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Wednesday, June 01, 2011

There is nothing heroic about using an anonymous Twitter account to attack your enemies

There is nothing heroic about using an anonymous Twitter account to attack your enemies

By Brendan O'Neill, Politics Last updated: June 1st, 2011

As something of a free-speech fundamentalist, who believes no one should ever be punished for what they say or believe, I instinctively winced when I heard that South Tyneside council had taken legal action against Twitter to force it to reveal the true identity of one “Mr Monkey”. This mischievous monkey had been using his Twitter account to attack his employers and expose their alleged shortcomings. Likewise, Ryan Giggs’ lawyers have looked into the possibility of forcing Twitter to reveal the details of those who tweeted about his alleged affair with Imogen Thomas. Commentators are right to argue that these cases could set a worrying precedent, opening Twitter up to prying and potentially squishing the spirit of the new social-networking spaces.

However, I can’t be the only person who doesn’t consider Mr Monkey to be a free-speech hero, a brave warrior for truth and goodness. Reading some of the coverage of this case, where words like “Orwellian” have been used to describe South Tyneside’s actions and Mr Monkey is referred to as some kind of righteous whistleblower, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is a straightforward case of one man speaking truth to power and being punished for having done so. It is no such thing. There is nothing heroic about attacking your employers or your enemies or your political opponents anonymously, launching 140-character assaults on them before scurrying back behind the cloak of invisibility afforded by a site like Twitter. In fact, that is an act of moral cowardice, which immediately calls into question the reliability of what you are saying, and even your motivations.

People say we must defend anonymity online. But why? Of course, Joe Average should be free to go online, post photos, chat, tweet and interact without ever having his collar felt or his IP address stolen by a powerful organisation. But when you engage in a real public debate, when you make statements about public institutions or public figures which you claim to have some important knowledge of, then anonymity becomes problematic. You should have the courage of your convictions. If what you are saying is true, and you believe its publication to be right and proper, you should unveil yourself and take the rap for your statements. If you don’t do that, then there’s no reason we should take what you have to say seriously, or even take you as an individual seriously. As Paul Horwitz argues in Speech and Silence in American Law, which examines the interplay between anonymity and the US Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of speech: ‘By cloaking himself in anonymity, [the speaker] signals his unwillingness to incur any costs for his speech.’ That is, he’s potentially a coward; certainly he can be judged less reliable and more suspect than those who are willing to state things openly.

Some have argued that the right to remain anonymous on Twitter and elsewhere on the web (such as in the comment section of these blogs) is akin to the right of journalists to keep their sources secret. But there’s no comparison. An article that quotes from anonymous sources will still have a journalist’s byline and will have been nodded through by an editor. We trust that these named individuals know who the anonymous source is and can attest to his or her reliability. But purely anonymous Twitterers and bloggers could be anybody. There’s no reason we should take them seriously, and every reason to wonder about their honesty and trustworthiness.

Those fighting for “the right to tweet anonymously” are really demanding the right to behave like a schoolchild, to be free to do the modern-day equivalent of scrawling “Mr Higgins is a paedo” on the toilet wall without ever having to account for themselves. But freedom, true freedom, is about more than acting instinctively – it is also about having the cojones to take responsibility for your actions and to face down those who challenge or threaten you. In the balance of things, yes people should be free to tweet and blog and write anonymously if they want to – but there’s no reason the rest of us should believe what they say or indulge their warped fantasies about being brave whistleblowers.

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1 comment:

James Higham said...

There is nothing heroic about attacking your employers or your enemies or your political opponents anonymously...

There is when that enemy has a big stick with which to beat you to a pulp.