Right Wing Nut House



Filed under: Blogging, Government — Rick Moran @ 5:46 am

I don’t know the man so I can’t say definitively if this apology is a self serving effort at damage control or whether it is sincere. But it strikes me as genuine - a realization by Whelan that his actions caused real damage to a real person:

On reflection, I now realize that, completely apart from any debate over our respective rights and completely apart from our competing views on the merits of pseudonymous blogging, I have been uncharitable in my conduct towards the blogger who has used the pseudonym Publius. Earlier this evening, I sent him an e-mail setting forth my apology for my uncharitable conduct. As I stated in that e-mail, I realize that, unfortunately, it is impossible for me to undo my ill-considered disclosure of his identity. For that reason, I recognize that Publius may understandably regard my apology as inadequate.

Short, sweet, and to the point. It appears that Mr. Whelan, despite publishing a lot of stuff online, really had no clue of the consequences of revealing someone’s identity on the internet. It is no excuse for his actions but, as Publius himself points out, at the very least, Whelan has started a much overdue debate about a blogger hiding his identity by using a pseudonym:

Ed Whelan has written both publicly and privately and apologized. I know it was not an easy thing to do, and it is of course accepted. I therefore consider the matter done, and don’t intend on writing about it anymore.

The real story here wasn’t really about me anyway — it’s about whether the norm of pseudonymity is a good thing. And there’s a legitimate debate about that. Personally, I think that pseudonymity is a net benefit, whatever other costs it brings. More voices are better than less — and pseudonymity (to me) enriches the public sphere by adding voices that could not otherwise be heard. But people can disagree in good faith about these things, as Whelan correctly notes.

Anyway, I’m moving on. I appreciate Whelan’s update. And that’s all I have to say.

Well done by Publius on all accounts - accepting the apology and wanting to move on to other, more vital matters.

I note a couple of things from the comments and emails I’ve received on this matter. First, I found it more just a little ironic that many of those defending Whelan were anonymous commenters themselves. I think it also revealing - at least, based on an unscientific survey of comments on my site and elsewhere - that many bloggers, even on the right, sympathized with Publius and even supported his right to anonymity while many commenters did not.

The real issue of anonymity as far as I’m concerned has nothing to do with bloggers but rather with those who comment on their sites. Yes, there is a difference - a big one. I don’t think I can recall a single instance where a blog commenter lost their job, or was harassed or stalked, or suffered in any way for commenting on a blog post using their own name. If there are such cases, they must be very rare and not well publicized. What are the chances of an employer of a blog commenter who uses their real name, running across a comment made on a website - even if they’re looking for it - and firing that commenter for something he said?

The problem of stalking and threats may be a different matter but it is no accident that blog commenters who use their real name are much less likely to engage in “fighting words” hyperbole when commenting than the blog commenter who hides ignobly behind a fictitious character.

For these reasons, the use of a pseudonym when commenting on blogs is a device employed not for protection but rather to hide behind. Many find anonymity more comfortable when personally attacking a blogger using the most vile and disgusting language, because they would never say anything similar to the bloggers face if they were using their real name. “Fighting words” take on a whole new dimension when reality sets in and the “conversation” between a blogger and a commenter is based on two human beings exchanging thoughts rather than one human being and one fictional character throwing verbal bombs at one another. In this way, the pseudonymous commenter can ignore the minimal societal strictures that prohibit the kind of personal insults which, if said face to face to another human being, would result in the commenter coming to regret their vile attacks.

Is that the definition of cowardly? You betchya.

I suspect that most of these commenters who troll the blogs trying to start a fight are really quite mild mannered, milquetoast sorts of people when they push themselves away from the monitor, scared of their own shadow, and easily dominated by others be it their spouses or their bosses at work. They hit back at life by developing an alter ego where they can pour out all their frustration, all of their hate, all of their bile where it is assured that no one will ever connect them to their real life personaes.

I realize that not all pseudonymous commenters are trolls and many anonymous commenters are quite circumspect in their commentary. But the motivation is the same; they feel more comfortable in criticizing someone by wrapping themselves in a comfortable cloak of anonymity rather than taking the risk that if someone were to then criticize them, that criticism would be personal. Instead of being directed at a fictitious character, the criticism of their thoughts, their ideas, their logic strikes at their self-identity. In my opinion, this too, is cowardly.

