Terra Sigillata

In today’s laboratory, we will consider cases where bloggers have been involuntarily unmasked, usually with malicious intentions. This is a series of interactive posts which I hope will provide disucssion points for a session I will help to lead on blogger pseudonymity at the ScienceOnline’09 unconference in RTP, NC, USA, 16-18 January 2009.

Many bloggers choose to write under pseudonyms for personal and/or professional issues. I’ll leave my session co-chair PalMD consideration of the special issues of the pseudonymous physician blogger. Several docs I know use pseudonyms simply because they write about topics other than medicine and don’t want the Google searches by their current or prospective patients to pull up posts that might strain the doctor-patient relationship.

1. If a blogger chooses to write under a pseudonym, should they expect any respect for their choice to do so?

2. Is outing or threatening to out a pseudonymous blogger unethical?

I know that some will be disappointed that I have only described the following cases in generic terms without links and specific names. For the sake of developing content for our ScienceOnline’09 session, I’d prefer commentary on the questions for which the cases are examples. But anyone who recognizes themselves in any of the cases are free to add their own twopence if they care to.

For example, several of my blogging colleagues are vocal opponents of all things pseudoscience, from denialism of the fact that HIV causes AIDS to the anti-vaccination movement. One of my veteran blogger colleagues who writes under a pseudonym was the subject of an outing several years ago by a promoter of the fallacy that mercury in vaccines is related causally to autism. The pseudoscience enthusiast went so far as to post a photograph and academic contact information of the blogger, clearly with malicious intent. Rather than expend the effort of a scholarly discussion with the blogger, this member of the “mercury militia” expressed their anger with the science-based facts of the blogger by outing them. Even readers of the malicious blogger posted in comments that posting addresses and other contact information was going over the line.

In another case, a veteran blogger colleague was the subject of an outing that was also libelous. In this situation, the blogger was associated by their real name with an organization that advocates the legalization of sexual relations between adult males and under-aged boys. As far as I can tell, the post in question has been taken down and I can no longer find it on the Wayback Machine.

Most other cases of involuntary outing of which I am aware have generally involved malicious intent to embarrass the blogger, place them in risky positions with their employer, or otherwise encourage readers to ostracize or badger the blogger. These cases have usually involved vindictive individuals who have lost online arguments due to faulty logic and, rather than admit they are wrong, decide to threaten or harm the blogger with means outside of conventional discourse. Of course, this happens with RealName bloggers such as PZ Myers and Kathy Sierra, both of whom have been the recipients of death threats. No wonder some bloggers choose to remain pseudonymous.

Another case involved a pseudonymous blogger who made a generalization the attitudinal attributes of an entire medical specialty based upon a news report of an egregious act of one physician. Some physician bloggers, and a couple of non-medical bloggers, took umbrage at this generalization as an insult to fellow bloggers and medical students. One blogger went so far as to threaten to out the blogger and warned the blogger publicly that they had no control over any readers who might care to out the blogger because it is so easy to do so. To the offending blogger’s credit, they apologized publicly for the generalization in a subsequent post. Those of you who read contentious blogs will recognize that apologizing for the content of a previous post is a rather uncommon occurrence. However, the apology was deemed insufficient by the offended blogger who again warned the apologetic blogger publicly that there was a risk that their identity could be easily determined and that their job might be in jeopardy as a result.

That particular situation troubled me greatly because it involved a potentially career-modifying threat toward one blogger by another, even after what I objectively viewed as a genuine apology. That row also involved two general biomedical factions of which I am quite fond, personally and professionally. Moreover, the vindictive or malicious outing of a blogger is more often associated with the unhinged or unscientific extreme elements.

One final consideration is that RealName bloggers in some cases hold pseudonymous bloggers in lesser regard than themselves (an impression of mine, no hard data). However, I am aware that at least one RealName blogger has a policy of not linking to or responding to pseudonymous bloggers.

To this I add the following questions:

3. Do readers and the blogging community have an ethical responsibility to respect blogger pseudonymity?

4. Are RealName bloggers justified in demanding the identity of pseudonymous bloggers?

5. Do pseudonymous bloggers have any ethical responsibilities to readers or other bloggers?

I apologize in advance for the number of questions but I found that all five are interrelated. Please feel free to give your input on one or more of these.

[P.S. I wrote this last night and this morning before I saw PalMD posted late last night on The Ethics of Blog Anonymity - sorry chief, but I think we at least have a decent Venn diagram of coverage of this issue.]

[P.P.S. I also missed DrugMonkey's post last night, On a Blogger's Responsibility to Anonymous Commenters - that's what I get for wanting to spend time with PharmGirl and PharmKid - it's a great post that takes a swing at the fact bloggers often have some information about you]

[P.P.P.S. - Finally, I hope, my personal mentor and spiritual advisor, Prof Janet Stemwedel, put up a post 8 min after this one was scheduled: Why would anybody want to blog under a pseudonym?]

