Anonymity didn't use to have a bad name

Writer anonymity is the online norm when people post comments on articles, blogs and social media. Last week, a loose group of hackers calling themselves the Anonymous Collective compromised several local websites. Their work is as their name suggests: anonymous.

In fact, for the last 500 years or more, authors have signed off, sometimes with pride, sometimes in shame, in that fashion. Anonymity, it turns out, has a chequered history.

These days, online comments are anonymous and pseudonymous by default, online identities being easily masked or concealed.

Those in favour of anonymity say it allows for a freer exchange of ideas, shielding people from retribution wrought by the authorities or reprisals by bystanders. Unencumbered opinions can thus be expressed freely and frankly under its cover.

But anonymity can also promote a lack of accountability, especially online. Harsh words, incendiary talk, innuendoes or falsehoods can hurt their targets more online than in print. Online postings have a global reach, are searchable and can exist in perpetuity in cached form even if the post is deleted from a webpage.

While there may be some tendency to see author anonymity in the online environment as the wearing of a mask - akin to a burglar or robber who is up to no good - it actually has roots in a very honourable tradition.

This is not immediately evident today because writings in the print media - newspaper columns and magazine stories, academic articles and books of all kinds - almost invariably carry the names of the publisher and author by default. Yet this was not always the case. The Anonymous Renaissance (University of Chicago Press, 2003) describes in detail how the advent of the printing press changed the culture of early modern England.

The author, Dr Marcy North, notes that people tend to link anonymous writing with mediaeval times, that is, before the advent of the printing press. In fact, she notes, the print culture that emerged in Tudor-Stuart England did not see the end of anonymous authorship. Instead, as a literary device, it persisted well into the mid-19th century, when newspapers flourished and writer bylines became the norm.

But the latter came about only after intense debate about the merits of bylined writing versus continued anonymity in journalism. Bylines promoted greater responsibility for the written word, some argued. Conversely, anonymity hampered free markets as consumers were deprived of relevant information about the product: Nameless writers and editors might produce a substandard product as they were not personally identifiable as associated with the end product.

In that debate, an entirely new stream of scholarship was born that sought to identify the authors of anonymous writings in history. It was a scholarly movement that tended to throw the legitimacy of such anonymous texts into doubt. In the end, bylines won the day and anonymity fell into disfavour.

During the Revolutionary Era across the Atlantic, however, it was different. As the US Supreme Court noted in McIntyre v Ohio Elections Commissions (1995), opinion leaders wrote anonymously in newspapers and pamphlets. They did this to avoid reprisals from the British authorities, knowing full well that, in the old country, both King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth had insisted that every published work must bear its author and printer's names.

In 1663, John Twyn published anonymously A Treatise On The Execution Of Justice that held the Crown accountable to the people. At trial, Twyn refused to divulge the author's identity, a capital offence. For this he was hanged, drawn and quartered. Hence, the revolutionaries in the US were careful when challenging Britain.

That anonymity carried over into post-Revolution times as an old habit. Thus during the 1787-1788 debates over the design and ratification of the United States Constitution, many would write under pseudonyms. At that time, Federalists and anti-Federalists fought a vituperative pamphleteering war. The latter wanted to keep most governing power at the state or local level, arguing that a strong central government favoured by the former might act like a monarchy.

Anti-Federalists wrote using monickers like Brutus (a Roman general involved in assassinating Julius Caesar), while Federalists countered with pieces under names like Publius (one of four Roman aristocrats who overthrew the monarchy and established the republic of Rome).

In using these classical names in the early constitutional debates, the pamphleteers wrote into being a national identity that was based upon and drew down from the cultural and political capital of Western civilisation.

Because many who would later become US presidents and members of the Congress wrote anonymously in that period, this political process of old conferred much legitimacy on anonymous authorship. Thus it was that the McIntyre court could say that "anonymous pamphleteering is not a pernicious, fraudulent practice, but an honourable tradition of advocacy and dissent".

This sentiment carried over seamlessly to the Internet which was, after all, originally a US creation. Thus were the culturally valorised origins of anonymous speech, which continues to deserve its place in the online environment despite the shenanigans of trolls and hackers.

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