Politics, Principle and Anonymity

One issue that has begun to define this current election season has been the use of anonymously funded political ads. This is largely the result of the Supreme Court ruling allowing corporations to fund political ads, a renewed commitment to free speech that should never have been restricted to begin with. As a result those who are most concerned about such ads tend to be on the Left as their ideas are often the targets of such speech.

My personal feelings on this are mixed. I made the choice sometime ago to append my name to my political opinions via this blog. I did so because I have a strong sense personal responsibility and integrity regarding my beliefs and opinions, and tend to see those who write anonymously as being unwilling to own up to their opinions.

However, my experience writing a blog has opened my eyes a bit. The reality is there are very unscrupulous people out there – people with personal vendettas that make it their mission to personally attack others, destroy reputations, make false accusations rather than debate and discuss issues in a reasonable and intelligent manner. They are often people with nothing to lose – loners with no families, jobs of significance or friendships that are impacted by uncivil behavior. And so an ordinary person expressing his or her opinion runs some risk that such people may glom onto them and smear their reputations in such a way that affects their life outside of their online presence. It is chilling to the civil discourse critical in a democratic society, but it is the reality of the web. If I weren’t secure in my own life outside of this blog, the decision to post online would be a much more difficult one.

And it is important to remember that some of the highest discourse in or own country’s history was anonymous. The writers of the Federalist Papers used the pen name ‘Publius’, homage to a founder of the Roman Republic. Those writing on the anti-Federalist side used the pseudonyms ‘Federal Farmer’ and ‘Cato’. These writings represent the best of American rhetorical and political writing, perhaps some of the best in the history of the world. In many ways they benefit from anonymity of the authors, as it focuses the reader’s attention on the ideas being presented rather than on the personalities or interests of those writing – which is where the focus should be in good political discourse.

Indeed, the tactics of the New Atheists and the Alinskyite Left may increasingly make the anonymous expression of opinion a political and civil necessity, as such groups focus on the corruptive practice of vituperative personal attacks. A recent initiative by the ultra-Leftist Daily Kos site utilizing Search Engine Optimization (SEO) seeks to bring the personal attack to a whole new level. The group is seeking to ‘Google Bomb’ Republican candidates by getting sympathetic associates to enter searches in Google with damaging search words. The result of this is to cause the most damaging stories to rise to the top of the list of Google results and cause mindless voters (whom the Left obviously disdains) to unthinkingly accept the top searches as fact, and so be moved to think poorly of those candidates. I think the electorate is increasingly savvy to such technical shenanigans (especially now that the strategy is getting a lot of press) but it exemplifies the cynicism with which the Left operates in our political system.

And it exemplifies the reasons why some would choose to operate anonymously – in an environment where corporate or personal reputations can be damaged by a rogue writer with a computer and grudge or a radical organization intent on manipulating elections, anonymity may be one of the greatest protections of free speech we have.

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24 Responses to Politics, Principle and Anonymity

  1. Bettawrekonize says:

    “in an environment where corporate or personal reputations can be damaged by a rogue writer”

    How does anonymity protect corporations? It’s not like I buy anything from an anonymous corporation. If someone buys something from a corporation and later ruins its reputation it’s typically because the person perceived that the corporation somehow scammed him/her. In such situations s/he generally knows which corporation it is and which one to criticize.

  2. jackhudson says:

    I think in terms of political speech it prevents retribution of the sort utilized by Daily Kos

  3. kenetiks says:

    Not to get terribly of the intended point(I think).

    Several points.

    I do despise “mindless” voters. Get the facts, make an informed decision and vote.

    I run under anonymity for personal reasons that have nothing to do with atheism, religion or anything else. If I went around posting my real name and information then you and other sites probably would have already gotten emails. But that’s a completely different story that I’m not getting into. Suffice it to say I have some very good reasons(as do others) for writing under pseudonyms instead of identifiable real names. But I always post or write under the same pseudonym because it’s an identifier. “Oh look, it’s kenetiks that pesky atheist again…”. =)

    I wouldn’t promote censorship of anyone for being anonymous online or take any action against them.

  4. Bettawrekonize says:

    Jhud, so you mean you don’t like the laws that require political ads to display their sponsors?

  5. Bettawrekonize says:

    (or rather, I kinda meant that as a separate question).

  6. jackhudson says:

    Jhud, so you mean you don’t like the laws that require political ads to display their sponsors?

    Well current law doesn’t require independent groups who place ads to disclose who is funding them, and I think that is a good thing.

  7. kenetiks says:

    jackhudson says:
    October 24, 2010 at 5:02 pm

    Jhud, so you mean you don’t like the laws that require political ads to display their sponsors?

