Anonymity & Credibility

The following is a comment, which in turn is intended to invite your comment, on Anonymity & Credibility, by B.Z., a student at the University of Minnesota. I have chosen at this time to keep B.Z.’s identity anonymous, but perhaps it will be revealed at a later time.

B.Z. is researching the development and nature of communities on the internet, and this particular sub-project explores anonymous and pseudonymous blogging or commenting as well as other topics.

Anonymity & Credibility

Blogs are becoming increasingly influential in providing us with information, news, and opinion. For example, major news outlets increasingly report that “the blogs” have influenced major national political decisions. But are blogs and the information they provide us to be trusted and if so, to what extent? There are no set standards on the Internet, each blog, or community of blogs, can set their own, and many don’t bother having any standards or rules.

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Known Bloggers

One of the more traditional sources of news is the daily newspaper. Thirty one years ago, the Washington Post did not seem to hesitate to use information from the anonymous source nicknamed Deep Throat when covering the Watergate Breakin. (Deep Throat was later revealed to be Deputy Director of the FBI William Mark Felt, Sr.). The National Enquirer, a paper of lesser reputation than most is credited as being the first to break the news of the John Edwards sex scandal, using anonymous sources. Perhaps consumers of news assume that traditional news outlets have sufficient internal quality control that anonymously supplied information is trusted. But a blog is just some guy … or perhaps even just some dog … with access to the Internet.

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Should blogs be viewed as similar to the Wikipedia? If so, then a blog serves as a great initial starting point, but any information provided must be verified from a credible source to be taken as fact. If we don’t bother verifying this intake of information, how does that influence us, and affect our opinion? Does information saturation from unverified sources have an impact on our thinking? Should blogs have full disclosure of their contributors and sources of information if we are to take them as fact? Can you imagine a mechanism whereby an individual may remain anonymous but at the same time provide novel information in a way that carries with it whatever credibility is lost by anonymity?

Comments

  1. #1 Virgil Samms
    December 1, 2008

    Like people, some blogs are more reliable than others. When reporting information from anonymous sources, journalists frequently give some indication about quality you can expect, e.g.: “a usually reliable source,” “an anonymous source high up in the current administration,” “a senior administration official who refuses to be identified as the vide president,” “a complete idiot off the street who says he is a plumber but is not licensed as such,” and so forth.

    And so reports on what “the blogs” are doing might also contain some clues about how accurate those blogs are expected to be. I have my own litmus test for reliability: if a blog (or other source) tried to tell me that Gov. Sarah Palin had the competence and experience to be vice president, and possibly even president, then I do not consider that source to be reliable.

  2. #2 Stephanie Z
    December 1, 2008

    Hmm. Just for clarity: This is not my B.Z., who is a student at the U but has been far too busy writing about the development and influence of photographic strobe lighting to concern himself with communities on the internet.

  3. #3 B.Z.
    December 1, 2008

    Virgil:

    Thanks for posting.

    I agree with your statement, which I’ll alter slightly to be: some sources of information are more reliable than others. My questions to you are: 1) Is your own personal judgement the only tool you use to make these distinctions? 2) For the sources you consider to be “more reliable” how do you determine it to be accurate? More reliable, sure, I’ll take that. If one blog says The Flying Spaghetti Monster is the third most popular deity in America and another blog says that Pastafarianism is gaining membership I’d be more inclined to believe the latter based on personal judgement (your tool of choice). However, I wouldn’t know it to be accurate without further investigation. Therefore do you take all information you read on blogs with a grain of salt? How to you think taking in possible misinformation on a regular basis impacts you?

    -B.Z.

  4. #4 Greg Laden
    December 1, 2008

    It did not occur to me that I know two BZ’s…. what are the chances of that?

  5. #5 Stephanie Z
    December 1, 2008

    Greg, have you ever tried to figure out how many people you know? I suspect the odds are not as long as they might seem.