Comments

  1. #1 Comrade PhysioProf
    October 22, 2008

    Another case involved a pseudonymous blogger who made a generalization the attitudinal attributes of an entire medical specialty based upon a news report of an egregious act of one physician.

    This is not correct. The making of the generalization in that blog post was triggered by the news report; it was grounded in a much broader range of knowledge and personal experience.

    To the offending blogger’s credit, they apologized publicly for the generalization in a subsequent post.

    This is also not correct. All that was apologized for was the tone of the generalization and the breadth of its scope.

    In re-reading the post, I see that it was written in a way that was overly hyperbolic and generalized even for PhysioProf.

    * * *

    I do see an issue with paternalism, arrogance, and omnipotence in the profession, and I do not see the behavior of this surgeon as being solely attributable to a “lone bad actor”. Bad acts occur in a context, and I believe that to at least some extent, the medical profession includes a context that makes bad acts like this one more likely.

  2. #2 PalMD
    October 22, 2008

    Hmmm…this ain’t my blog, but I was kinda hoping this would stay sorta non-specific, not only for personal reasons but because generalization of certain scenarios can be a useful tool.

  3. #3 Abel Pharmboy
    October 22, 2008

    CPP, I stand corrected on the specifics – that’s what I get for paraphrasing situations and not linking to or even reading old posts before writing this one.

    My bigger question, and in support of generalized scenarios to which PalMD alludes, is whether pseudonymous bloggers should have their identities respected even when conversations grow contentious.

  4. #4 Dr. Free-Ride
    October 22, 2008

    I think the key question here would be, is the real identity of the pseudonymous blogger at all germane to the contentious conversation, or would outing him/her primarily function to make the person with whom s/he is contending feel good (by hurting an opponent or whatever)?

    If a pseudonymous blogger is claiming that Yoo Hoo is the best chocolate beverage ever while, in real life, being an employee or major shareholder in Yoo Hoo, there’s a clear conflict of interest. In a perfect world, the blogger would disclose it to his/her readers. In the world we have now, someone else might be more likely to step up to protect the Yoo Hoo booster’s readers.

    Trying to cause personal harm when you’re unable to answer the substance of a post, however, is a pretty weak maneuver. If the facts (and logic and that crowd) are on your side, outing the guy with the ‘nym is totally unnecessary, and doing it just makes you a jerk.

  5. #5 Abel Pharmboy
    October 23, 2008

    Not to get off-topic here, Dr Free-Ride, but Yoo-hoo *is* the best chocolate beverage evah!!! This has nothing at all to do with the fact that PharmMom and PharmDad held five or ten shares of Yoo-hoo stock in the 1960s-70s or the fact that a major manufacturing plant was in the next town over, nor that one of my Yankees/Mets heroes, Yogi Berra, was spokesperson for this fine beverage. A preserved chocolate milk product was revolutionary for its time and I believe that the formula and technique preceded both of us. But now that the new owners have done stuff like put pomegranate in a chocolate beverage is just morally and ethically wrong.

    Trying to cause personal harm when you’re unable to answer the substance of a post, however, is a pretty weak maneuver. If the facts (and logic and that crowd) are on your side, outing the guy with the ‘nym is totally unnecessary, and doing it just makes you a jerk.

    That pgh is pretty much nails the essence of the current topic. Thanks for the thoughtful comments and the trip down memory lane.

    But tell me, does “jerk” actually ever appear in the scholarly literature of science ethics?

  6. #6 Dr. Free-Ride
    October 23, 2008

    But tell me, does “jerk” actually ever appear in the scholarly literature of science ethics?

    Actually, it does, at least once.

  7. #7 MitoScientist
    October 23, 2008

    Something to think about is that many pseudonym bloggers also have blogs where they use their real names. If real name bloggers want to look down on them, then they should perhaps keep in mind that possibility. Physicians especially seem like they would need to keep their opinions separate (relatively) from writing that has their real accolades to back it up. Everybody needs to get stuff off their chest, but can’t always do so when they are definitively tied to a major academic/commercial institution.

  8. #8 Joe
    October 24, 2008

    Although I don’t like to philosophize, I will take a stab:

    3. Do readers and the blogging community have an ethical responsibility to respect blogger pseudonymity?

    I think the question turns more on etiquette than ethics. That example of libel, you cited, is neither, it is a legal problem.

    4. Are RealName bloggers justified in demanding the identity of pseudonymous bloggers?

    On the basis that one attacks the argument, not the person, I think not.

    5. Do pseudonymous bloggers have any ethical responsibilities to readers or other bloggers?

    I think one can subscribe to ethical responsibilities, I don’t think we can impose them. For example, traditional professions (e.g., law, medicine) swear to abide by ethical codes, infractions can end a career (delicensing). Other people in recognized professions (e.g., auto mechanics, house painters) have an obligation to do good work; but they only risk loss of potential customers if they don’t live up to it. I think blogging is in the latter category.

    As for “outing” people with a conflict of interest, that category seems pretty broad. A politician could have a racist blog, or a science educator could promote young-Earth creationism. They deserve to be outed as much as the one with financial interests.

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