    Well current law doesn’t require independent groups who place ads to disclose who is funding them, and I think that is a good thing.

    I think who is funding political ads should be disclosed.

    I don’t think that if ‘Group A’ is funding a political ad that it should be fully disclosed. Just to be sure to comply with all the laws about campain finance and regulations, etc. However, I don’t feel there is any need to expose the entire list of funding for ‘Group A’ including private citizen’s donations to the public because they ran a campaign ad or political endorsement, generally. I think there might be special occasions when this should be done but as a general rule the average citizen should be entitled to their privacy.

    Of course you could make the argument that if ‘Group A’ is a political organization, that it’s intent and the intent of it’s donations are expressed, then there is little reason to try to hide records from public scrutiny. They are essentially making a public statement and expressly putting themselves out there in the public domain.

    I think it’s agreed though that the issue is quite complicated.

  8. Nate says:

    I see it as a regulation of a certain kind of speech.

    Regulation = Restriction

    Restriction on speech = Wrong

    In my view.

    Why should political speech be regulated stronger than other kinds? I could buy a commercial telling of the evils of soy milk and I wouldn’t have to disclose anything. But if a question was on the ballot about whether or not to ban soy milk that same commercial would have to bear my name.

  9. Bettawrekonize says:

    I guess I’m just not seeing the connection here. Why should a corporation be protected from the public criticism it might receive for not being anonymous. Shouldn’t it stand behind what it believes and says sufficiently enough to not worry about public criticism? Sure, some people who disagree with it may criticize it for poor reasons but that’s no reason for someone to avoid publicly expressing its opinion in opposed to anonymously doing so. Not that I’m against corporate anonymity, I just don’t see your particular reasoning for it.

    For instance, if a corporation ran a political ad anonymously people won’t criticize the corporation. Why is the corporation running the ad anonymously, what does it have to hide? Its true motives for running the ad? It doesn’t want people to deduce those true motives? Well, maybe that’s because those motives that people deduce are truly its motives. You think that opening up the corporation to scrutiny in light of its ads will probably lead to bad conclusions because the general public is somehow too unreasonable to avoid jumping to unreasonable conclusions and so this information should be hidden from us to save the corporation from our unreasonableness? I almost see that as an insult to the population. Not that I’m against their right for anonymity, I’m just wondering about your specific reasoning.

    I also don’t consider a corporation a person. Who should speak for the corporation? The CEO? The stock holders? The employees? Or are these individuals just speaking for their individual selves?

    Most importantly, those within the corporation benefit from limited liability when doing something on its behalf and as such I don’t think the actions of the corporation (what its representatives do on its behalf) should have all the same freedoms that individuals who don’t benefit from limited liability have. If society gives up some of its rights to punish individuals when acting on behalf of a corporation, I see nothing wrong with those individuals giving up some of their rights when doing so.

    What about things like the FTC disclosure rules, like the following (I know it’s kinda off topic).

    http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20100111/1202227704.shtml

    My opinion is a bit more complex (and undecided) on these issues. When it comes to mainstream media we pretty much have about five media entities that control most of our broadcasting and cableco media and its mostly because the govt keeps out competitors. If the govt is to regulate the use of communication platforms in a way that restricts competition I think at the very least it should have some rules to ensure the public interest, rules that shouldn’t exist on a more open communication platform (such as the Internet). Perhaps compulsory disclosure laws should be part of those rules. This is partly because those who put their ads on those platforms in many ways benefit from the fact that the govt restricts and limits competing media and also because those who control the platform (the platform “owners”) have their own agendas and can manipulate the platform, and the ads run on those platforms (and the cost to run ads), to its advantage.

    On the current state of the Internet, where everyone has more or less a much more level playing field and no one benefits so much from a govt imposed unlevel playing field, I don’t mind the anonymity so much.

  10. Nate says:

    My point was simply that I resent the difference in how certain classes of speech are treated.

    Whether or not you or I consider corporations “people” for the purposes of our discussion doesn’t matter, because law and precedent recognize them as such.

    Those exercising their right to free speech should not have to identify themselves, that’s what it comes down to, regardless of its nature. If political speech is restricted than what stops the government from restricting any other kind of speech in the same manner? Nothing.