Save investigating every commenter to determine if the handle they are using is of a real person, I see no way that this practice will change anytime soon. But most bloggers with whom I have discussed this behavior believe the anonymity of nasty, unprincipled commenters on their site to be the most frustrating part of blogging. And I suppose it’s something that bloggers are going to have to live with until the technology is developed to deal with the problem, or blogging culture itself changes.


  1. Good post Rick. Jack Dunphy who many have read on The Corner as a LAPD officer who has been blogging for 9 years under a pseudonym is probably what brought Ed to the light. Here is a cop providing insight that he couldn’t give while maintaining his job. Yet spiteful partisans can’t see that the outing of Publius on the left would be no different than an outing of Jack on the right. I hope that people don’t retaliate against Jack for Ed Whelan’s sins because these types of venguful acts wind up helping no one in particular, and stifle a good debate.

    Those attempting to stand on some flimsy principle should also find it amusing that Ed Whelan won’t reveal his…..”anonymous” source who provide Publius’s name. Now that’s ironic.

    Comment by Derrick — 6/9/2009 @ 6:47 am

  2. I think there are different levels of anon- and pseudonymity. Some people seem to choose random letters, some find a moniker they like, and some use a tissue-thin first name and initial.

    That said, I think that on blogs, it’s a good idea to require your users to register a name — not necessarily a real name — and to continue to use it on your site. When forced to do that, a person becomes invested in his Web site persona and can at least be held socially accountable for his sins.

    Comment by James H — 6/9/2009 @ 7:20 am

  3. Is there any possibility the commenting problem has only gotten worse as people have more time on their hands at work and/or home (because they are unemployed now or have hour cutbacks)?

    As a former mil-blogger, I can understand why any blogger in an organization like the military or a corporation would consider pseudonymous blogging. Once people within know what you do, often unreasonable demands are made as to what happens on your blog. I was once called on the carpet for comments about mid-grade officers, the former SECDEF and senior NCO’s that anonymous shipmates were posting in comment threads.

    Comment by Eddie — 6/9/2009 @ 7:21 am

  4. Rick, have you never heard of the phrase “Dooce”? People do sometimes suffer real-world consequences for blogging.

    Now, I entirely agree with your proposition that some people will use a pseudonym or anonymity to assist in behaving terribly. But I submit that a significant proportion of them would behave terribly anyway.

    Personally, I blog, and comment on other blogs, using the same pseudonym. I do so for reasons not dissimilar from those cited by publius back during Whelan’s snit. Quite a lot of practicing lawyers who want to hobby-blog do this, too (e.g., Ken at Popehat). Bear in mind that the vast majority of pseudonymous bloggers write in a reasonable, responsible, and mature fashion.

    Excuse me but are you having difficulty in delineating the difference between a “blogger” and a “blog commenter?” The whole point of the piece is that there is a significant difference. Holy Jesus, I spent 1200 words yesterday taking Whalen to task for outing publius for exactly the reasons you mention above. My point is that blog commenters using their real name rarely get “dooced” and if they do, I’ve never heard of it. They certainly don’t expose themselves - be they reasonable or not - to the same perils as bloggers.

    Your case is different because you have a blog and an established online personae. Most anonymous commenters are too lazy or cowardly to start their own blogs and, as I said yesterday, glom onto large sites so that they have an audience for their idiocy. Since the danger to blog commenters who use their real name is unproven to me, the only possible conclusion I can reach is that they fear having their thoughts rejected - which would be a rejection of them rather than the thoughts of some fictitious character.


    Comment by Transplanted Lawyer — 6/9/2009 @ 7:43 am

  5. Rick, you certainly make many fair and accurate points about tendencies among anonymous blog commenters. And you’re probably right that cases in which someone was fired for writing perecived politically sensitive comments on a blog are very rare, if they happened at all.

    At the same time, I guess that I take a better safe than sorry approach. This fall, I am applying to PhD programs. I am still debating between applying to public policy programs or urban/regional planning programs, or some combination. Anyway, the urban planning programs tend to be very “progressive.” The odds of my comments on a blog site affecting my prospects are probably quite low, but why take a chance?

    I never use vile or disgusting language. I will often use a sharp edge against the “progressive” left, but I never write anything that I would not say to someone in real life - assuming that person is not in a position to affect my future.

