Use only cowards anonymously online

"Fearless Speech" or "Cowards Anonymous": Why Commentators Should Use Their Names

Martin Weigert has sparked heated discussions with his post Identity on the Net: The Credibility Problem of Anonymous Criticism. (I came across this through Thomas Pleil and Robert Basic.)

A few sentences are certainly not enough to answer the question of whether one should communicate with anonymous commentators on the web. So far, I have rarely deleted anonymous comments myself, although I would sign Tim O'Reilly's blogger’s Code of Conduct. I have no problem using pseudonyms if there is one behind them node hidden in a network of relationships with which one can enter into a dialogue.

However, I despise people who criticize others anonymously because they do not want to reveal their identity in public. I only accept one reason for this: that their existence is threatened. I can understand that someone shuns the public out of uncertainty. But if you are afraid to show yourself, you shouldn't attack others.

Michel Foucault has in his last lectures (e.g. here) the Parrhesiawho have favourited Fearless Speech. In the Athens of the classical period that was fearless speech a right of the free, autochthonous citizens. In other, authoritarian conditions, at least political advisors had to be able to take the right to free speech in order to bring those in power to understand. Without fearless speech democracy is not possible. Those who hide themselves cannot demand transparency from others. Today the blogosphere is a place for that fearless speech. We shouldn't leave it to the Anonymous Cowards - otherwise we'll end up like (here in Austria) the Standard or ORF forums.

Sure, not everyone can talk fearlessly. Not only do indicators threaten people who express themselves freely, but also superiors and clients. Some situations force anonymity. But I think that then you have to proceed as David Barstow explained to us on our course last October when he spoke about dealing with informants who want to remain anonymous. You have to make it clear to them that anonymity is an exception and that others have to stand up for the statement. Barstow tells informants to whom he has to make it clear what their anonymity means:

I will go to jail for you!

That is pathetic — but it is similar with the anonymous commentators: those who write on their blogs take responsibility for them.

I don't want to be misunderstood: anonymity online must remain possible; it can only be prevented — if at all — through totalitarian control. And there is no free communication without playing with identities. But the discursive quality on social media — and also its political significance — depends on our understanding of the fearless speech consist.

Heinz Wittenbrink
Web teacher and blogger, living in Graz and sometimes in Dubrovnik.
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