  6. #6 chezjake
    December 1, 2008

    One thing about *good* blogs that helps the reader arrive at a sense of accuracy/reliability is that, unlike print journalism (with the sole exception of “pundits,” whose veracity is often highly dubious), bloggers tend to freely state their opinions and ideas as well as reporting “news.” Over time, those opinions can do a great deal to help readers form an accurate judgment on a blog’s reliability.

    Another factor is that some blogs are very quick to correct their own errors or misinterpretations. Self-correction is a good indicator of reliability.

    My inclination, based on significant time reading them, is that TPM and fivethirtyeight.com are now probably more reliable than the AP, but not quite up to the NYT — yet.

  7. #7 Efogoto
    December 1, 2008

    Can you imagine a mechanism whereby an individual may remain anonymous but at the same time provide novel information in a way that carries with it whatever credibility is lost by anonymity?

    Give facts that can be checked. Doubt will remain while independent confirmation cannot be obtained.

    Should blogs have full disclosure of their contributors and sources of information if we are to take them as fact?

    Blogs aren’t facts. If the information revealed anonymously can be verified as fact, then the fact remains without the identity of the informant being known. Of course, the motivation of the informant can’t be known until their name is known, which is why people wanted to know who Deep Throat was. But Woodward and Bernstein’s investigations weren’t limited to conversations in a garage. They went out and verified the information before using it.

  8. #8 B.Z.
    December 1, 2008

    chezjake:

    Thanks for posting.

    I disagree with your your first two paragraphs.

    Both of the major local papers in my area, The Pioneer Press and The Star Tribune are almost entirely opinion. There is “news” in there to be sure, sports stats, etc. But by in large in both papers the bulk of its content (other than advertising) you are reading various peoples opinions. I trust the same to be true for all major papers. In fact, I think that is one of the major reasons they are in serious decline. Free papers (locally we have several such as City Pages) offer opinions, why pay for it?

    I do agree that if you like the way someone thinks, you tend to trust them. However, is this a good thing? What if they error and you take it as fact due to this high level of trust built up over time?

    Regarding your second paragraph: Newspapers correct their errors all the time. Not in the same issue of course. Is it better that a blog can edit it’s typo or misinformation on the fly – without the reader even knowing? A new reader may come by and not even know there was once an error.

    How do you feel reading information that you don’t know for certain to be true on a regular basis impacts your thinking?

  9. #9 chezjake
    December 1, 2008

    Oops! Forgot to include considerations of anonymity. Basically, using the same considerations as for blogs by known individuals, it’s possible to arrive at a reasonable assessment of trust in a blogger.

    Example – Despite his stated conservative leanings, I found that “the Blogging Caesar” at electionprojection.com reported facts accurately and made quite accurate projections about where the election was going.

  10. #10 B.Z.
    December 1, 2008

    Efogoto:

    Thanks for posting.

    Granted, the Watergate scandal exposure story had more going for it than a secret source, but it was a prominent part of the story (and just one example).

    Reading it at the time you might not have been 100% convinced it was fact until later.

    Back to the topic of blogs, why can’t they be (a source) of facts? Greg is an established academic expert in evolutionary theory among many other topics. Should what he says here on those topics not be taken as fact? How do you think intake of information in this manner affects your thinking?

  11. #11 Greg Laden
    December 1, 2008

    Reading it at the time you might not have been 100% convinced it was fact until later.

    There is no doubt that Deep Throat’s anonymity led a lot of people to think he did not exist, perhaps was a composite of inferences, or was a source who was making a lot of stuff up.

    Should what he says here on those topics not be taken as fact?

    Yeah! I keep telling people that!

  12. #12 Elizabeth
    December 1, 2008

    Therefore do you take all information you read on blogs with a grain of salt? How to you think taking in possible misinformation on a regular basis impacts you?

    I think you learn a particular blog/blogger’s potential and limitations. All things made of news paper paper and printed with news paper print are not the New York Times. Starting from scratch, one would have to learn the difference between the National Observer from the Wall Street Journal.

  13. #13 DK
    December 1, 2008

    *Should blogs be viewed as similar to the Wikipedia? If so, then a blog serves as a great initial starting point, but any information provided must be verified from a credible source to be taken as fact.*

    Things could be worse. Being a route to information is almost as being information itself.

