The Huffington Post has recently announced that it is going to bring in a policy of only allowing commenters on its posts who use their real names. The idea, as I understand it, is to cut down on abusive comments and trolling – but from my perspective the policy is not only highly unlikely to be effective but it is short sighted and ultimately counter-productive. Indeed, ‘real names’ policies like this are likely to be deeply detrimental to free speech in any really meaningful form. Real names policies work, to a great extent, to help the powerful against the vulnerable, to exacerbate existing power imbalances and to further marginalise and alienate those who are already on the fringes. It is a huge subject, far bigger than I can do full justice to here, but these are some of the reasons that I think the Huffington Post – and anyone else who instigates a real names policy – are fundamentally wrong in their approach.
Making links to the real world
Real names can help to make a link from the online world to the ‘real’ world – indeed, that’s really the point, if you want to make people ‘accountable’ for their comments. If you have any kind of vulnerability in the ‘real’ world that can be very bad news. Anything you do online can emphasise that vulnerability – and put you at real risk. The risks are different for different people, but they’re real. For many of those people, the risks may well be sufficient to silence them completely – and it’s not just the ‘obvious’ people who might be silenced. There are many different groups who might need some degree of anonymity – these are just a few of the possibilities.
The role of the whistleblower has come under huge scrutiny recently – Obama’s apparent ‘war on whistleblowers’ has been hugely criticised. Whistleblowers in most forms would be crushed by the need to provide real names. The organisations about which they are blowing the whistle will find it much easier to find them and silence them – or worse. It is already very risky to be a whistleblower: requiring real names makes it far more dangerous
2) People in positions of responsibility
In some ways related to whistleblowers are those whose positions of responsibility would be compromised if their real names came out. Doctors, police officers, soldiers, teachers, social workers and so forth are just some of these – and they are people who can often give invaluable insight to important things in our society. Perhaps the best known online example was the Nightjack blogger – a police insider who provided a brilliant blog, winning the Orwell Prize for blogging in 2009. NIghtjack gave a warts-and-all portrayal of the life of a policeman, something he could not possibly have done if he had been forced to use his real name. Indeed, when, via illegal email hacking by a Times Journalist as it turned out (see David Allen Green’s piece here), his name was revealed, his blog was silenced. There are many others – yesterday one of the people I know on twitter reminded me that when they were operating as a prison chaplain they could not possibly have blogged or tweeted under their real name.
3) People with problematic pasts.
It’s not immediately obvious, but some people like to – and need to – operate online to escape a problematic past. Something they have done, or something that has happened to them, whether it be merely embarrassing or far more serious, could ‘catch up with them’ if they operate using their real name. This isn’t about rewriting history – it’s about being a able to make a fresh start. By enforcing a real names policy you deny them this opportunity.
4) People with enemies
This doesn’t just mean the kind of person you read about in thrillers or see on TV detective stories – it means people who have been stalked, it means people who have had arguments with former colleagues, it means people who have caused ‘trouble’ at work, or against whom someone has just taken a dislike. It might just be people with problematic neighbours. Forcing any of them to reveal their real names helps their enemies find them.
5) People with complex or delicate issues
The most obvious of these is sexuality – if we lived in a world where people did not get abused for their sexuality it would be great, but we don’t. For some people exploring whether or not they might be gay is a huge and delicate issue – and they wouldn’t even dare ask the questions they really need to ask if they were forced to reveal their real names. Sexuality is far from the only area where this kind of issue can raise its head – religion, politics, even such things as vegetarianism or liking particular kinds of music can be things that make people sensitive. Force real names and you stop them being explored.
6) People living under ‘oppressive’ regimes.
This much should be obvious – and it’s far from surprising that the Chinese government is a staunch supporter of real names policies, and has gone so far as to legislate in that direction. Express a dissenting opinion and you will be hunted down. However, as recent events have suggested, it’s not just the obvious regimes that might be seen as oppressive – and regimes change, and not just for the better. Put a real names policy in place under a relatively benign government, and a subsequent, more dictatorial regime will be able to use it.
