I’m following up on my earlier post in the wake of the outing of dKos blogger Armando. At Majikthise, Lindsay Beyerstein had posted an interesting discussion of the issues around pseudonymous blogging, and whether it might sometimes be ethical to reveal the secret identity of a pseudonymous blogger. She raises lots of interesting issues about whether blogging is properly regarded as a species of journalism, and how the ethics of blogging might be related to the journalistic ethics of the “old media”. As well, Armando turns up in the comments to disagree with Lindsay’s analysis of the issues.
My read is that the disagreement between Armando and Lindsay arises from a conflation of a number of distinct questions:
- Are bloggers journalists, or are they something else?
- If bloggers are not journalists, what are their ethical obligations (e.g., to their readers)? Do they have a duty to disclose potential conflicts of interest?
- Do journalists have a duty to protect the secret identity of a blogger who wishes to blog pseudonymously?
- Does a blogger who wishes to blog pseudonymously have a right to have his or her secret identity protected (by journalists, bloggers, and others)?
There seem to be some important theoretical details to work out here, such as whether bloggers are journalists, and whether the ethics of blogging are different from traditional journalistic ethics. As well, though, there are important questions about what sorts of policies are prudent for a blogger who wishes to blog pseudonymously — regardless of the ethical obligations relevant others might have in the situation.
The big disagreement between Armando and Lindsay seems to be over whether it was ethical for the media outlet that revealed Armando’s true identity to have done so. Was Armando’s true identity newsworthy? Even if journalists had access to the relevant facts of Armado’s true identity, did they have an obligation not to report on them? Lindsay argues that there are instances in which the identity of a pseudonymous blogger may be a matter of legitimate public interest upon which journalists should be free to report.
In rare cases, the identity of a pseudonymous blogger is a legitimately newsworthy topic in its own right. For example, I think it was perfectly legitimate for bloggers to point out that the Washington Post’s erstwhile conservative blogger Ben Domenench had written some incredibly offensive stuff under the handle “Augustine.” I’m sorry that Armando of Kos got outed, but there was a real story there: Wal-Mart lawyer front pager at major liberal blog.
What makes the blogger’s identity newsworthy? Is it their level of notoreity? The fact that certain details of their blogging (e.g., being highly critical of the policies of George W. Bush) seem to be in conflict with certain details about their three-dimensional activities (e.g., being George W. Bush)? There may not be a bright line here; if there is, Lindsay and Armando disagree about where exactly it is, which I suspect means there would likely also be some journalistic disagreement about its location.
One might make an argument that it is always ethical to out a pseudonymous blogger because his or her readers have a right to know his or her true identity in order to be aware of the biases in his or her blog posts. To this way of thinking, the ethical blogger would have to out his or herself.
I disagree. The readers of a pseudonymous blog are responsible for knowing that they are unable to assess the biases of the blogger. The blogger could be anyone — someone sharing honest observations, or someone bent on manipulating readers by all manner of dishonest means. That, sometimes, is the price of protecting privacy — the privacy you’re protecting can undercut your credibility. The burden is on the readers to be critical consumers of information.
Are bloggers journalists? Some of them are pretty close, and as such they should take themselves to be bound by journalistic ethics. If they feel that old-school journalistic ethics don’t really work for blogging, blogger-citizen-journalists need to be involved in working out a code of ethics that does the job, and then in persuading other journalist bloggers to adopt this code.
But some bloggers clearly are not journalists. What they’re doing is not reporting news but … keeping a journal. Do you have an ethical obligation not to lie in your diary about what you had for breakfast on Saturday or whether you enjoyed it? Maybe — but if you fall down on this ethical obligation, it’s not going to create obvious harms for anyone else.
It would be lovely if everyone lived up to his or her ethical obligations all the time. It would also be lovely if drivers actually stopped at the stop sign on my street (do not get me started on this); however, quite regularly they do not. There is a substantial gap between “ought” and “is”. Thus, rather than trusting all the outcomes to people doing what they ought, we have to work out prudent ways to act that will minimize the damage when others fall down on the job.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you’re blogging under a pseudonym, that there is no relevant conflict of interest as far as what you’re blogging about and who you are in real life, that there is no other legitimate public interest in who you really are, and that you would prefer to keep your real identity and your blogging identity from being publicly connected. While journalists may have an ethical duty not to out you, it is possible that some might not recognize it (say, because they have a different view of what is newsworthy). Others, frankly, might not be so ethical — and even if they are wrong to out you, once your secret is revealed the damage cannot be undone. And, to complicate matters, you might be outed by someone who is not (or does not consider himself or herself to be) a journalist.
It seems to me that, to the extent that keeping your two identities separate is of value to you, you ought to take steps to keep them separate. As I commented on Lindsay’s post,
If one is committed to blogging under a pseudonym and not being outed, one has to be committed to REALLY keeping it a secret — no panels, no bios, no webpages, no comments on other blogs, NOTHING where your real identity and your blogging identity are connected.
In other words, rather than leaving all sorts of traces that connect pseudonymous-blogger you with real-life you and assuming people will be ethical enough not to act on them, you do everything you can not to leave the traces. You don’t mention your location, your educational history, your specific area of employment, your age, etc., etc., on your blog. You don’t mention your blogging on your resumé, your employer’s webpage, your public appearances, your Christmas letter, your conference name tag, your answering machine message, etc., etc.
People and corporations claiming copyrights (and tradermarks too, if I remember correctly) have to go after every infringement — even seemingly little ones — else it could be claimed that they’re not really serious about protecting their rights. In some ways, keeping your secret identity secret requires the same kind of vigor. If you’re leaving breadcrumbs that connect your pseudonymous blogging identity to your real life identity, maybe you’re not really serious about keeping the two unlinked. Indeed, given enough breadcrumbs, a reasonable person might conclude that you want your secret identity to be revealed (although, for whatever reason, you want someone other than yourself to reveal it). Otherwise, why would you leave so many clues in plain sight?
A journalist might have an ethical obligation, even in the presence of a lot of breadcrumbs, not to out you. Conceivably, though, a journalist might have a different view about whether your identity is newsworthy, and you might not be able to persuade that journalist to leave your secret alone. But plotting a prudent course here also involves recognizing that people who are not bound by journalistic ethics can find the breadcrumbs, too.
Say a webpage is created that links my true identity as Janet D. Stemwedel, assistant professor of philosophy, with my blog identity as Dr. Free-Ride. Maybe I make this link myself (because it’s an obscure webpage that I figure maybe ten other people will look at, ever). Once it’s made, the information is out there, just waiting for someone to find it. Googling someone is not the ethical equivalent of going through his or her trash; to my mind, it’s more like looking in his or her living room window as you walk by. Maybe it would be better not to look in that living room window to witness what’s going on inside, but the curtains are open! Maybe it would be nicer not to report what you saw going on in that living room to your housemates, but they asked you how your walk was — and the curtains were open!
Just because a pseudonymous blogger would prefer that the public not go satisfying its curiosity about his true identity doesn’t impose an ethical obligation on the public not to examine the clues that are out there. Even if it did, the clues are out there, the public is curious, and people don’t always live up to their ethical obligations. Counting on people suddenly to live up to their ethical obligations (and here, arguably, non-journalists might not even have the obligation not to disclose here) seems like a recipe for disappointment.