Engaging Culture

Is It Cowardly To Hide Your Identity Online?

If you respond to blogs, news, and other online sites through a fake name, I have one question: Why?  What and why are you hiding?  Over the years, on this blog – as well as other places I write like Huffington Post, Charisma News, Christian Post, Fast Company, and others, I’ve discovered that the most venomous, nasty, and uncivil posts are almost always from people hiding behind a fake name.

There’s simply no accountability when you post anonymously. Which is probably the reason Huffington Post, and many other sites are starting to require the use of real names if you want to respond.

Not long ago, Facebook marketing director (and sister of founder Mark), Randi Zuckerberg announced that anonymity “should go away.” She said, “I think anonymity on the Internet has to go away. People behave a lot better when they have their real names down. … I think people hide behind anonymity and they feel like they can say whatever they want behind closed doors.”

I believe if we all posted under real names, the level of nastiness would drop, and the overall level of discussion would go up.  Particularly for the Christians who post here and other places, I think we should be accountable for our opinions, accusations, and ideas. In the early days of the Internet, everyone worried about stalkers. But today, simply adjust your Facebook settings if you’re worried and then let us know who you are.

In my opinion, to do otherwise is being a coward.  What do you think?

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  1. My policy is that whatever I say online I would say to anyone, to their face. If everyone had that attitude, I think online discussions would massively improve. So no, I don’t hide behind a pseudonym.

  2. A pastor friend of mine has a policy: If you send him a letter, and it is unsigned, he throws it out, and gives it no consideration.
    Personally, I think hiding behind a fake name is gutless. If your name is phony, I can only assume your “opinion” is as well.

  3. I wouldn’t necessarily call anyone a coward for wanting to be anonymous. There could be other reasons involved, such as social anxiety or fear of speaking out against something that could legitimately cause them harm should they be discovered (things people like Randi Zuckerberg don’t have to trouble themselves thinking about – which is why I hate her sweeping generalization), but since you’re talking more about news and blog sites, ones wanting more serious discourse, I would tend to agree with you. I think sites should have every right to enforce their personal preference and I certainly see the merits.

    The days of anonymity are numbered, anyhow, and I think in another decade or so people will selectively look back to overglorify this “golden age” period of time, choosing to ignore its less ideal aspects…such as the pervasive trolling.

    1. Good points Rosemary. I agree with you. My focus here was responding to blogs or news items – particularly when debating or being critical. People should own their ideas and opinions.

      1. I agree on this one. Anonymity has a purpose in certain forums and settings, and that’s fine, but on blog commenting or sharing one’s own ideas, they should be owned. People are more civil if before they click the “submit” button they ask themselves, ‘would I be able to say this to the person’s face? And am I willing to apologize if I turn out to be wrong?’ Yes? Ok, click submit.

        Sometimes an alias is useful not to hide identity but because I’m trying to associate a brand, although I’m new at it. In that case I clearly try to link the brand to myself, and use a real picture of me.

        Matt Lewis

  4. Sometimes we “cowards” prefer not to have our personal opinions associated as being the “official” opinions of organizations that we are immediately associated with when you see our names.

    How would it look if Phil’s faithful, obedient and efficient right-hand-man (or woman) posted something he/she strongly disagreed with you about on your blog and used their real name? You might be OK with it, but it would not reflect well … even if they were right and you were wrong – not saying that would ever happen 🙂

    So far as nasty, venomous and uncivil posts … that’s why you moderate and have the delete button.

    1. We don’t have “official” opinions and I would welcome the debate – even from my staff. (Isn’t there something out there about “free speech??).
      As for the others, why should I have to delete them? Why can’t they take responsibility for their posts and make it a civil discussion?

  5. As a pastor I have received the occasional anonymous letter. I didn’t know how to handle it when i was younger. I really took it personally and tried to “hunt down” who wrote it. I finally realized cowards wrote anonymously. The few I have received afterwards I rip up and tell myself “if they are that cowardly then they ain’t worth it.” I feel the same way about on line. You say it well Phil.

  6. The real question is not anonymity. For various reasons, there will always be a need for that. The real question is where did all these crazy people come from?

    Malcontented and quarrelsome and domineering and irascible and cranky people, like the poor, have always been with us. New technology, such as the Internet, has simply amplified to extreme decibel levels something that has already been there. (see The Katzbalger Thesis).