    Comment by Buckeye — 6/9/2009 @ 7:46 am

  6. You left out one reason for anonymous commenting… the example from literature. But I will give up my anonymity and confess that I am Andrew Wiggin.

    Comment by Postagoras — 6/9/2009 @ 8:09 am

  7. I would like it noted than I am an asshole under my real name.

    Comment by michael reynolds — 6/9/2009 @ 8:42 am

  8. Very well said, Rick. And in that spirit, I would like to announce that my real name is not Ryan Garns… but is, in fact, Connie Chung.

    Comment by Ryan Garns — 6/9/2009 @ 9:13 am

  9. Like Buckeye said. I use a pseudonym when I comment, and I consider “Calming Influence”’s reputation pretty much my own. The only other pseudonym I’ve ever used is “jexter” (since dropped except on sites I signed up on long ago), and people generally know I am one and the same. I’ve made stupid comments that were inaccurate/not well thought out that I’ve owned up to it in order to preserve my reputation. I don’t make up new names for myself for every comment. I know this isn’t the same as using my real name, and it does give me more freedom to say whatever pops into my head. But honestly, I try hard not to.

    Comment by Calming Influence — 6/9/2009 @ 9:36 am

  10. But it strikes me as genuine - a realization by Whelan that his actions caused real damage to a real person:

    I wonder if Publius ever had the same idea about the damage his coomments caused since Whalen by virtue of using his real name, was already exposed to their consequences?

    You’ve already read my comments, Rick, so you know where I stand on this. I think Whalen did nothing wrong under the circiumstances. In short, I’m with Jonah, who says it well:

    In short, I think the answer to this question depends entirely on the conduct of the anonyblogger. It seems counter-intuitive to bullies and cowards who like the idea of sticking pins in voodoo dolls from a safe distance, but anonyblogging requires more politeness and decency even though it liberates you to use less. If you are honest, fair-minded, and polite I think people should probably respect your anonymity. If you play fast and loose with the truth and are altogether a shabby person, I am at a loss as to why everyone should respect your desire to hurl insults and brickbats from the safety of anonymity.

    By the way, Rick, see your mail for a note from me on this topic.

    Comment by Eric Florack — 6/9/2009 @ 9:41 am

  11. I comment under a pseudonym. I feel not only more comfortable with criticism of a blog, but also with praise of one. I also am unaware of any adverse consequences to commenters who use their real identities, but given how poisonous the cultue and our politics have become would not be shocked if it emerges there have been many.

    This is a thoughtful discussion and one that should be had.

    Comment by jackson1234 — 6/9/2009 @ 9:42 am

  12. I do appreciate the difference, Rick, but thank you for making it crystal-clear. I was under the impression that publius is both a blogger and a commenter and uses his pseudonym for both purposes, making all blog activities part of his persona. I obviously failed to make that portion of my point clear; I’m sorry about that and apologize for any inadvertent disrespect taken from my earlier post (none was intended).

    Like you, I’m sure Publius comments on blog posts at other sites. But people like you and Publius get a pass in my book simply because you are bloggers and your work is much easier to find than a troll whose comments are difficult to discover using a search engine. This makes them invisible - and reckless, in my opinion.


    Comment by Transplanted Lawyer — 6/9/2009 @ 10:46 am

  13. Rick, I think it should be pointed out that there are few basic types of blog commenters:

    1. those who are completely anonymous , i.e. those who shift handles from site to site and/or use something generic that could be tied to anyone (like “anonymous”). These people people may go so far as to post using a proxy (thereby hiding their IP) and use a phony email address.

    2. those who are pseudonymous, but are strictly commenters. They use the same alias on every site they visit, may even use legit email addresses, but have no publicly viewable site of their own tied to that handle (leaving no avenue to “follow up”).

    3. those who are pseudonymous and also blog under the same pseudonym. They use the same handle throughout the political web, and provide a link back to their own blog wherever they leave comments. Often, the use of an recognisable avatar is used (on sites that enable it). This level of transparency provides a sense of accountability to the particular netizen, as there is a sort of “brand” established that is worth maintaining and defending. Many netizens, including myself, fall into this category.

