Can Online Public Dialogs Succeed With Anonymous Participants?

By Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D.

In Public Dialog and the 2009-H1N1 Influenza Epidemic I discussed one of an increasing number of Federally sponsored efforts to reach out and engage with the public on a variety of important public policy projects. Other examples include the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s National Dialogue on the Quadrennial Homeland Security Review and the U.S. Department of Defense’s DoD Web Guidance Forum.

One question I have is whether such efforts can succeed if participants post anonymously.

I used to think that if you want to be taken seriously online, and if you want to actually participate in an ongoing dialog with a sponsor or other participants, you need to post using your own name and identity so that others know who you are.

This is one of the dictionary definitions of “dialog” that I found via Merriam-Webster OnLine:

2 a : a conversation between two or more persons; also : a similar exchange between a person and something else (as a computer) b : an exchange of ideas and opinions c : a discussion between representatives of parties to a conflict that is aimed at resolution

I have two websites of my own (one professional, the other personal) where I regularly post items and where I encourage comments. While I moderate comments and delete the most obvious spam, I do allow anonymous comments if the comment being made is relevant to the original post and is not crude or vulgar in its language. I also post my own comments on other web sites and I always try to mention my own name.

Doing so is one of the traditional concepts behind social media: instead of just pushing information out in one-way broadcast fashion, social media enable you to participate in an online discussion that can benefit all concerned. Doing so anonymously, it seems to me, reduces the possibility that such an ongoing dialog can take place.

But is that always true with “official” public dialogs sponsored by government agencies? Are there situations where it makes sense to allow anonymous comments when “engaging” the public in a “dialog”?

I posted this question to an online forum I co-moderate, Linkedin Bloggers. I received a range of responses from people inside and outside the U.S. Respondents seemed to feel that:

1. They preferred respondents on their own blogs to identify themselves.
2. They still allowed anonymous comments on their own blogs as long as they were not obviously spam.
3. They also believed there were situations where a government agency engaging with the public should not discourage anonymity if there is the possibility that useful information might be communicated that might not otherwise be revealed due to the discussion involving personal or sensitive matters.

I admit to having somewhat of a bias against anonymous commenting in public online dialogs, especially those that are overtly political. I often find myself saying to myself after reading a particularly vitriolic sequence of comments on a political web site, “Those people would never say those kinds of things if they had to sign their own names!”

But that may be a hopelessly outdated and old fashioned attitude. After all, we live in a time when public “rudeness” (see Joe Wilson, Serena Williams, and Kanye West) is increasingly accepted public behavior. It may be unrealistic to believe that restricting anonymous comments in a public online dialog would, by itself, encourage a civil dialog. There may also be instances where not allowing anonymity would reduce the likelihood that useful information might be posted.

Still, it’s my personal preference to minimize anonymous postings online, especially when the goal is to generate a real dialog about important public issues. I like to know who I’m talking to, that’s all. Engaging over time with an anonymous poster on a question of public policy seems like engaging with someone who’s wearing a mask. I would always be wondering about the reason for the mask and what that said about the sincerity and honesty of the comments.

But I do agree that people should be able to post anonymously if that is what they wish to do. They should be aware, however, that doing so might reduce the reach and effectiveness of what they are trying to say.

Copyright (c) 2009 by Dennis D. McDonald. This blog post was originally published on 9/15/2009 on Dennis McDonald’s Web Site.

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15 Comments

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Profile Photo Adriel Hampton

Thoughtful post, Dennis. I read that OpenID is parsing levels of anonymity in creating gov interfaces for individuals. Ongoing discussion of the role of anonymous comment in public dialogue is important to designing and implementing successful collaboration efforts. We have many tools and cultures coming together – what will be the best mix to create the most value?

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Profile Photo Dennis McDonald

Different participants will have different objectives. If the sponsor of the online dialog views it like a temporary survey, that will have one set of implications for managing privacy and anonymity. If the participant views it as an opportunity to engage in meaningful dialog about an important topic, that will have another set of implications.

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Profile Photo Jeremy Ames

II struggled with this when we created a forum with our stakeholders. Ultimately the community was small enough we decided against anonymous posts — which is always my personal preference as I think it promotes a greater degree of civility. But in some situations it may not be practical, especially when seeking the public’s impact. I suppose the issue isn’t too very far separated from allowing anonymous tips through the phone or mail, but in a group setting the discussion can get sidetracked quickly. Then again the very public nature of the “Health Care Town Hall Meetings” didn’t seem to help on the civility front.

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Profile Photo Steve Ressler

There’s been a lot of debate on this topic and it seems to be trending against anonymity. For example, I’ve found the discussion on GovLoop a lot richer than a couple anonymous discussion boards for govies that end of just complaining about bosses and work. I think a good compromise is places like GovLoop and LinkedIn that heavily encourage putting your information and your background out there but for those really concerned you can just limit the information you provide.

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Profile Photo Lucas Cioffi

Anonymous comments are necessary and should not be discouraged.

