I’m still at large engaged with my entourage… Anonymity, privacy, and public debate

ABC’s Media Watch started a flurried debate about anonymity in public debate, situated in the context of misogynist abuse hurled at female journalists on social media.

[P]unishing trolls only works if they can be identified. And often they can’t.  […]

Personally, I reckon naming and shaming is the only way. And if Twitter won’t do it, others have to.

So, watch this space and we’ll see what we can do.

Today, the Courier Mail splashed the images of two teenage girls on the front cover with the title: ‘Enemies of the State’.  Somehow, information about their medical history had got into the hands of the newspaper and their editors saw fit to put it on the front page.

This week, Junkee made the decision to anonymise authorship of posts criticising celebrities.

It’s disappointing that we have to do this. It’s a sad indictment on this particular element of the music industry, and it runs counter to Junkee Media’s editorial code, which says that all content should have a byline unless there’s a good reason not to. Sadly, we have a good reason not to, and it’s the health and wellbeing of our staff.

So there’s jostling in this space.  Journalists want to pierce the anonymity veil of ordinary members of the public, but also want to put the veil up for its own writers.

The debate is dumb because the solution (‘Get rid of anonymity’) always comes before a thorough diagnosis of the problem (‘Why is public debate so shit?’).  So the structuure of this post is a discussion of the problem followed by a return to the topic of anonymity and privacy.

Why does public debate suck so much?

There seems to be broad agreement that public debate is necessary for democratic society.  I hold opinions and I express them to others in the hope of either improving other people’s opinions or, contrariwise, having my bad opinions improved.  Empirically, this does not seem to be true: your political opinions tend to be formed when you’re a teenager and then say locked in place forever.

More cynically, public debate is profitable.  If everybody’s encouraged to have their say, you can sell cheap content and ensure stable engagement.   Participate in the debate, read the ads, inflate the readership numbers.  Remember, it doesn’t have to be directly profitable: ensuring constant and consistent engagement in public debate is a vehicle for cheap advertising strategies.  Even as a PhD student, I’m being taught to use this dynamic to ‘engage with public debate to get your research “out there”‘.

The marketplace of ideas does not incentivise good content — the nutritious kind of content that challenges ideas and promotes a healthy society.  Instead, it incentivises the equivalent of fast food: salty, spicy takes that are sold slightly after their use-by date.

Once there’s some general level of recognition that public debate is a shit show, people start pointing fingers.  Paul Barry, armed with a 15-minute slot each week on the national broadcaster, pointed the finger directly at the general public.  The peasants are out of control.  We need to name and shame them.  They are hiding their identities so that they can engage in antisocial behaviour.

But it wasn’t the general public that gave Blair Cottrell a platform on Sky News.  Here’s how Paul Barry described Cottrell:

Cottrell is a convicted racist with a violent criminal history who was last year found guilty of inciting contempt for Muslims, after staging a mock beheading in Bendigo.

So given Barry’s righteous crusade to protect the quality of public debate, you can imagine that his criticism would have been damning.  How could a media organisation even consider it appropriate to give a platform to somebody like Cottrell?  Nope.

Sky’s mistake was not to have Blair Cottrell on. It was to do an uncritical interview.

What sort of ‘uncritical interview’ would possibly be an appropriate reason to give Cottrell yet another platform?  Barry notes previous media appearances:

He’s been on Nine and on Seven, which also failed to challenge him. And he’s appeared on the ABC in a panel debate.

But the big difference is, on that occasion two years ago the interviewer did his job.

So clearly ‘critical interviews’ are not having an effect on Mr Cottrell’s message.  But it’s not people like Paul Barry who suffer the consequences of critical interviews failing to change public debate — it’s minority groups who keep picking up the tab.

Actually, it’s the general public who pays the tab, but the cost disproportionately falls upon minorities.  Each time one of these ‘critical interviews’ that Barry fetishises fails to shut down Cottrell, all of us are worse off through a debate that encourages irrational, unreasonable hatred and vitriol.

And when ABC’s Four Corners gave a platform to internationally reviled white supremacist Steve Bannon, Media Watch had no criticism.

So we have a media class that routinely gives a platform to the very worst antisocial views, but wonders why public debate is so toxic?  If you are going to give a platform to sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic views, you can’t be that surprised when the public debate echoes back.

I think it even goes further than this.  We have a media framework that is currently incapable of presenting differences of reasonable opinions, and so the public gets locked into very tribal, very vitriolic rhetoric.

Ask anybody: when was the last time you saw an intellectually sensible exchange of ideas on television?  When was the last time you saw two equally informed, morally excellent people disagree in a way that helped you to understand where you sat on an issue of public debate?  When was the last time a television show helped you to engage critically with political discussions?