    4. those who post under their real-life name

    Of course, there are grey areas above and certain people may spend time online using a combination of any of those (depending on the website being visited), but I think that’s the basic breakdown.

    That’s a good breakdown. My concern is that most commenters fall into categories 1 and 2. #1’s are invariably trolls while #2’s can be thoughtful and reasonable but also have their fair share of bombthrowers.

    I suppose my main point is why? The only reason that strikes me is that #2’s are especially afraid to be criticized personally and prefer to have their alter ego’s in the line of fire. Some may just be shy but I suspect that a majority wish to save themselves hurt feelings or bruised ego.

    Is that a good reason not to use your own name?


    Comment by ChenZhen — 6/9/2009 @ 10:57 am

  14. The debate over anonymity, pseudonymity and reputation cred on the Internet has been raging for decades. It’s only new to people who are new to the net. There really should be a FAQ about this.

    Comment by Larry Detweiler — 6/9/2009 @ 11:35 am

  15. I suppose my main point is why? The only reason that strikes me is that #2’s are especially afraid to be criticized personally and prefer to have their alter ego’s in the line of fire. Some may just be shy but I suspect that a majority wish to save themselves hurt feelings or bruised ego.

    Is that a good reason not to use your own name?

    The reasons are many and varied, from being rooted in the realm of psychology (like “ego”, as you say) to the practical (things like this).

    Personally, I’ve never viewed this as that big of a problem for bloggers. There are many available ways to deal with it; anything from requiring registration to deleting/banning offenders to abandoning a comments section altogether. Other sites use third-party commenting systems (like Disqus), which make it easy to track a particular commenter’s shenanigans.

    Ultimately, I think a high-profile blogger (pseudonymous or not) has to develop a thick skin, and get used to brushing off the stuff that’s short of outright personal threats of violence and the like. Petty Ad hominems are logical fallacy, after all, and the way I look at it, the commenter lost the debate on the opening salvo. In fact, instead of giving someone the honor of me engaging in such things, I let the comment stand….with a sort of Scarlett letter. ( It worked much better than I expected; no one wanted that little white flag by their comment. lol)

    Comment by ChenZhen — 6/9/2009 @ 11:48 am

  16. I’m with Transplanted Lawyer. It’s easy for people who write about politics for a living to criticize anonymity. But when you’re writing as a hobby, you have to take your real life into account. And Rick, I’m glad you see the distinction between bloggers and those who have no trail to their larger body of work.

    Comment by Deuce Geary — 6/9/2009 @ 11:57 am

  17. [...] most appreciate that the dispute sparked debate on the legitimacy of anonymous blogging, Rick Moran takes aim at anonymous blog commenters. He opens the issue with this irony, but there’s much, much more at the link: I note a couple [...]

    Pingback by Where to draw the line on blogging anonymity? | The Skepticrats — 6/9/2009 @ 7:21 pm

  18. ChenZhen broke down commentators in their categories rather well. I would only add a possible reason as to why some stay in the #2 slot: because they would like to be a #3 kind of regular, but aren’t motivated to start their own blog yet. (A less sympathetic voice would say its because they’re too lazy!) Perhaps this discussion will motivate some of us #2’s to get our act together…

    Comment by Surabaya Stew — 6/9/2009 @ 8:34 pm

  19. I post under a psuedonym for the exact opposite reason — identity.
    I have been “busboy33″ for almost 2 decades now, and have never posted on any site under a different name. I consider my identity as busboy33 to be as “real” as the name on my birth certificate (fwiw, Mike Koughan). People have recognized me online from different sources . . . or to be more specific, they recognized busboy33.

    I know the person who runs this site as Rick Moran. If his “real” name was Rahm Emanuel, would the words he wrote suddenly mean something different? I agree with this sentence, but now that I know his “real” name the sentence is a lie?

    A psuedonym is only anonymous if it doesn’t represent an entity, an identity. If it does, then the name is just as “real” as any other.

    Comment by busboy33 — 6/9/2009 @ 10:30 pm

  20. The problem of stalking and threats may be a different matter…

    May be a different matter? How easily you gloss over an essential problem! Perhaps you have never been harassed in person, in writing, or over the phone for your opinions on the net. Perhaps you never had your wife pick up the phone only to be subjected to vile comments–upsetting her terribly–by obviously leftwing kooks!