Here are some reasons why:
1. There’s no enforceable solution that would work on a national level which can ensure that someone’s user name is the same as their legal name.
2. The dialogue would instantly be less inclusive because people are not used to using their real name online in discussion forums– this immediately raises a red flag and rumors start flying (refer to panic about White House collecting email addresses)
3. Our country has a rich history of brilliant political authors writing with pseudonyms– those people had strong reasons for doing so and those reasons are just as important today.
4. Allowing pseudonyms decreases the risk of cognitive biases such as the “yes-man syndrome” where people agree with leaders even though the leader’s ideas are not strong.
5. Some people won’t participate because they cannot contradict the position of their employer. This limits out expert opinion.
6. Merely suggesting that users should use their real names will automatically place pseudonyms in second-class status and will engender the harms listed above.
7. A persistent reputation system that rewards good ideas and punishes misbehavior can solve for all the advantages of using real names, such as developing person-to-person relationships and discouraging abusive speech.
8. Strong, fair, transparent moderation systems should be our focus because they are absolutely necessary and can solve for abusive speech.
9. An idea should stand on its own merit; if it depends on the credentials of the author to be credible it needs more work. Building a community online that does not rely on credentials gets us much closer to a true meritocracy of ideas. Giving equal status to pseudonyms puts the focus on the idea rather than the author– this can stimulate a more honest discussion.
10. Features which develop and sustain a sense of community (such as group features and person-to-person messaging) should be our focus rather than this issue anonymity because such features will build resiliency and community norms which, in turn, are essential for fair moderation.
11. Requiring real names will have no effect on some people who are going to use a pseudonym anyway. Having them break the rules the first minute they sign up can start them off in a negative mindset accentuate their negative behavior.
12. While we can hope for the best, we have to work in the world that we live in. If an American has a name like Hussein (or many others) they will be discriminated against whether we like it or not.
13. When people exercise the freedom of the press or the freedom to assemble, they can do so anonymously. Requiring real names limits free speech.

I know this is more than anyone wanted to hear, but this is an extremely important issue. We build websites for the government so we conducted this survey when we were looking into the issue:
http://athenabridge.wordpress.com/2009/08/09/data-about-anonymous-online-participation-with-government/

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Profile Photo Blogger Bob

I’ve been struggling with this question as well over at the TSA Blog. On one hand, anonymity is like a cancer for blogs and message boards, on the other hand – even thought I know it’s ridiculous – others think they will be added to the no-fly-list if they speak their mind about TSA policies. Those folks would never register to post a comment and many who do post anonymously, have stated that they use anonymizers. We do get some valuable feedback and good dialogue from anonymous commenters, but we also get our share of snarky jabs and unproductive comments.

In a perfect world, I would still allow anonymous comments, but I would like to be able to identify – through an IP address – who our repeat offenders are so we could ban that specific address.

I am not a privacy expert, but I’m guessing that would throw up some privacy flags? Anybody…?

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Profile Photo Dennis McDonald

I’ve concluded you need to offer people the opportunity to participate anonymously but you also need to carefully monitor the situation to prevent the crazies and the nasties from taking over.

A lot will depend on what you’re trying to promote. If you’re trying to crowdsource ideas by temporarily casting a net out, you might be able to tolerate anonymity if the ideas you catch are good, whether or not they’re supplied anonymously. If you’re trying to get ideas AND get good, thoughtful discussions going, I have my doubts about anonymity since it goes against the grain of developing even temporary relationships.

Mr. Cioffi: I do not understand your point number 10. “Developing community” and protecting anonymity seem antithetical. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be able to post to a group discussion anonymously, but you may find that if you do so that people you would like to interact with might not take your words as seriously as they might were you to reveal your actual identity.

One of the images that pops into my head when I think about this topic is what happens with government mandated public testimony on proposed policies or rules, especially with “roadshows” where regulatory agency staff travel around and schedule public testimony. You never (well, almost never) see such testimony being made by people wearing bags on their heads. Why is that, and what is the relationship to the discussion we are having here?

In connection with this theme I’ve been digging into online identity management. It’s a technical issue that very quickly teaches you that there’s much more involved here than whether or not you provide your name when you register for an online group. Many discussion about online identity management concern how you enable people to manage release of different types of information online while protecting privacy; at the same time you must facilitate efficient communications and business transactions. It’s a balancing act.

I’m also learning there are varying levels of anonymity and that it may be necessary to allow people to manage multiple “identities” online. In practical terms this means you have to allow people to manage what information is provided (and made public) in different circumstances. You may find, though, that a system that requires your name when you register, even while allowing you to post anonymously, will still leave you vulnerable to court ordered revelation of individual commentors’ identities.