    1. That’s a strong point Oengus, and I did read your blog post. Totally agree. The “theology cops” seem to be multiplying out there….
      One question: Why do you blog anonymously? You’re writing some good stuff…

  7. Remarkable Phil. Just remarkable. I think it an exceptional act of cowardice to censor someone who offered a reasoned, civil argument which challenged your own POV.

    Rather than offer a compelling argument, you instead banished me from making comments (as nowis1234). I was neither rude or vulgar … just compelling.

    Yet here you are, making the same tired and baseless argument that somehow the use of a pseudonym is a) an act of cowardice and b) illegitimate. That sort of “logic” doesn’t even pass the smell test Phil.

    I have explained here previously, as well as on the Charisma site (say, why didn’t you tackle me head on there, Phil?). I elected (later) to employ a pseudonym after experiencing the unsettling experience of crossing paths with crazies online. Technology allows anyone to locate those willing to publish there names online.

    I simply don’t like the idea of finding a crazy headed down my drive at 2 AM to continue our online dialogue.

    Additionally, and you continue to evade this argument, the use of a pseudonym doesn’t negate the logic of an argument. Nevertheless, you continue to deploy this straw man in lieu of an actual reasoned response.

    You offer snide asides, misrepresent the arguments of those who found your endorsement of Noah wrongheaded, and offer self serving arguments such as the one you’ve put forward today AND block from commenting those who disagreed persistently with you … yet have the brass to suggest your own courage while glibly asserting the cowardice of others.

    I’m finding it immensely difficult to maintain the same respect for you that I held before the events of the last several weeks Phil … and that’s too bad.

    1. I know this is a stupid question just by reading what you just wrote tells me you are not but i will ask anyway do you consider yourself a Christian?

    2. He’s back! (albeit now shy a “4”)…

      I have to say I agree with Phil. Unless there are truly exceptional circumstances that demand your anonymity (eg threat of a fatwa or you are in fact President of the United States), why the heck can’t you just use your name? No-one is going to show up at the dead of night to verbally duff you up, and if you don’t like to argue with online crazies, my advice is don’t (as a wise man once said, never argue with an idiot as they’ll drag you down to their level and beat you with experience).

      By the way, “nowis123” – I have finally seen Noah. Here’s my review, if you’re interested:


    3. I love the fact that someone writing with a fake identity is calling me a coward! That is awesome. Out of nearly 1,000 responses from people around the world to my Noah posts, you’re one of only two I deleted. In both cases because (as you’re doing here) you attack me, rather than addressing the issue we’re discussing. Which couldn’t be a stronger argument about why you keep using fake, online names,
      If you want to be taken seriously, then have the courage to stop hiding, and own up to your ideas and opinions.
      Simple as that.

  8. I agree with you Phil with the idea that there could be some exceptions. Part of the problem in todays society is that “freedom of speech” only seems to go so far. Current case in point would be the CEO of Mozilla resigning. Now perhaps there was a company policy about some things I am not aware of but had a part to play in that situation. Unfortunately people have been fired over comments made online or in the public eye and that make make a case for not using your name. That being said, as a Christian I do believe you have to be prepared for such things if you are going to enter a discussion. If people would simply exercise more respect for others (and themselves) when repying to posts etc. this would be a moot question.

  9. I mostly agree with Rosemary. It is pretty sweeping to call someone a coward. The issue becomes quite sensitive depending on positions in a religious organization. In my case, I have leadership roles in two, which are occasionally even at odds with one another. As a progressive, I am taking great pains to drag our congregation into this century, and arguing FOR many of the points you make here on this blog. That said, if I were to be publicly disagreeing with leadership in either
    organization, I would not only be in error, but quickly lose my positions and ability to effect change. While I have clear lines between personal and corporate opinion, things are not always seen that way. As far as integrity goes, I don’t say anything online that I wouldn’t inside those realms. I own my thoughts. I also don’t call people names — that isn’t called for. But as a minority who has encountered overt racism, and a woman who has worked in rape crisis, I am just not that quick to give up my right to privacy or safety. Exercising my right to free speech does not negate those other rights in my opinion . . . nor does make me a hypocrite. We would do well to consider past persecutions as we enter the future.