Instead, how frequently have you seen a press conference followed immediately by one journalist interviewing another journalist about the thing both journalists just heard?  How frequently have you seen panel discussions where the panellists had absolutely no obvious expertise either in the subject matter or in leading public debates?  How frequently have you seen panellists of journalists talking about things they clearly do not understand?

We desperately need people to understand and characterise the problem with public debate before they start prescribing remedies.  It is too easy to use the word ‘troll’, or abstractly derive meaningless terms like ‘predator troll’, to frame the discussion.  If you’re a paid media professional saying that we need another Stolen Generation, you’re contributing to democratic debate; if you’re anonymously claiming that a female journalist gives sexual favours to politicians, you’re  a ‘predator troll’.

The solution becomes obvious.  If you want public debate to improve, you don’t start from the position that we should punish and reprimand the public; you start from the position that media companies should promote and exemplify the sort of public debate that we want.  Reward the good; diminish the bad.

Anonymity, privacy, and public debate

It’s clear from the above that it is not anonymous speech that is the problem with public debate.  We have seen that media personalities are happy to put their names to absolutely revolting views.  What the above obscures is that it is harder and harder for an individual to demarcate between their private and public lives.

Even a few generations ago, a person could have all manner of hobbies which they could keep separate.  Perhaps they quite enjoyed a Saturday morning at the library, going to church on Sunday, and a midweek evening playing sport.  In small towns, it was harder to keep these groups separate, but in a city, it was quite easy.  Lots of people had hobbies or interests that other people involved in their life simply did not know about.

And, sure, sometimes these hobbies or interests were sinister or antisocial but we can imagine the vast majority were not so.

To link a person to all their social engagements was quite difficult.  You would have to physically stalk them in order to get this information.

Now, keeping your hobbies and interests distinct and separate, even from your working life, is quite difficult.  I have an interest in early Christian theology.  A person could, quite easily, link my profile on some chat boards there to my blog here and then to my work, or to my video gaming profile, &c. &c.

And it’s not just online.  If I want to be involved with a protest, for example, it is very easy to link data about me to my activities in the real world.  We saw this when the wrong cyclist got doxxed over their opposition to BLM signange: people looked up activity monitors to see who was there at the right time in order to identify who it was.

I, as a conservative, strongly believe in the policing role of community.  We create social norms as a society and enforce them through shame and reputation.  But that policing role always had limits, even if imperfect.  A person could close their front door.

Now we have the capacity to police people from the other side of the world.  There’s no ‘front door’ that they can close because everything is linked or linkable to the hypervigilant.

This becomes the problem.  How can the ordinary person demarcate the boundaries between public and private life without some level of anonymity?  More precisely, how can they take the risk to engage in social activities if that participation demands that they forgo reasonable privacies?

There’s two dimension to this question: the knowledge content, and the person who is able to access the knowledge content.  That is, if I encounter somebody, what I should be permitted to know about them might change depending upon contexts.  The State, for example, should be able to know significantly more about an individual than a passerby on the street.  An unlawful encounter with a person, as another example, should increase my ability to know more about them (for the purposes of suing them, for example).

Paul Barry wants all masks off.  If you say ‘Boo!’ online to anybody, a journalist should be allowed to raid your private life.  This is an absurd and wildly irrational position to hold.

I want to argue the reverse.  Given the ways that people can be linked online, we are rapidly approaching the time when we should develop new norms about being anonymous as much as possible.  If I’m not anonymous when I’m participating in one public forum, I make it easier for people to decrypt the identities of others with whom I’m interacting.  If you go to a protest and meet up with your friends, if you’re not all suppressing your identities, one of you can be used to identify the others.

There are, and always will be, capacities of law enforcement to go after people who are engaging in unlawful behaviour.  We definitely need new norms of policing to enforce some of that online, but we don’t need to force people to shed their anonymity generally for that to occur.

What makes this process work is that people invest in their identies in various contexts.  A person who has invested in social interactions on, say, an early Christian theology web forum, now has an identity there that is worth something.  If people do try to disrupt that, there are ways to manage it (for example, limiting the scope of engagement available to those who have not established good social connections).

There is nothing stopping this model from being used even by media companies, except that it limits their profits.  ‘For your comments to be visible to everybody, you need this much clout’ would limit abuse but would also reduce the number of people showing up for flamewars, lowing click counts.

In conclusion

The media is definitely the problem.  Until we get new norms about what quality public debate is, we will continue to see this problem repeat.  It is appalling that a media personality would think it appropriate to go after the public when his own industry is the root cause of the problem that he’s seeing in the world.

Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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