  11. Bettawrekonize says:

    “in an environment where corporate or personal reputations can be damaged by a rogue writer”

    and why should this “rogue writer” be assumed to have less credibility than those who control the mainstream media, than “professional journalists,” or than the govt. Why is this environment so different than the environment of the last decade or two? What constitutes a rogue writer? Do they only exist on the Internet? Can they not come from the government or the mainstream media or from professional journalists? and if this rogue writer has no credibility why is the public so much more likely to take this person more seriously, seriously enough to ruin the corporates or individuals reputation, than some non-rogue writer of the past who had their opinions widely distributed and much more widely heard/read (in the face of fewer competing views and criticisms being heard/read) on one of the much more monopolized distribution channels of the past.

  12. jackhudson says:

    Well I don’t think it is just public criticism a corporation or group needs to fear; it is having those in office seek retribution as well.

  13. Bettawrekonize says:

    “If political speech is restricted than what stops the government from restricting any other kind of speech in the same manner? ”

    I have nothing wrong with individuals within the corporation anonymously exercising their free speech on their behalf, with their own personal money.

    Also, a corporation has an obligation to its stockholders. Perhaps spending company money on political ads should be disclosed to those stockholders and those ads should also be disclosed. Why should a stock holder invest in a corporation without even knowing what that corporation spends its money on. The stock holders are the owners of the corporation, not the CEO anonymously speaking on its behalf (and using corporate money to do so, money that belongs to the stockholders, not the CEO), and the stock holders (owners) should know what its corporation is saying and what their money is being spent on.

  14. Bettawrekonize says:

    errr…

    I see nothing wrong *

  15. Bettawrekonize says:

    After all, stock holders ultimately elect who runs the corporations (or who chooses who runs the corporations). How can they make an informed decision if it is not disclosed to them what those who run the corporation spends corporate money on.

  16. Bettawrekonize says:

    “Well I don’t think it is just public criticism a corporation or group needs to fear; it is having those in office seek retribution as well.”

    Understandable.

  17. Bettawrekonize says:

    (Btw, I’m not necessarily agreeing or disagreeing with you or really holding a position. I’m just raising questions and highlighting some potential opposing views to help people better understand the complexity of these issues. The complexity of these issues makes it difficult for me to really hold a strong position. However, I much more strongly do think something needs to be done about the lack of media diversity and the govt needs to stop restricting media competition. With a more diverse media it would be much more difficult for blatantly poor positions to be widely distributed with little to no criticism).

  18. Nate says:

    The law regards corporations and people as one in the same (in most instances, speech being one of them now). If the speech of a corporation can be restricted in X manner so too can the speech of biological individuals.

    Its not a question of who they should be accountable to or whether they should be. Its not one of what should they disclose and to whom. Its a question of whether you are willing to give up your right to anonymity or not.

    You can safely assume in most cases that a given business will be backing candidates and causes that will benefit the business in question.

    The question of what the shareholders know doesn’t really matter, they should know what, essentially, their money is being spent on. That’s a different case than should identity be disclosed to the public. As an individual, a publicly traded company’s brain is its shareholders. The brain should know what the hands are doing of course.

    I don’t know why you mention employees. It’s really none of their business. Contrary to popular belief employees work for their employer not the other way around.

  19. Bettawrekonize says:

    “The law regards corporations and people as one in the same ”

    Even if true, irrelevant, laws are amendable and we’re discussing the ideal state of law, not the current state of law.

    “If the speech of a corporation can be restricted in X manner so too can the speech of biological individuals.”

    Why should that be true?

  20. Bettawrekonize says:

    “Contrary to popular belief employees work for their employer not the other way around.”

    Sure, but those who speak on behalf of the corporation are also employees of the corporation.

  21. Nate says:

    It should be true because a business is not an abstract thing it is a collective mind of individuals (or one owner). The law should always recognize it as such. If individuals have free speech so should a collection of them.

  22. Nate says:

    “Sure, but those who speak on behalf of the corporation are also employees of the corporation.”

    Who have fiduciary responsibilities. That’s far different from the secretary at the front desk.

  23. Bettawrekonize says:

    “Who have fiduciary responsibilities.”

    All employees have fiduciary responsibilities. How are the stock holders supposed to evaluate the extent that the fiduciary responsibilities are being served if it the actions of their representatives aren’t being disclosed? How are they supposed to evaluate who to elect if they don’t know what those representatives are spending their money on?

    “it is a collective mind of individuals (or one owner).”

    There is no logical reason why each individual can’t anonymously speak on his or her own behalf, using his or her own money, while denying those individuals the legal ability to anonymously speak on the corporations behalf using the corporations money.

  24. Nate says:

    It’s not the corporations money, it belongs to the stockholders. They should be restricted on how they can use it?

    Certainly each individual could not buy a commercial, or other advertising. The power of mass media would effectively be denied to them.

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