The Graffiti Artist’s Signature
David Mitchell has written a decent piece in the Guardian Observer this week about anonymous postings on the internet and how he thinks we ought to behave towards them. The thrust of the piece is that those who do not use real names when commenting online ought to have their remarks regarded as having the same status as graffiti in a public space.
With regard to graffiti, he writes:
It is unsubstantiated, anonymous opinion. We understand that instinctively. We need to start routinely applying those instincts to the web.
And he goes on to say of anonymous internet postings:
If you read a review, an opinion, a description or a fact and you don’t know who wrote it then it’s no more reliable than if it were sprayed on a railway bridge. We should always assume the worst so that all those who wish to convince…have an incentive to identify themselves.
I have some sympathy for his argument as he comes to the topic by way of online trolling — which can reveal the internet at its worst. As a public figure he likely sees more than his fair share of trolls and must deal with their behaviour regularly. No doubt, at best, it is a tedious task. He sees anonymity as a facilitator of the troll’s activities: “Anonymity, like a secret ballot, is a guarantee of sincerity.” This is a rather charitable way of saying that behind the screen of anonymity a person can say what he or she likes as there is little to no accountability for what is said. As Mr. Mitchell points out, this can cut both ways and can also be a facilitator for overly positive statements — particularly with regard to online reviews: “And the rest of the time it goes the other way: over-effusive, hysterical praise.” So, we have a pretty clear identification of the problematic nature of anonymous postings which really comes down to a problem of accountability. Most people who post, or have posted, quite nasty things to other people on the internet would not repeat those same utterances to the person in meatspace — face to face in speech. Or, if the person would convey the same or similar content in such a situation it would most likely be moderated in tone and/or severity. The simple reason for this is accountability — in terms of being seen as someone who would speak to another in such a manner and also fear of reprisal (physical or otherwise) for speaking in such a manner. Mr. Mitchell’s prescription for correcting the situation, for bringing accountability into the equation, is to call for anonymous postings to be devalued in the public sphere in order to provide an incentive for people to identify themselves.
Mr. Mitchell is quite careful to restrict his focus to anonymous commentary with respect to reviews, opinions, descriptions and assertions of fact. In this universe of discourse, I can agree that knowing the identity of the poster can aid us in evaluating the weight we ought to assign to the assertion. He gives examples in his article of persons with motives to either post positive or negative reviews, and how when the true identity of the poster is known it can impact very negatively on the weight any reasonable person would assign to the statements. One would hardly trust a restaurant review written by the owner of said restaurant. In this area, I think he is on reasonably solid ground.
Where his argument is not sustainable is in the realm of argumentation itself — that is, in the presentation of a reasoned case where premises are given and a process of working through a logical case leads to a conclusion. In fact, in this case it is generally given that best practice is to separate the identity of the person making the case from the analysis of the argument — that is, to separate the arguer from that which is being argued. There is a whole class of logical fallacies which are based on the idea that one is attacking the man and not the argument — the argument ad hominem. For example, we can commit a circumstantial ad hominem against Mr. Mitchell by suggesting the following line of reasoning: of course he supports the notion that we all ought to be identifiable online because as a public personality he deals with an inordinate amount of trolls, so it is in his best interest for us all to use our real names as it reduces the amount of online trolling. This is an example of an error in reasoning because the particular motive for Mr. Mitchell to make his case does not matter– he has provided us with his argument for evaluation, so his identity does not matter. In fact, knowing his identity can lead to a distraction from the actual case he has put forward as it can be very tempting to fall into ad hominems like the one I have just illustrated. In short, non anonymity can be detrimental to the fair evaluation of a case that has been made. This is why some university professors will ask students to attach the cover page of their paper (the one that identifies the student by name, student number, etc.) to the back of the paper so the student’s identity is only known after the paper has been read and evaluated.
As I have said, I think Mr. Mitchell has managed to skirt around the issue of anonymity and arguments by qualifying his statements, but I think his argument does suffer a rather large problem — that is, the whole issue of what one considers to be a non anonymous identity and how one might implement a system for verifying identity. For example, my actual name will appear nowhere on the internet. You can Google or search by other means and it will yield nothing that comes back to me as a person. There are a few tidbits that could likely be had if one employed nefarious means (i.e breaking into secure websites), but for all practical intents and purposes the real me only exists in meatspace. That’s not because I’m some shadowy character with mischief and mayhem in my heart, but because I don’t trust the internet with my real identity. Also, I have very little to gain by trusting the internet with my real identity — potentially much more to lose. I began using the internet in the early ’90’s and at that time no one had really figured out how to make money from it and the idea of trusting it with important information like financial/transactional data was pretty much unknown. As time has gone on that attitude has certainly changed and now entities like Facebook hold vast swathes of data on their users generated by their users. This makes me very uncomfortable partly, I suppose, because it is a simple holdover from a time now mostly gone by, but also because I object to being a product in someone else’s shop window. When the company called Phorm nearly succeeded in tapping the U.K. internet infrastructure at the ISP level for pure commercial gain, Sir Tim Berners Lee said of the data generated by his online activities, “It’s mine – you can’t have it. If you want to use it for something, then you have to negotiate with me. I have to agree, I have to understand what I’m getting in return.” I stand firmly with him on this subject and hold the same sentiment with regard to data generated by my online activity as well as my personal meatspace identity. Some are willing to trade or give such things away. Some knowingly and some unknowingly. It so happens, I am not one of those people. I lament this trend towards a more eager acceptance of “data gifting,” but I can’t see it reversing itself any time soon.
