The Problem with Pseudonymity

I really want to get a post out at some point in the near future discussing the heavy parallels between the online atheist/skeptic communities’ current misogyny imbroglio, and the nearly identical one happening presently in the online video game community. There’s a lot to chew on though, and my writing time (and energy) has been severely limited lately by a bad combination of work and life interfering heavily with blogospherics. That might be a while in the making.

Others, however, are striking blows for the side of the angels in both communities, including this excellent post calling on men to “man up” and stop the misogyny in our communities — because without male participation in the initiative to end male-on-female harassment, we ain’t going to get very far.

However, for all its good, there are a number of very problematic aspects to this post. Notwithstanding the buying into the “boy”/”man” dichotomy, rigid gender roles for men, etc., the author of this piece, Ernest W. Adams, makes an absolutely monumental error that needs addressing. One that exposes that he has engaged the same sort of magical thinking Google engaged in when building their no-pseudonymity policy on Google+. This error is that attaching your real name (or a real-sounding name) to your account will somehow provide a prophylactic effect against online harassment and cyber-bullying — preventing it from happening in the first place.

This is categorically not the case.

Pseudonymity is an incredibly useful tool when you are in an unprivileged position. People whose names cannot be associated with facts about their privilege that are invisible — e.g., where they fall on the Klein grid, their religious or political affiliation, their socio-economic status, et cetera — need a way to find community with others like themselves online without potentially exposing themselves to prejudice in meatspace while controlling the dissemination of that information. In many cases, outing yourself while using your real name could have real-world repercussions. If you live someplace where some aspect of your personhood is illegal, or could cause you financial or emotional burdens if others knew, you might need to “pass” as a member of the majority. Finding an outlet on the internet where your pseudonymity protects you can in some cases be the only emotional stress release available to you as a member of that underprivileged group.

The Internet is a subset of reality, and not its own un-reality. Things that happen online can, and do, have real repercussions in the so-called “real world” every single day. It is no special feat to recall incidents where people have crossed the line from disagreement online, to posting information about their personal or work life in hopes that anonymous agents on the internet would use that information to make a person’s meatspace life hell in petty revenge. And it is no difficult endeavour to come up with times when someone posting things online, with their real names, have said something that their workplace did not like and who have clamped down on their freedom to say those things online. In some (rare) cases, these are fully justified — employees of universities being made to retract bigoted, unevidenced or slanderous statements that reflect poorly on their patron institution, for instance. In many cases, people are cowed into silence on topics on which they have every justification for saying what they do, like environmental scientists being hushed by the Canadian government for instance.

Pseudonymity is oftentimes the only way for certain pieces of information to reach the public sphere without unduly burdening the person who needs to disseminate them. Those pieces of information can be relevant only to the person, or relevant to the parties interested in suppressing the speech. Pseudonymity is therefore an invaluable tool. But it does not come without its costs. Trolls, bigots, and astroturfers, among other classes of the internet’s rogues’ gallery, all employ pseudonymity heavily to ensure that the bar to posting terrible things about people or odious disinformation campaigns about topics is as low as possible.

Software exists to make it incredibly easy to manage multiple internet identities, cultivating actual personas that users employ to wage their disinformation campaigns over extended periods of time — often even seeding them with a backstory and a history of internet usage that spans months or years before the account is ripe to be used to wage a campaign against some particular person or idea. This software can build dozens of distinct accounts coming from distinct IPs globally, and a single person can manage them all and look like dozens of supporters for Product X that was recently discovered to cause cancer in babies, or to work up a smear campaign for Politician Y that seems grassroots but was seeded entirely with lies. They use pseudonymity to facilitate these campaigns.

And some people simply use pseudonymity to protect their meatspace identities from the fact that they engage in terribly antisocial, bigoted, intellectually bereft activities on the internet that they couldn’t possibly get away with doing in real life. Activities that involve, oftentimes, “punching down” at an already-oppressed class, in such a way that they can contribute to the so-called background radiation that perpetuates that oppression. These people have no intention of having their names associated with their antisocial behaviours, because it would provide a real and legitimate reason for people to avoid associating with them in meatspace.