    Perhaps you have never had serious threats made to you, and the police, you find, are simply not interested in your situation. “If he calls again, let us know!” So he calls again, and no action. Yes, most threats of this kind are empty, but try telling that to the wife!

    You want to post comments, but you do not want this harassment of the family. So you adopt a pseudonym, and go on posting. THIS is my reason for being mannning and not using my real name anymore, and I will continue to do so, here, and elsewhere (unless banned, of course).

    Comment by mannning — 6/9/2009 @ 11:23 pm

  21. I generally think anonymity of bloggers is not wise. But for what it’s worth, the Blogfather himself, Glenn Reynolds aka InstaPundit got into this blogging stuff early by posting comments on Slate’s Fray around 2000 — using the pseudonym AGAndroid. As AG, he was anointed as the first “star” poster in the Fray (he later revealed himself). Back then, most of the regular Fray posters, including many of the “stars” (ultimately scores of them) adopted online aliases. A popular star for years, “History Guy,” for example, turned out to be Philadelphia lawyer Arthur Stock. I was the 12th person to be names a star poster — in March 2001 — under the name, Publius. Had I maintained the Publius online franchise all those intervening years, I might have been more inclined to adopt it when I started my blog six months ago. By then, though, the Internet was crawling with Publiuses, including the one biting at Whelan’s ankles. In any case, my wife convinced me that people I knew would think it strange if I didn’t use my name, unless I wanted to keep the fact of my blogging a secret from my friends and family. She was right about that.

    Still, I see a difference between publishing a blog and posting comments on a site. I don’t think any of us in the early Slate Fray thought we were hiding behind our handles. Even though we regulars often worked hard on our comments and rebuttals and sometimes thought we did a better job than Slate’s contributors, it simply was not our publication and we were not its publishers, so we felt no obligation to state our names. Plus, it was fun to create an online personality that was readily recognized by the other Fray regulars.

    When you ARE a publisher, even of a blog that has a tiny audience, I do think you have an obligation to put your name to it.

    Comment by John Burke — 6/10/2009 @ 12:33 am

  22. When you ARE a publisher, even of a blog that has a tiny audience, I do think you have an obligation to put your name to it.

    An obligation to whom? Since when does the general public or any blogger’s feelings take precedence over protection of family?
    Using a pseudonym is perfectly proper and fair.

    Since when does the sensitivity and ego of a blogger take precedent over polite but firm freedom of expression, right or wrong?

    I am seldom if ever provoked to use any smutty language or name-calling, but I do state my opinions as directly as I know how, and, I can be dead wrong, too.

    On this site, one can expect to be snarked now and then, although I have been given a no-retort pass almost all of the time by Moran.

    Comment by mannning — 6/10/2009 @ 10:44 am

  23. This is going to sound dumb because it is dumb but two years ago when I first started reading blogs and the comments on those blogs I noticed that 99.9% of commenters used what I thought of as “handles” so I thought that “handles” were part of internet blogging culture. I now know better

    I didn’t start commenting for a long time because of not really being comfortable with any “handle” I could come up with until the day I was reading OUR ANGRY EARTH and I got to the part about self-regulating systems. I thought I’m a self-regulating system myself, I’m a child of Earth and thus Gaia’s Child.

    For the record, I’m Karen Morland and I agree with one of the above commenters who suggested a Q&A for us newbies, especially those of us who are also clueless.

    Mannning, I am very sorry for what happened to you and your family. Both myself and my daughter have had it happen us because we publicly stood up for our beliefs. You’re right, it’s right to tell when the crazies are really serious.

    Comment by Gaia's Child — 6/10/2009 @ 10:45 am

  24. Gaia’s Child: thank you, and you have my sympathies too for your trial by harassment.

    I think Busboy has it about right. Your pseudonym stands for yourself, and it is just as much a part of you as your real name in matters of opinion when commenting and blogging. There should be no degrading of comments because of the use of a cover name; none, in my opinion, either in my comments or on my blog. Which reminds me, out of laziness I have not typed in my blog address for some time. It is there now.

    Perhaps many on the web are not really tuned in to the use of pseudonyms by authors, which is a well-known tradition. A close relative of mine wrote short stories for the pulp market, and was good enough to have three stories in one issue a number of times. She was forced by the publishers to adopt several pseudonyms as a result.