    1. I think much of it may depend on what you’re writing. But I’m not sure why someone who believed in the vision of their workplace would be posting things that would get them fired. Seems at cross purposes and I think I’d rather work somewhere else. Bottom line is that I just don’t see the value of anonymous comments. I wouldn’t act on any criticism from those afraid to reveal their identity.

      1. That is a privileged take on it, but I accept that is your perspective. Should we have identified voting? Identity-attached feedback from workshops? Some congregations have gotten surprising feedback when “mystery shopped” by anonymous visitors. Sometimes the vision is fine but the culture has gone amiss or we have lost the ability to see ourselves. Do you believe that organizational cultures can be updated changed? Should we head for the hills or start our own thing when we could be part of the solution? I am not being facetious, I have been wrestling with these issue for some time.

        1. “Mystery Shoppers” are identified, you just don’t know when they show up. Plus you hire them. That’s quite different from unsolicited online opinions. Regarding organizational cultures, you don’t change them by being an anonymous critic. Change happens because people have skin in the game, and that’s what gives their ideas credibility.

  10. I am deeply disappointed in your lack of historical perspective when writing on this topic. Perhaps you forgot that Benjamin Franklin used the alias Silence Dogood when he attacked some of the issues of his day. But that was many years ago, so one could understand the slight.

    But surely you havent forgotten the NSA no-fly list? You know the list compiled by THE government based on sometimes nothing more than comments left on a message board. But of course, many say that the list is only made up of real threats, not cowards on the Internet. However, Edward Snowden and his information about the constant scrutiny the average American is under, might possibly disagree.

    And surely you havent forgotten about the targeting of conservatives done by our very own IRS? Based solely on ones openly held political beliefs. Posting harsh words under your real name, wouldnt possibly land you on the radar of the IRS, now would it?

    1. It would be very hard to convince me that a significant number of jerks posting online through fake identities are doing so because they’re worried about being on the NSA No Fly list. And the conservatives targeted by the IRS are quite proud to discuss it online with their real names.
      Certainly there are exceptions, but a far smaller number than you’re writing about.

  11. First of all, there is a difference between pseudonymous commenters and anonymous ones. The pseudonymous commenter has a genuine online identity, but, for some reason or other, desires a measure of obscurity or privacy for their offline identity. The truly anonymous commenter has no fixed online identity at all.

    There can be very valid reasons for desiring such obscurity. Some of us have experienced online harassment or stalking and want to keep a lower profile (I’ve had a woman move to my town from Switzerland after a relatively brief and entirely non-romantic series of interactions online). Some want people to engage with their opinions, in a manner not coloured by people’s prejudices concerning their sex, race, nationality, sexual identity, age, background, religion, associations, etc. Yet others are in work situations where they need to keep a sharp line between professional and personal activities and ensure that prospective employers searching for them online won’t discover a wealth of blog comments on controversial issues. Not all of us have the luxury of being completely public with our opinions.

    The ability to be completely open about one’s identity without fear of repercussions is a privilege that many don’t have. Those of us who speak as white university-educated heterosexual males, for instance, may not be as aware as we ought to be that we are enjoying this. The various women that I have talked to on the subject, for instance, tend to have an experience of the world of online commenting and interaction that rather differs from that of most of us men and which reveals vulnerability to some really ugly and threatening behaviours, both online and offline. For such persons the chance to be anonymous or pseudonymous is a huge blessing.

    1. Very thoughtful post Alastair. I agree with you, although I think the types of situations you’re talking about are few and far between, compared to the daily responses of arrogant and condescending people cloaked behind a fake online identity.
      But thanks for posting that perspective. It’s an important reminder!

  12. I post under a pseudonym because my job requires me to be careful about what I write on social media. I’m always careful to be polite and respectful, but I find I’m more free to share struggles and honest opinions if I post under a pseudonym. So, I think that’s a legitimate use of an anonymous online persona. However, that’s really different to the load of trolls who dish out abuse but aren’t brave enough to use their own names.

  13. Exceptional circumstances can arise very quickly, like the Germans view on the Jewish, they had a reason to hide their name right. Remember Rwandan genocide? How about the Muslim ban? Human persecute people all the time based on their views and what they say.

  14. Its easy and lazy to call someone a troll as a means to shut down free speech. You also have the freedom to scroll past the anyone you feel is a troll.

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