  14. #14 Ramel
    December 1, 2008

    First I think that there is a big difference between anonymity and psuedonymity.
    Secondly blogs tend to form networks that give a rough approximation of peer review (for example the recent talk about anti-vaccine posts on the german science blogs), and a lot of the traffic through the smaller blogs comes from recomendations from bigger more established blogs (I started reading Bad Astronomy, and followed a couple of links to a couple of SB blogs and have been reading them regularly ever since).

  15. #15 Raul
    December 1, 2008

    Personal judgement is a filter for credibility and reliability at all times, I believe. Different newspapers, TV networks,commentaries, websites, blogs, etc., are more or less reliable depending on the experiences or knowledge I bring to them. I don’t think you can forego all your background when analyzing information. When reading blogs, I look at the blogger’s information. Even if the name remains anonymous, I look for credentials that give the blog credibility, comments on the blog written by people who seem to know what they are talking about, the number of hits the blog has. For others, these may not be sources of credibility. What makes, for example, BBC a more credible news source than FOX News? My own political views, for one. And as such, there are too many things going on in my head that at every second tell me a blog is or isn’t credible or reliable.
    Some blogs are trustworthy, some are not; and we may always disagree!

  16. #16 Anonymous
    December 1, 2008

    “First I think that there is a big difference between anonymity and psuedonymity.”

    Totally

  17. #17 the real Karl((DEEPTHROAT))Rove
    December 1, 2008

    BZ, you ask-a-lotta-qw3stionsz….

    re:”Perhaps consumers of news assume that traditional news outlets have sufficient internal quality control that anonymously supplied information is trusted.”

    It is proven that consumers will eat anything that looks like substance: WMD’s in Iraq for example( the original samples were sold to them by the US, with the consent of Congress, as per the Congressional record; Saddam destroyed those samples, as per the UN inspections reporting team; Bush was able to fool the hillbillies that these weapons were there several years after the fact, etc)…

    However, journalism today is suffering from a disease much like science: the dependency on “official sources” rather than good solid investigative reporting. At the U of MN, on a rare occasion, with an equally rare professor (Sherrie Mazingo, or Jane Kirtley for instance) you will see the difficult questions of over-reliance on official sources, and network control of information dissemination addressed, but even more rarely, the U graduates a student or two who does the hard work of this investigation method of reporting, rather than the hundreds every year who want to cover sports and entertainment; or health journalism. These topic areas are fairly neutral and ‘safe’ and exactly what make the networks $$ because ‘sponsorship is everything’–but investigative pieces are alomost routinely shunned because they take a ton of resources and a verification process that could take millions in libel$$ out of news outlet pockets.

    So the bad news is that journalists do use un-named sources from” high within the administration” etc, to a fault on important stories–to a fault because as we saw with Bush2, they masterfully manipulated the system with their leaks and other shenanigans, making fools of more than one journalist and using the all too willing media as an outlet for disinformation and outright lies (have you been following the story of the e-mails that disappeared in regards to the US attorney firings?)

    The only good news here is that the most editors and news outlets generally shun the use of ‘anonymous’ tipsters, unless it is as big as Valerie Plame, or Watergate–and even then they get it wrong sometimes.

    So the conundrum is that people turn to the blogs for both information and entertainment (sciblogs,etc), and sometimes even news(Daily Kos, etc.)

    As a pseudonymous poster to every blog I have ever posted to–only one person out there knows my identity;-0– I would like to add that what some assume is “information” presented by apparent authorities is actually often just opinionated material that *could not* be used in a nbews report, no matter how many facts are sprinkled in (any right or left leaning blog for example: lefties report on the antics of Ann Coulter, and demonize her as a right wing fop; right wing blogs take her opinions as authoritative, and factual; or the right loved Palin, whereas the left adores Hilary, and ‘report’ their antics accordingly and selectively.)

    So I personally employ the pseudonym on every blog post because it allows for me to insert oppositional thoughts and opinions into dialogues that presen5t themselves to the public as factual reportage. Why? If for no other reason than to allow the casual reader to see another opinion, or other facts.

    re:”How do you feel reading information that you don’t know for certain to be true on a regular basis impacts your thinking?”