What this means is that I’m not willing to provide the information Mr. Mitchell would require, but there is also a larger problem — how does one verify the information? For example, suppose I commented on Mr. Mitchell’s article by using the name “Ted Smith.” This looks like it could be a real identity as opposed to “Uninvited Interlocutor” which is almost certainly, prima facie, a pseudonym. Is it enough to have a name that appears non anonymous? Mr. Mitchell previously stated that, “If you read a review, an opinion, a description or a fact and you don’t know who wrote it then it’s no more reliable than if it were sprayed on a railway bridge.” I’m unclear what he means by “knowing who wrote it.” Do I need to know that person in meatspace? In the case of someone like Mr. Mitchell who has a public persona, I can be reasonably sure he is who he says he is because Twitter, for example, has verified his account. Or I can trust in the Guardian to not misrepresent him or the content they offer. But, I still can’t be sure. For all I know from the surface appearance, Mr. Mitchell may have had someone write the piece for him — perhaps he can’t really be bothered with online matters and has someone handle these things for him. I don’t realistically believe this, but it is not such a clear cut case of either anonymity or identity. Now, one can argue that either way, the information that appears online under his name has a provenance which traces back to the meatspace David Mitchell and that’s what really matters.
Well, if what really matters is a clear line of provenance between the online identity and the meatspace identity, then we get into quite intrusive territory. In fact, just this week there has been quite a storm in Canada over a proposed bill labeled “C-30.” This bill contains measures to open up Canada’s internet infrastructure to widespread spying and access to user identities and activities with little oversight or accountability. The public safety minister, Vic Toews, gifted those opposed to the bill a wedge against his argument when he said in parliament, “You’re either with us or with the child pornographers.” Opponents responded en masse and even mobilized on Twitter to #TellVicEverything by relentlessly tweeting inane personal details about themselves to the minister’s own Twitter account. A few days later we learn the U.K. is also looking at more intrusive measures into monitoring the activity and identity of those online. This is not to suggest that Mr. Mitchell supports such measures or even presents an argument in favour of such measures. Rather, it is an illustration to show that to achieve a clear and obvious line of provenance between the two realms of activity there must be intrusive measures which are likely to be largely unpopular. A further point must be noted which is, by Mr. Mitchell’s own cited examples, there ultimately proved to already be a line of provenance between the two realms — in the two examples he gives both offenders were caught out. A chain of accountability does exist in these cases. It is not prima facie — it is somewhat obscured, but it does exist and can be pursued.
Perhaps I have strayed a ways from the original point that was made in the article, but one of the important points I want to make is with regard to the status of argumentation in light of Mr. Mitchell’s stance. I think it’s important to point out that there is a type of anonymous assertion that is immune to the pitfalls that are illustrated in the article. One should not devalue all anonymous contributions without first understanding if the contribution ought to be examined on its own merits apart from its creators identity. While Mr. Mitchell qualifies the types of statements he is referring to, it would have been preferable if he made explicitly clear that arguments do not suffer from the “problem of anonymous contribution.” With regard to the notion of verifiability, I think we end up in a situation where we must advocate some sort of “internet pass” with likely quite intrusive consequences, or we take all non argument/cited postings “on the level of graffiti,” as Mr. Mitchell suggests. But do we not do that generally anyway? Do we generally read reviews as non compromised — either by anonymous posters, identifiable authors or by those with a vested interest? I gave up reading game reviews long ago because almost unanimously they were cheer leading exercises — no doubt influenced by sponsorships, advertising and other financial incentives. These were identifiable non anonymous sources who were quite happy to pen vacuous “it rocks!” reviews and be known for doing so. Are we not always cautious when someone tries to convince us of something? Even in meatspace when an identifiable individual cold calls on the doorstep are we not cautious? I’m not suggesting people don’t get conned or deceived by either anonymous or identifiable individuals; but rather, that the warning Mr. Mitchell offers to “assume the worst” applies equally well when the convincer is anonymous or identifiable. Mr. Mitchell’s argument is not so much an incentive for the convincer to reveal his or her identify; but rather, it is an incentive for the convincer, identified or anonymous, to make an actual argument and for the listener to be more careful and skilled in evaluating the information being provided. Whether it’s from an anonymous or identified source, an argument sustained and well reasoned will make the case. Mr. Mitchell has made the case for making good content — providing quality contributions. He has also made the case for promoting good content when promotional opportunities are available and good content is offered — again, whether from an identifiable or anonymous source. The devaluation of some content can be an effective strategy, but he should also not overlook the valuation of content.
The graffiti artist’s signature is simply the tag to group a constellation of offerings together — likewise, an anonymous online “handle” can serve the same purpose. If the content it groups is consistent and of quality, then it will become trusted — and its author identified as well as identifiable.
As a final tribute to graffiti itself, I’d like to offer the side of a wall in a parking lot in the city where I did my undergraduate degree. As far as I know, as of last year this work is still present which means it has survived for at least twenty years. At its heart, it is somewhat cynical about politics, but I always find it powerful and not without profundity. It is not, as Mr. Mitchell defines graffiti, an “unsubstantiated anonymous opinion” — it is an argument for a position. It is certainly anonymous and it is certainly graffiti, but it is more than mere opinion.
UPDATE: Interesting article here citing evidence from South Korea that using real names on websites does very little to curb negative comments. South Korea had a policy, for four years, of requiring resident registration numbers and other personal information (including real names) to be entered into websites with over 100,000 viewers — the policy was scrapped in 2011, in part, because, “…it was found to be ineffective at cleaning up abusive and malicious comments (the policy reduced unwanted comments by an estimated .09%). “