7) People who might be involved in protest or civil disobedience
With protests in the UK about the badger cull looming, this issue will no doubt come to the fore. Already an injunction has been brought in to try to block most of the protests, and the government has announced that it is going to scan social media to try to ‘head off’ protests – and if people involved in protest have to use their real names in their online activities it will be far easier for the authorities to find them and crack down. For me, protest is a fundamental part of democracy. Already it is much more limited than it should be - and real names policies can curtail it still further.
8) Young people
The position for young people is complex. One of the characteristics of the life of young people is that there are other people in positions of power over them, whether they be parents, teachers or others. That makes you more vulnerable – if your teachers or parents find out that you’re saying things or asking things that they don’t approve of, you can be in trouble, or worse. It also makes it easier for people to disregard or override your views – you’re only a kid, your views aren’t worth listening to. The internet allows a degree of this prejudice to be overcome – people can be judged by what they say, not by how old they are. Real names policies suppress young voices.
It would be great if women were not likely to be targeted for abuse, but as recent events have shown this is far from the case. It would also be great if all women were ‘strong’ enough not to worry about the risk of being abused, but some aren’t, and none should need to be. For some women, a way out of this – temporary, many might hope – is to use pseudonyms that don’t necessarily reveal their sex. This kind of a tactic can really help in some situations – and preventing it can silence some crucial voices.
10) Victims of spousal abuse
A special and particularly nasty case of this is that of victims of spousal abuse – people whose partners or ex-partners are violent or abusive often want to track down their victims. If people are forced to reveal their real names, they can be tracked down far more easily – with devastating consequences.
11) People with religious or ethnic names
Forcing people to reveal their names can force them to reveal much more about themselves than might be immediately obvious – it can reveal or at least suggest your ethnicity or religion amongst other things. That can make you a target – and it can also mean that what you say is viewed with prejudice, ignored or abused. Real names policies make it much harder for people in that kind of position to be heard.
12) People with a reputation
Sometimes you don’t want to be judged by who you are, but by what you say – and this can work in many different directions. ‘Give a dog a bad name’ is one part of it – but it can work the other way too. JK Rowling was recently justifiably angry when it was revealed that she was the author of a detective story under a pseudonym – she wanted the novel to be judged for what it was, not because she was the author. That’s a dramatic example, but the point is much deeper – when you want to test out your views it can really help to write them anonymously.
13) People needing an escape from difficult or stressful lives.
In the current climate, this means a great many of us – we want to separate our online lives, at least to an extent, from our real lives. It is a liberating feeling, and can help provide relief from stress, and a chance to do something different. Again, this is crucial to real free speech.
14) Vulnerable people generally
There are so many kinds of vulnerability that it’s hard to even scratch the surface – and any kind of vulnerability can make you feel at risk of being ‘exposed’. That chills speech. It doesn’t have to be ‘serious’ to have the effect – even without an obvious vulnerability many people just feel more comfortable speaking out without fear of ‘showing’ themselves.
The risks and rewards of anonymity
Of course there are risks with allowing anonymity and pseudonymity – and there are some hideous anonymous trolls and abusers online – but there have to be other ways to deal with them. Better ways, with less of a chilling effect on free speech.
It’s easy from a position of power or privilege to think real names policies will work. I use my own real name online – but I’m in a position to do so. I’m safe, secure, privileged and lucky enough to have a job and an employer that supports me in this way. I have a feeling that many of those advocating real names policies are in similar positions – they lose nothing and risk nothing by revealing their real names. Not all people are in such fortunate positions. Indeed, many of those whose voices we most need to hear are not in that kind of a position – the categories I’ve outlined above are just some of the possibilities. Going for a ‘real names’ policy will silence those key voices.
On top of all of this, from my perspective, we have a right to create, assert and protect the identities we use online – and that, amongst other things, means we have a right to pseudonymity. The Internet offers us the opportunity to bring that right to bear. It’s what makes Twitter a livelier place to debate than Facebook – well, one of the things. If you want real debate, and real free speech, you need that liveliness. You need to let those who need pseudonymity find voices for themselves. Real names policies deny them this opportunity.
I hope the Huffington Post reconsider their position – and, more importantly, I hope that other groups don’t follow their lead.