    Answer: just ask a Fox News viewer about global warming; ask an Amy Goodman fan about the reason she was arrested…

    Ramel:”First I think that there is a big difference between anonymity and psuedonymity”

    You are wrong Ramel. For starters, a pseudonym is an actual word that becomes a factual statement, and a factual statement that can be semi-verified by those who know the person who uses the pseudonym. Second, a pseudonym is often a carefully chosen moniker designed to create certain referential basis, or other fact based inferences,leading a reader to certain conclusions before they have even read a comment, whereas posting as “Anonymous” denies the reader of a comment or a blog any point of reference at all.

    For example,a proverbial comment “discretion is the better part of valor” is an anonymous statement, made by many people, no doubt, prior to any of its historical references. No one knows who actually said it first, and thus, no one can ascertain who can be credited with it; therefore–and from a journalistic POV, I could quote it without attribution, and no need to use Qmarks.

    However, when you say “I think that there is a big difference between anonymity and psuedonymity”, I can not only attribute and quote you, Ramel, directly, but also I can lead any reader on any blog into understanding not just your POV, but also reference it to other statements you, and your pseudonym, have made.

    Anonymous, however,can only be ::possibly:: ascertained by a blog owner doing an IP check, and hoping for the # of your personal computer. Not the same at all.

  18. #18 Dunc
    December 2, 2008

    Therefore do you take all information you read on blogs with a grain of salt?

    I take all information I read from any source with at least a grain of salt. History, both ancient and modern, is replete with examples of incorrect or misleading information being promulgated by supposedly trustworthy identified sources. See, for example, Saddam’s WMDs…

  19. #19 Colin M
    December 2, 2008

    (I’m skipping reading the comments above just so that you get my thoughts mostly untouched by what others might have said. Apologies if this repeats points already made by others, though.)

    I think it all comes down to trust, which can still be built with or without anonymity, whether on some blog or a more “mainstream” news source in meatspace. Even if you’re sure of the *identity* of a writer, that has nothing to do with whether the source is *reputable*. I might come to trust a given writer based on a past track record of success. This trust is also transitive: that is, if someone I trust says that they trust someone else, I will also tend to trust that someone else — though obviously not as strongly as if I’d actually read that person’s blog for a length of time. This works in reverse as well — if Ray Comfort’s blog (which I don’t trust) is raving about how great someone else is, I’m inclined to view them in a disfavorable light.

    For the most part, I think my trust doesn’t change much based on whether the author is using a real name or a pseudonym, though obviously if the blogger is a real-life acquaintance that I already have some experience with, that trust carries over from meatspace into cyberspace. (Oddly, this blog is one of the few where I have actually met the author in meatspace, though I doubt Greg knows or remembers me at all.) On the other hand, a truly anonymous author is practically impossible to trust, because you never have any history by which to judge a truly anonymous author. (Note: I think a blogger who never reveals any sort of name but always posts to the same web site is still pseudonymous, because the common web site gives me an ability to judge trust based on past experience.)

    Other minor factors: what motivation does the author have to mislead me or others? Is the author claiming something that feels “plausible” or “extraordinary”? (Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, etc.) And since I am after all only human, I’ll admit that what seems “plausible” depends somewhat on my past beliefs — it will take more to convince me if what you’re saying doesn’t fit in with my prior beliefs.

    For what it’s worth, Bruce Schneier has written about this difference between identification and authorization in a different context (security). Identification is proving who you are to someone else — perhaps in meatspace via a valid passport or driver’s license. Authorization is the determination of which real people should be allowed to take specific actions. To use terrorists as an example, a potential terrorist might be identified perfectly (yes, this is in fact “John Doe” with passport number 012345789 and SSN 123-45-6789), but that’s completely orthogonal to authorization (“John Doe” is a terrorist and is therefore not authorized to fly on an aircraft). Many of the 9/11 hijackers had completely valid IDs — we knew who they were — but we didn’t know they were terrorists (and therefore shouldn’t have been authorized to enter an airport). If you’re interested, read his book “Beyond Fear” — there are probably certain chapters that are particularly applicable, but I don’t have the book on hand at the moment so can’t tell you which right now :)

  20. #20 Greg Laden
    December 2, 2008

    Colin: Have we met? Were you the future husband of a girl who aced my 1001 class?