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Profile Photo Lucas Cioffi

Hi Dennis,

I agree– you rightly point out that real names can foster a sense of community. But I’d like to add that there are other features which can be even more effective in building community:
1. persistent reputation and a way to measure credibility due to past performance in the community (i.e. number of highly ranked comments on that blog)– this is merit based and does not require real names.
2. person-to-person messaging (like here on GovLoop) where people can dive deeper into a conversation in a separate space– people connect based on like interests and can share their real identity if they choose.
3. list of recent activity of the community (like here on GovLoop) to build situational awareness and togetherness

The items above create a sense of community in order to support community moderation. True community moderation can make the administrator’s life easier and will increase quality by instilling a sense of ownership in the participants. With this type of moderation or sense of community, the effect of abusive comments will be minimal. So that’s why I suggest that we focus there first. If that doesn’t work, then requiring real names might be the last resort.

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Profile Photo Dennis McDonald

I agree that an online networking system can benefit from such features (as long as people know how to use such features and that they aren’t “gamed” as some ratings systems are) but I still would like to understand more about the reasons for people using fake names in public forums.

The more I know about the person I’m talking to, the more I can understand and appreciate what that person is saying. I don’t question someone’s right to remain anonymous, but at minimum I would like to have some assurance that I am speaking with a real person. On Twitter, for example, if I get a “follow” notice from a person without a real name, without a real picture, and without some ndication of who that person is, I rarely follow back.

Dennis

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Profile Photo Caryn Wesner-Early

I agree with both of Lucas’ comments – you said what I was struggling toward expressing!

As a contractor, I’m particularly liable to your point no. 5. My employer holds contracts in several government agencies, so if I post to a discussion of government policies under my own name, I might inadvertently make a comment that undermines my employer’s position in another agency. Since I value my sterling Web presence, I try to include my name whenever possible, but sometimes, it seems the better part of valor not to.

While I understand concerns about the difficulty of creating community when some or all users post under aliases, I have experience in Second Life which contradicts this. In SL, people are not allowed to use their own names, but must select a surname from a list (they can, however, have any personal name they like). I am a member of a community which discusses serious, and sometimes very personal, issues, and the fact that we don’t know the real names of the other members doesn’t inhibit the trust and openness of the conversations.

Thank you, Dennis, for your excellent article, and thank you, too, everyone else, for the thoughtful comments.

Caryn Wesner-Early

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Profile Photo Mark D. Drapeau

I am interested in good ideas, not where they come from. I suspect that people moderating government blogs and company blogs are mostly interested in the same.

Lots of people want to discuss execution. Fine. But above execution is tactics, above that is strategy, and above that are goals. What are the goals with regard to comments? Everything about anonymous commenters and such flows from that. There is no one size fits all.

I think that Bob and Lucas make some good points.

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Profile Photo Dennis McDonald

Mark, good comment. It does depend on goals. My goals for participating in an online dialog may or may not be the same as the organization sponsoring the dialog. They may primarily be interested in collecting ideas and feedback with little interest in dialog among the participants.I may be more interested in participating in situations where I have an opportunity to get to know and trust the other participants. If I were only interested in providing feedback and ideas I might be less interested in who the other participants are.

Note that private companies that use social media as part of their customer support mix do depend on relationships being fostered among participants for the simple reason that social engagement improves chances for voluntary cooperation by participants. This can directly impact the company’s out of pocket cost for customer support by taking advantage of customers-helping-other-customers. If the companies can accomplish this by allowing for anonymous participation that would work too.

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Profile Photo Lucas Cioffi

The conversation becomes very interesting when we start discussing goals. The goal of a government blog may to improve airport security (as with TSA), but the goal of why we set up our government in the first place is to protect our freedoms.

I’d like to hear the opinion of a Constitutional scholar on this matter. I fear that we in the tech community do not fully understand the freedom of speech, because we’ve never lived without it. Could we imagine a truly national conversation the buildup to the Iraq War where real names were 100% required? Too many people would be afraid to participate. The norms that we establish now will last for a long time, so it is important that we get it right.

Online commenting systems are still very young and they are improving very quickly. We can’t write off anonymous comments just because the technology isn’t mature enough.

Here’s a question to the community: has anyone been able to quantify the harm done by anonymous comments? That would be challenging but fascinating. Without some type of quantification, all we have is opinions and conjectures. Some reliable data– if it exists– would help move this conversation forward.

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Profile Photo Janis Heim

I come late to this discussion but I think we have lost something in the demand for real names and identities. Not only the Federalist Papers but hundreds of learned discussions over the past 400 years have been carried out under pseudonyms. Check any old newspaper from 100 years ago where Old Farmer and City Slicker bicker in the letters column over agricultural policy in Iowa or western Massachusetts. Several movies up to the relevant You’ve Got Mail revolve around this practice.

My newspaper now bans pseudonyms which allowed me to receive several fervid screeds from religious nuts when I commented positively on the achievements of a female legislator. Apparently we both violated St. Paul’s recommendation that women should not be heard in public. I would not have thought of hiding my identity before, but I do now. Requiring names and identities does not remove the nuts, it just allows them to issue attacks privately rather than publicly.

I think free speech is best served by letting people speak freely. If comments are not appropriate they should be removed, regardless of whether you know the source, and good ones should be honored in the same way.

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