For very exciting reasons–completely unrelated to Twitter Drama–I have had to turn my mind to anonymity in the political process. Electoral laws around Australia express an expectation that, if you’re campaigning or attempting to influence the outcome of an election, you have to give up your anonymity to do so. Put an ad on television? Authorised by the party officer, Canberra. Put flier in a letter box? Authorised by the party officer, Canberra. Run a campaign to encourage people to vote for the Party because they are good for your cause? Authorised by the lobby group, Canberra.
That last one is the focus of my attention lately. What does it mean to attempt to affect the way a person votes, and when should you fall over the threshold between a private citizen engaging in political communication that is implied to be free and a campaigner who needs to disclose their identity?
Twitter is rife with anonymous and pseudonymous Twitter accounts that get up to a wild amount of mischief. Needless to say, in Australia, these accounts are overwhelmingly from the left of the political spectrum. There’s ‘Mad Fucking Witches‘, an account that runs hyperpartisan content with a gendered focus. There was once @JohnWren1960 until it got done for offences against the Commonwealth Criminal Code (relating to the fabrication of a letter from the Commonwealth; it was very, very exciting). There’s @PRGuy17 who, as illustrated in the last post, runs hyperpartisan misinformation in order to shout down critism about Daniel Andrews.
There are even accounts that superficially look like they’re just ‘information’ accounts, but really contain information that is intended to affect the political process. There’s @not_my_debt, which runs a campaign about the ‘robodebt’ process. And there’s the Australian Unemployed Workers Union.
The point of the above paragraph is not to claim that they are all alike. The hyperpartisans are clearly different from the support groups. They serve different broader functions and have very different strategies for engaging in the political process. My point isn’t to argue that they should all be cast into the fires.
My point is more specific: at what point should we know who is running the account?
As I’ve argued a lot, I don’t think our intuitions about privacy are particularly good as a society. There are plenty of instances of public activities (especially when participating online) that people imagine should actually be private activities. If I walk down the street and enter a shop, I might be observed by a police officer and nobody really has a serious objection to this. If I–to use 1990s e-cyber-punk movie imagery–walk down the information highway and enter an online store, our intuitions get scrambled a bit about whether or not we have done something public or private.
Despite this anxiety about the intuition with regard to surveillance, security, and law enforcement, I am borderline fanatical about the nature of privacy and anonymity in private relations. If I walk down the street and enter a shop, I would want to know why a private person might be filming me or taking pictures of me. More than just ‘want to know’, I would expect them to stop doing it where I have a reasonable expectation of privacy.
It’s that last point: the reasonable expectation of privacy that causes me grief. I don’t think that the person who stands in the middle of the town square and declares accusations against the State has a reasonable expectation of privacy. It is reasonable to expect them to be filmed or photographed, or to become part of public debate.
But what if they stand in the middle of the town square with their identity concealed? Should people have a ‘right to know’ who is trying to influence public debate?
This issue is difficult to resolve even when running the arguments on easy mode: middle class, heterosexual white guy campaigning for lower taxes. Should we be allowed to unmask him? Although we might not consider him to be particularly worthy of protection, or feel like he is at risk with his views, it seems odd to think that we can determine the extent to which he is allowed to participate in public life without giving up some of his privacy or anonymity.
And if it’s difficult to resolve on easy mode, then it’s exponentially more difficult when we add in more factors, such as class, race, gender, and if the political demand is ‘taboo’.
I’m increasingly of the view that it’s irresponsible to participate in public protest without concealing your identity. The increased ability to link public identity with private identity inevitably means that the person who stands up to participate in political life is potentially subject to all kinds of interference in their life. Normalising anonymity ensures that it is easier to argue that there is a reasonable expectation of privacy when we participate in protests or rallies.
But this train is clearly headed in a direction that I think is wrong. I think there’s an intuitive difference between the person who comes along to a rally and a person who runs an ongoing campaign to influence political outcomes.
The problem is that this becomes a ‘matter of degree’ issue, which is always uncomfortable when talking about the regulation of political speech. For all of the Twitter accounts listed above, there should be a real name attached that says: ‘Hi, this is the person running the account.’ This is what we want if we want a political process that is open and transparent. We need to know if ALP-affiliated parties are running disinformation accounts to influence political debate and silence criticism of Dan Andrews, for example.
I’ll end this one with a bit of a caveat: the requirement to disclose authorship of electoral matter is an issue for running elections, and it’s not a standing obligation. What I’m arguing here is not a legal point, but a question about what we want from political debate and how we want political debate to improve.
Anonymity is essential to political participation; there is absolutely no question about that. The issue is that there appears to be a threshold where we have gone beyond ‘private’ political participation and moved into advocacy where the public has an interest in who is trying to influence political outcomes.