The decision to mask one's identity online can in some contexts be vital to a person’s protection, while in others it has a limited or even harmful effect. As human rights defenders, we feel we must learn to think more critically and carefully about the value of anonymity in online activism and journalistic work. In this session we’ll discuss this issue and brainstorm a set of guidelines intended to help journalists and advocates more effectively navigate this decision-making process. We will also consider the role of social media platforms in this milieu.
However, in some contexts it can have a harmful and deleterious effect. A recent example of this can be seen in the current situation facing the “Zone9” bloggers, a group of online activists who were arrested in Ethiopia in April 2014 and were charged with trumped-up terrorism offences. According to those who are close to the bloggers, they were working within a regime where police surveillance, both digital and physical, was far too robust to be foiled by an online pseudonym. In this context, anonymity may have promoted freedom of expression, but ultimately put the bloggers at risk of prosecution. This brings to mind the situation of a number of Cuban bloggers who explained why they used their real names in their work: they said that “by writing under a pseudonym, we signal to the state police that [we] think we are doing something wrong.” As a result, they expected to be a more likely, and more credible, target for investigation.
It is also important to note that police and government surveillance is not confined to totalitarian regimes. Following the Edward Snowden disclosures, cases brought before the European Court of Human Rights seek to argue that the surveillance activities of the United Kingdom amount to a grave threat to freedom of expression. Not least for journalists, who often rely on confidential communications to secure disclosures from those who are most vulnerable. These disclosures are at risk by virtue of the constant monitoring and collection of their communications. In such cases, anonymity is merely a false security.
As well as potentially having a harmful effect on individuals, anonymity can also destroy credibility. It can be difficult to verify the reliability of the person behind a mask. Whilst, on the other hand, putting a name or face to a piece of information can often increase the newsworthiness and impact of the disclosure. It is much easier for supporters and decision makers to empathise with people when they know their identity and status. Nonetheless, some commentators are beginning to recognise the reputation that can be built around online identities, like pseudonyms. In such circumstances, anonymity can offer security without damaging credibility.
These cases suggest that as advocates, we must strive to develop a more nuanced understanding of the power and pitfalls of anonymity on the basis of context. We will use this session to discuss the intricacies of this issue and brainstorm some guidelines for individuals navigating this process. We will post the framework on Global Voices (and RP?) and ask for feedback from our broader community. Our hope is to generate a meaningful discussion on the issue that can actually help journalists, advocates, and security experts better understand and navigate this territory hand-in-hand.