In effect, the trolls and bigots and astroturfers all use pseudonymity exactly the same way that the oppressed classes do — to avoid meatspace repercussions for their online activities. It’s a way of being able to take your team colors off when you’re off the field — a secret identity, so people neither know that Peter Parker likes to wear tights and scale buildings on his off hours, nor that Curt Connors’ biomedical research has made him a reptilian Mr. Hyde. It’s a double-edged sword.

What’s more, it’s a trick sword. More accurately, it is a device that can be used as a sword or as a shield, and is most defensible when used only as a shield. And messing with someone else’s pseudonymity doesn’t always have the effects you might expect. If you try to take it away from the person by outing their real identity, it might: a) make them a leader in the community and rally support to their cause, b) disgrace them (or hurt them, sometimes seriously) when their crimes have been tied to their real names, or c) have absolutely no effect whatsoever with regard to their personal life or their actions on the internet. Or, it might hurt you for taking that action unilaterally, no matter how reasonable or justifiable the action seems to outside observers. Or, it might hurt you just because the evidence wasn’t iron-clad enough, no matter how correct you actually were.

One such action involved a member of our community, who, after a several months long campaign against several prominent bloggers (culminating in some threats of rather creepy physical contact with one of them, which one had to treat as a Schrodinger’s Threat), was outed by a real-life friend to whom he’d revealed his internet identity. This friend had followed his internet identity back to his blog, and discovered all the things he’s said about whole classes of people, and was so horrified by the escalation in rhetoric that they passed the information along to one of his targets.

Since that incident, he has managed to refrain from broaching that line of suggesting actual physical contact with someone, but his rhetoric on the internet has continued unabated. He claims the information is incorrect, and there’s a sliver of a chance he’s not lying (but that depends on several other people lying without real motivation, and at least two other corollary lines of evidence have to be disproven). The real problem here is that this person is still acting almost exactly as he was prior to being outed. With a real-sounding name associated with his actions online, he’s still doing it.

That is the counterexample that disproves the notion that associating a name with your actions encourages good behaviour. Never mind that it’s impossible to limit people to “real-sounding” names, never mind that any attempt to do so would be invariably ethnocentric and uniformly misguided. And this counterexample is far from the only one. Real (albeit minor) celebrities say terrible, bigoted, consequential things all the time, associated with their real names. They often think they’re saying these things on the side of truth, justice and the American Way, no less.

A moral dilemma emerges from this morass when one realizes that people on both sides of the equation, with or without valid justification, have been outed with any number of different consequences. Is abrogating one’s pseudonymity to end their targeted harassment morally justifiable? What if they are actually the ones fighting harassment? Is it moral to out someone whose targeted campaign against you stems from a philosophical difference where you could conceivably be in the wrong yourself? Is it enough to be able to point to instances of the “other side” using that tactic before we use it ourselves?

I contend that there is a way to morally justify one set of outings but not another, but it depends on the subjective moral zeitgeist of your communities. I don’t know exactly what shape the guidelines for what’s acceptable and what isn’t would take, but I suspect it will depend heavily on what exactly you’re using your pseudonymity to do. If you’re protecting your identity so your opinions about philosophical or personal matters don’t get you in trouble in meatspace, that’s one thing; but if you’re protecting your identity so you can damage someone else’s life for holding certain philosophical or personal opinions, that’s another matter altogether.

Problematically, other folks are likely not subject to limiting the use of outing pseudonymous commenters to only those who’ve been hideous, or will intentionally stretch to make the guidelines fit the specific case they have in mind. We cannot expect consistency and a willingness to follow the rules from the same crew who use pseudonymity to attack others — they’ve already proven their moral compasses to be impaired.

I’m generally pro pseudonymity, but anti-troll-tactic, e.g. sockpuppetry to pretend like you’ve got more support than you do, or morphing to circumvent moderation bans. I’ve taken measures here to make sure that people can post using anonymizing services, but that I have to clear them before they go live. I don’t have a lot of rules at this blog, short of not pissing me off. Hurting my friends, hurting me, hurting discourse, derailing topics, all of these irritate me. They might earn you a spot on my moderation list, where I have to read and approve what everything you say before I decide whether to allow it to be published or not.

They do not earn your being “outed”, though. Not by a long shot. You have to be doing something very targeted, for a very long time, before I’ll even consider tying your online actions to your meatspace life. And even then, I’d rather expose you to the authorities, or at least other bloggers to help protect them, before I’d ever expose you publicly.