    Thanks for the comment, I’m sure BZ will find this very helpful.

  21. #21 Colin M
    December 2, 2008

    Greg: yeah, that sounds about right. :) I went to a paleolithic picnic with her back in… 2000? 2001? And a couple of ethnographic film nights.

  22. #22 B.Z.
    December 2, 2008

    Hi Colin,

    Thanks for posting.

    “I think it all comes down to trust” – This seems to be the most prevalent feeling of those who responded (or something close to trust, like comfort, or like-mindedness creating a sense of trust).

    I know I tend to trust certain sources, like say, the Oxford English Dictionary. I know it has errors in it, but I take what it says as fact, or “fact enough” for my purposes. I would appear that many people do the same with bloggers that they trust. How do you think this impacts your thought process on topics? Are you influenced by bloggers you trust?

    More to the point, what do you think of the possibility that you are taking in misinformation and accepting it as fact or “fact enough” due to such trust?

    Colin: “I have actually met the author in meatspace, though I doubt Greg knows or remembers me at all.”

    Looks like you are at least half right, he appears to remember someone (could be you!)

    Best,
    -B.Z.

  23. #23 Colin M
    December 2, 2008

    “How do you think this impacts your thought process on topics? Are you influenced by bloggers you trust?”

    I am definitely influenced by bloggers I trust, in the same sense that I’m influenced by normal media sources that I trust. Specifically, yes, I am willing to believe things about the world that I haven’t directly experienced, based on the say-so of one (or a few) trusted bloggers. Of course the medium used is also important… it’s one thing to say “Michelle Bachmann is a crazy right-wing lunatic”, but it’s better if you can show me a transcript of something she said that’s crazy, and even better if that transcript matches up with other independent accounts, and better yet if you have photos or a YouTube video. Of course, any of these things can be faked, but certain things are harder to fake than others (and the more elaborate the fakery, the more likely it will get caught by someone.)

    ‘More to the point, what do you think of the possibility that you are taking in misinformation and accepting it as fact or “fact enough” due to such trust?’

    It’s definitely possible, but it’s also a risk when listening to “mainstream” news sources (for example: credulous reporting of “WMDs” in Iraq, the fact that American journalists in Iraq and elsewhere were only allowed into areas at the whim of the military, and so on). I think the chances of misinformation are higher from bloggers for at least a few reasons:

    1) there’s a greater volume of material published by bloggers than mainstream news sources (at least it seems so), so fewer eyes checking for possible errors, and it can be hard for a “retraction” to percolate through the blogosophere (ech, I hate that word)

    2) there’s a certain threshold of effort & trust that’s required to become a mainstream national reporter — at the very least, you probably have a journalism degree, previous experience in journalism, given a job interview where at least a few higher-level people agreed that you were competent, and had an editor that gave the story a cursory check (at least) before green-lighting it for publication.

    3) bloggers have much less to lose by being wrong and are therefore more likely to report information which might be false. A traditional journalist may be risking his job AND his ability to be employed in the future, while a discredited blogger may just quit blogging, or shut down his site and start a new one, or simply keep preaching to the choir who agrees with him even though he has been wrong in the past.

    I guess this is a long-winded way of saying that it’s definitely a risk, but it’s a risk I’m aware of, and obviously would like more corroboration before believing in something that’s unlikely or controversial.

    That said, I think that in the long run, blogs may have a net *positive* influence on the “correctness” of some people’s beliefs, because in the instances where mainstream reporting IS wrong, sometimes it takes a blogger to do the research and point out the mistakes. I don’t have good data on how often this actually happens, but it seems true that the more eyes (and voices) you have looking at a story, the more likely it is that any errors will be found.

Current ye@r *