    I would ask anyone what is the harm? If you really want to find a commenter or blogger, and have real cause, it is possible to do so. But, that act leaves a trail also, I am told, so if there is any harassment problem the attacker can be found, even through proxies, if you have proper legal cause. One hopes it never comes to such an end.

    Comment by mannning — 6/10/2009 @ 3:17 pm

  25. From Manning:

    “When you ARE a publisher, even of a blog that has a tiny audience, I do think you have an obligation to put your name to it.”

    An obligation to whom? Since when does the general public or any blogger’s feelings take precedence over protection of family?
    Using a pseudonym is perfectly proper and fair.

    Good question. The answer is an obligation to the audience — those who appreciate what you’ve written, those who don’t and those whom you’ve criticized.

    Of course, no one can or ahould force a blogger to identify himself or herself, but all obligations don’t arise from compulsion.

    Don’t people generally agree that publishing political attacks on this or that party or candidate in the form of anonymous leaflets is not “proper and fair?” I think so; that’s why there actually are laws against unsourced campaign literature.

    What about anonymous robo-calls? Ditto.

    And how about radio and TV ads that criticize without identifying the source? Ditto. Indeed, not only are such ads in campaigns illegal but broadcasters would refuse to air anonymously sourced ads on any subject at any time?

    What about an anonymous op-ed in The New York Times excoriating Obama — or Bush?
    The Times wouldn’t print one, but if it did, most people would think it neither proper nor fair.

    Does the MEDIUM of communication change the strong sense we have that anonymous critiques are improper and unfair, if not worse? I see no reason why that should be. The Internet does empower many more people by giving them easy tools to publish and reach a wide audience, so that the traditional media now have a powerful competitor. That’s a huge step forward and needs to be further encouraged. In the process, why should we expect less of the new media than of the old?

    Perhaps it doesn’t matter that an obscure blogger like me remains anonymous, but what about when I acquire an audience the size of Glenn Reynolds’ or Matt Drudge’s? Would it still be proper and fair for me to be hurling barbs at folks for an audience of millions, shaping daily news agendas in the process? Where is the line to be drawn between the small casual blogger and the big influential one? That’s why I recapped how it was that Glenn Reynolds came to be InstaPundit. And that’s why I do not blog anonymously.

    Comment by John Burke — 6/10/2009 @ 4:10 pm

  26. Well, IMO, what is posted by a blogger or a commenter stands or falls on its content, not its true or false name on this particular medium. Total annonymity, however, is another story: virtually untraceable.

    The “audience” must take a back seat to the protection of the family. End of story.

    Comment by mannning — 6/10/2009 @ 8:01 pm

  27. I will add one more thing. Most publishers and broadcasters in the media have both policies for the content they publish, and editorial staff to enforce both the policies and the decency standards they have adopted.
    So, in theory at least, nothing gets to the audience unless it passes the staff.

    The only governors for commenters are the blog owner/staff and the commenter’s own ethics. If the commenter is really out of line, it is up to the owner/staff to edit or deny posts.

    Comment by mannning — 6/10/2009 @ 8:25 pm

  28. May I point out that insisting on people using their “real names” when commenting puts much more of a burden of revelation on those of us with unusual names? If someone’s true name is Tony Smith, said Tony Smith will be lost in the shuffle of all the other Tony Smiths in existence out there. In other words, someone with a more-or-less generic name is already pseudo-anonymous. A prospective employer doing a search on the background of an applicant will probably not treat blog comments made by a “Tony Smith” with much consideration because of the difficulty of tying the applicant Tony Smith to the commentator Tony Smith.

    For those of us who have far more unique names, our signing our names is far more revelatory, and causes us to take on much more risk. Thank you, but I prefer to not do that, and I can see why people who comment on controversial topics might not want to be so precisely pinpointed and localized as targets for the crazies out there.

    Comment by grumpy realist — 6/10/2009 @ 8:55 pm

  29. I don’t think I can recall a single instance where a blog commenter lost their job, or was harassed or stalked, or suffered in any way for commenting on a blog post using their own name.

    You now have two reported instances here of commenters that have been harassed: mine and Gaia’s Child. You can recall them henceforth.

    Comment by mannning — 6/11/2009 @ 1:46 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Powered by WordPress