Case in point while I was writing this: there’s this guy named Dennis Markuze, who’s posted regularly under the name of Dave Mabus, who’s back on the blogosphere. The Montreal police will know very soon that he’s quite possibly off his meds and breaking the terms of his release.

These are treacherous and tricky waters. It seems easy to run aground when discussing pseudonymity as a concept, especially if you’ve taken hold of the meme that a real name will have a net positive effect on discourse. Assuming that people’s better natures will kick in if they have to associate their names with their actions presumes far more about human nature than is in evidence. It is, as I said earlier, nothing short of magical thinking.

The Problem with Pseudonymity
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11 thoughts on “The Problem with Pseudonymity

  1. 1

    I’m not sure xjustos is Dennis Markuze, or that it’s Markuze who’s responsible for the videos on youtube. A search for “how the divine pen of michel nostradamus crushed the modern atheist movement” on youtube returns a couple of accounts:

    David Markuze’s original youtube channel, xviolatex
    Michel Nost
    Michel Nostr
    Mike Nostras
    Mike Nosty
    Ftbuly Ftbullie

    The name of that last account makes me suspect that at least some of these accounts, if not all, are trolls.

  2. 2

    Thank you for defending pseudonymity. Without it I would be in a very depressed state. I am bisexual and trans* and would not be able to talk about either of these things on the internet with my legal name attached. Furthermore, I would not have as many resources to go to because so few people who actually are trans* would be willing to talk about it, so I would have to rely on information from cis people, which can be highly inaccurate.
    If you want another example of how real life identities don’t prevent people from doing terrible things, look at how people treated Surly Amy at TAM. To Her Face.

  3. 3

    I think the really important thing to remember about pseudonymity in this particular context is that it’s generally far more valuable to those fighting against these problems than it is to the reactionaries. Supporting the status quo from a position of privilege is not generally a risky activity.

    However, I can see that Ernest might have a point in asking those of us who are firmly in positions of privilege to forgo pseudonymity in some circumstances.

  4. 4

    I get the best of both worlds. Most people assume “Zoe Brain” is not my name, but a monicker.

    I’m also a Trans activist (OK, technically I’m Intersex, whatever, I transitioned), and yes, I’ve gotten the usual threats etc. Also accusations sent to my employers stating that I’m a convicted sex criminal, and so on. Fortunately they check such things out first. Similarly the Tax Office ignores such anonymous tips now, as do the drug squad. “SWATing” is not new, four years ago it was an issue, now not.

    Had my name been more believable, it would have been much worse, I’m sure.

    Using my real name though does add to my credibility. Often, opponents have accused me of hiding behind a pseudonym, not bothering to check. Then they look foolish when corrected.

    Still, what matters is not who says something, but what’s said. The prejudice of credibility is a useful filter, essential when overloaded with data, but should not be considered wholly reliable.

  5. 5

    I think that outing someone’s real identity can and should be done when physical threats are involved. The problem is that I also think that sustained internet stalking counts as well, such as repetitive creepy emails etc., and I’m not sure that a line can be easily drawn as to where it crosses from “asshole” to “threat”. Maybe after that person gets warned to stop or else outing will happen?

  6. 6

    It doesn’t just have to be on the internet.

    As with anything, many who are likely to abuse anonymity are those likely to seek it out. Remember the Oakland cops who hid their names so that they could abuse OWS protesters with impunity?

    And it doesn’t have to involve anonymity. Have you ever tried writing to a mouthpiece at FOX Nuisance or correct a mistake-filled AP “article”? You can’t, they don’t put email addresses up. They spew garbage and hide behind walls, protected from accountability.

  7. 7


    I took am someone who greatly appreciates folks like yourself who are willing to host sites that support pseudonimity. For several years I have been fighting depression, the kind where you ideate suicide, and if this was linked to my meatspace name it would be terribly destructive to my life.

    So, thank you. And to all the folks at FtB who do the same.

  8. 8


    Thanks for your post, very much appreciate it. Since my name isn’t all that pseudonymous, I’ll just make a comment that if I had to use my full name for certain discussions, I wouldn’t speak at all. Kind of makes me wish I *were* fully pseudonymous, perhaps I’ll have to reconsider that.

    On a lighter note, thanks for linking to your earlier post. I am really struggling against calling you Jason Bieber now, just because it makes me all giggly.

    Jason Bieber. Heh.

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