When, if ever, should a blogger or tweeter be outed?
The immediate background to this question is that blogger and tweeter Quiet Riot Girl was outed last weekend. It turns out this persistent and spirited internet activist is a Dr Eleanor Tams, formerly of Sheffield Hallam University.
It was her approach to engagement with those she disagreed with or had taken exception to – widely described as confrontational, abusive, and “trolling” – which led many of her targets to find her attentions at least a bore or a chore. That said, many of her victims would not have outed her themselves (I was one of those she regularly attacked or insulted, and I wouldn’t have outed her).
On the other hand, few seem to feel that upset about it. One now wonders whether being outed will change her mode of operating; it certainly makes it easier for any complainant to get a court order against her.
But what should be the general approach to outing?
Is there even a universal principle which can be applied when dealing with the true identities of those who use pseudonyms?
Is one’s internet alias an absolute right, which should never be taken away in any circumstance at any time?
I cannot claim to be an expert, but I do happen to be the person most responsible for unmasking “David Rose” as Johann Hari, though I was careful to ensure that it was Hari himself who admitted this systemic exercise in malice and deceit. I also was one of dozens of recipients of the threatening emails sent by “David Mabus” (exposed by a group of skeptic activists) and am a friend of the author of the blog which exposed “Lord Credo” as a fraudster who used his Twitter account as part of that fraud. I played no real part in the outing of either “Mabus” or “Credo”, but – as with Quiet Riot Girl – I was not especially upset to see them outed.
Against this, I was concerned at the outing of “NightJack” by the Times, which seemed at the time to be a spiteful and unnecessary act, and I am glad to have been involved in revealing it to have been based on an unlawful interference with the blogger’s email account.
Just taking these examples, with which many of us are familiar, is there any general principle?
Well, I cannot say there is an absolute right against being outed. It is likely that Hari would not have been outed as “David Rose” without my blogpost, and I have to accept responsibility for that, regardless of not doing the final reveal myself.
So if it is not an absolute right, in what circumstances is it appropriate to out a pseudonymous blogger or tweeter?
It seems that the answer lies in any misuse made of their account by the pseudonymous blogger or tweeter. The breach of etiquette needs to be severe, amounting perhaps to death threats and continuing harassment (“Mabus”) or financial exploitation (“Credo”).
For those who received hundreds of communications from Quiet Riot Girl, they seem to have taken the view that the harassment was severe, such that some say that they now don’t use social media at all to communicate just so as to avoid having to deal with her relentless nastiness and personal insults.
Was this on the right or wrong side of some hypothetical “line”? To answer that question, one has to have regard to what the sanction means. Outing is not itself the imposition of any criminal or civil liability (though it makes such outcomes more likely), and nor is it attributing a person things they have not actually said and done. It is instead revealing the true identity of the person misusing their social media accounts, so as to make them accountable for their misuse.
However, such an outing is unpleasant and perhaps traumatic (just like being the recipient of their messages sometimes is), and so should not be done lightly, if at all. But unless unlawful acts are involved in identifying the misuser, then any target of that misuse would appear to have a right to hold the misuser to personally account for what they say.
So what is “misuse”? Is it wrong to criticism public figures, or even bloggers making public statements, from behind the cover of a pseudonym? Of course it is not. So if it is not criticism, what sets the misuser apart? One answer appears to be that the attacks or exploitation are not a contribution to a public debate, but essentially personal and directed attacks. A person is doing wrongful things as a pattern of behaviour which they otherwise would not be able to do, but for “hiding” behind their pseudonym.
In this way, outing does not itself end the misuse, but make some person accountable for it.
Personally, I do not think I would ever want to out anyone again. The “David Rose” experience was dreadful, even if there can be little doubt that prolonged and mendacious exercise was rightly checked. I think many people share this reluctance. However, not everybody does, and so anyone who uses a pseudonym on the internet to insult or mislead should really accept the risk of exposure.
The politeness of strangers always has a limit.
No purely anonymous comments will be published; always use a name for ease of reference by other commenters.