the internet.

    Couldn't you just as easily have written,

    But if someone identifies you because they think you're a big hypocrite considering what you do in real life, or because you have taken the exact other side of that issue under another name on another blog, or because, notwithstanding the limitations of the argument ad hominem, that we may not be so interested in the views of a convicted child molester who is a paid lobbyist for the North Korean government, that is not “outing” unless you are monumentally self-involved and self-important. That’s removing debate from the sterility of "it's just the Internet" and seeing what happens when you put some skin and bones on the person who's so big and tough and brave with his words when he thinks we don't know who he is, what he does and doesn't stand for, and why we should care notwithstanding his charming erudition.

    Ok, well, you couldn't just as well have written that because it's entirely different. But it is a point of view you should consider. And if someone chooses, as you do, Ken, not to accept its validity, or at least not to consider these concerns sufficiently weighty as compared to the ones you have enunciated, remember — "that's the Internet." And the other guy doesn't have to agree with your view, either.

  6. Ken  •  Jun 9, 2009 @8:31 am

    Perfectly arguable points, Ron, and you were one of the people I alluded to whom I respect and who disagree with the practice.

    A couple of comments:

    I don’t know why we’re so dismissive of this — “Look, Ed, you’re not talking someone through an emergency tracheotomy over the phone here. You’re blogging. You’re offering your personal views on political issues. ”

    I'm not sure, in retrospect, that I made myself completely clear on this point. As I understood him, when he complained about "irresponsible blogging," Whelan was talking about content, not (or not only) anonymity. And the content he was complaining about was somebody criticizing his public writing on a public issue. To me, referring to that as "irresponsible" involves taking oneself — and the process of writing about political issues on the internet — entirely too seriously. I find it hard to understand how it's reasonable to call someone irresponsible if they unfairly ridicule my exposition of my political views, whether they are anonymous or not, because my spouting off about my political views just isn't very important. Nor, despite his NRO byline, is Whelan's. In other words, it's more a point about how we view what we are doing here than it is a point about anonymity.

    You suggest that I could have written:

    But if someone identifies you because they think you’re a big hypocrite considering what you do in real life, or because you have taken the exact other side of that issue under another name on another blog, or because, notwithstanding the limitations of the argument ad hominem, that we may not be so interested in the views of a convicted child molester who is a paid lobbyist for the North Korean government, that is not “outing” unless you are monumentally self-involved and self-important. That’s removing debate from the sterility of “it’s just the Internet” and seeing what happens when you put some skin and bones on the person who’s so big and tough and brave with his words when he thinks we don’t know who he is, what he does and doesn’t stand for, and why we should care notwithstanding his charming erudition.

    One could certainly make those arguments. I don't happen to find them persuasive, because as I said, I think they have the whiff of schoolyard values about them. Even your words — "so big and tough and brave" — allude to those values. Isn't the implication, on some level, "you wouldn't say that to my face, because I would beat you up?" In this instance, isn't the explicit message "now I can try to prevent you from getting tenure based on the content and tone of things you wrote on the internet about politics?" Are those values that we ought to respect?

    I think a somewhat better argument for outing can be made when someone is writing one thing anonymously and conducting themselves in the opposite way in public. Is this such a case? It seems that Whelan's argument about Publius' identity, reduced to its essence, is that law professors are liberal and therefore their political views should be disregarded. Does that contribute in any substantive way to the debate on the issue of Sotomayor's nomination, which was the original subject?

    Ok, well, you couldn’t just as well have written that because it’s entirely different. But it is a point of view you should consider. And if someone chooses, as you do, Ken, not to accept its validity, or at least not to consider these concerns sufficiently weighty as compared to the ones you have enunciated, remember — “that’s the Internet.” And the other guy doesn’t have to agree with your view, either.

    I do consider the viewpoint, Ron, even if I disagree with it. I consider it more seriously because smart and serious people advocate it in one form or another. And as I said, if someone outs me (hopefully not the white supremacists linked in the post, please), I will accept the social consequences of my words. Of course the other guy doesn't have to agree with me.

    I appreciate your thoughtful dissent.

  7. Linus  •  Jun 9, 2009 @12:19 pm

    "But if someone identifies you because they think you’re a big hypocrite considering what you do in real life, or because you have taken the exact other side of that issue under another name on another blog, or because, notwithstanding the limitations of the argument ad hominem, that we may not be so interested in the views of a convicted child molester who is a paid lobbyist for the North Korean government, that is not “outing” unless you are monumentally self-involved and self-important."

    In each of those cases, a case can be made that the "who" has something to do with the weight we should give their opinion. How is that true of Publius? How is it true of most pseudonymous blogging? I mean, with Ken, are you going to out him, just to make sure he really is a lawyer, and really has a client who doesn't understand percentages, because unless you can verify it, it's not the greatest object lesson in the world? (It is.) Let's be honest- the vast majority of the time, all it really does is satisfy your curiosity, and doesn't add anything to the substance.

  8. Linus  •  Jun 9, 2009 @12:22 pm

    crap, did I forget to close something?

  9. Ken  •  Jun 9, 2009 @12:24 pm

    I fixed it for you. And I won't out you. Though HTML sloppiness is irresponsible.

  10. Linus  •  Jun 9, 2009 @12:26 pm

    You know, that didn't work either, so I'll just stop.

  11. Linus  •  Jun 9, 2009 @12:27 pm

    Thank you. And thank you. And I will try to be responsible in the future. I'm even thinking of getting a fake face to put below my name.

  12. Ron Coleman  •  Jun 9, 2009 @7:00 pm

    Can we put faces below our names? How?

    I'm planning to use Ken's face!

  13. Legally UnBound  •  Jun 9, 2009 @10:59 pm

    Certainly the best explained "defense of anonymous blogging" I've seen. I was challenged this week by an anonymous commentator on my blog to reveal myself. How crazy is that.
    You can see my comments in detail at this link, so I don't cut and paste here.

    http://www.legallyunbound.com/2009/06/anonymous-150pm-ironically-demands-to.html

    Anonymity has tremendous value for the bloggosphere.
    Thanks for saying it soooo well.

  14. Patrick  •  Jun 10, 2009 @6:42 am

    Ron, you can get a "Gravatar" for use in commenting at WordPress blogs by going here:

    http://en.gravatar.com/

    This image of mine, for instance, is a "Gravatar". I quite like the caricature you use at Likelihood of Confusion.

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