“Tell me what you see vanishing and I will tell you what you are.”

W.S. Merwin


Anonymously. What a word that is. If you’re anonymous, you’re invisible, but real. Unknown but not unknowable. Readable but not transparent.

New York Times writers are known. They demand by-lines and are proud of it.

The anonymous writer in question worked hard to be invisible, slipping as he or she did into fame by adopting another consciousness that allowed him or her to be a spectator, as are all readers of the NY Times. The original submission was to an audience of one—the NY Times—but the audience became, in just a few hours, a crowd of tens of thousands. Had the op-ed writer been identified, it would have been a one-day op-ed. By wearing one of Harry Potter’s invisibility cloaks, one-day became infinite. So far.

There are legitimate reasons to write anonymously. Writing about your emotions can help you to feel better mentally and physically. There’s a website urging you to do just that. “As a Novni author you can write with complete honesty and remain totally anonymous.”[1] There is a writer’s web site called “The Anonymous Writer,” based in India, encouraging writers to post both anonymously and identifiable.[2] Perhaps you’d like to write an anonymous letter—to confess your love without divulging your identity? Maybe you have important information to deliver, but do not want to be connected with the situation? There’s a website for that too.[3] Instagram loves you.[4]

“Throughout the history of literature, since the creation of bound texts in the forms of books and codices, various works have been published and written anonymously, often due to their political or controversial nature, or merely for the purposes of the privacy of their authors, among other reasons.” We know that history because it’s on Wikipedia, which itself can be quite anonymous, and has its own website.[5] There’s even a digital hacker somewhere on the planet named “Anonymous,” and some people want to find him/her/it.[6] But I can’t find much comment about the ethics of the thing.

The ethics of writing anonymously is debatable. The most recent interest in anonymous writing, in popular parlance, went viral when the New York Times published an anonymous op-ed about chaos in the White House.[7] Unsigned, but maybe identifiable, the column spoke at length about “collusion among White House staff to prevent President Trump from running off the rails.” The Times explained, “[We] took the rare step of publishing an anonymous Op-Ed essay. We have done so at the request of the author, a senior official in the Trump administration whose identity is known to us and whose job would be jeopardized by its disclosure. We believe publishing this essay anonymously is the only way to deliver an important perspective to our readers.”[8]

A few days after publication, there were well over 15,000 comments posted to the Time’s website. Some were thrilled, others dismayed, most were intrigued, not so much by the content as by the real author’s identity. It was dazzling incognito journalism.

The Chronicle of Higher Education published a well written article about just who the Judas might be among the President’s senior cadre of aides and abettors. Some thought Anonymous might actually be an “aide” but wasn’t an “abettor.” The identified writer of the Chronicle article, Allen Metcalf, opined that whoever Anonymous was, he/she was “an extraordinary writer.”[9]

I digress. The issue is not who, why, or even how. The writing issue is the ethicality of anonymity in public discourse.

For starters, NPR has an ethics handbook specifically covering “anonymous sourcing.”[10] NPR says, “Unidentified sources should rarely be heard at all, and should never be heard attacking or praising others in our reports (with the possible rare exceptions of whistleblowers and individuals making allegations of sexual assault; see the longer discussion of anonymous sources in the section on transparency). While we recognize that some valuable information can only be obtained off the record, it is unfair to air a source’s opinion on a subject of coverage when the source’s identity and motives are shielded from scrutiny.” If it’s unfair, it’s unethical. Let’s call that the mainstream public radio view.

The Pro-Blogger website lists five reasons you should blog anonymously.[11]  For some bloggers, the concept of anonymity has always held a special enchantment, while others see it as purely practical. Whatever your blog topic, they offer “five strong reasons to blog anonymously. One, no pressure. Two, a fresh start. Three, you’re shy. Four, you’re unsure. Five, it’s a gimmick.” They posit that if no one knows the “real you,” then they can’t tell you, in person, any thoughts they have on your blog. Lame. They argue for creating an anonymous identity, allowing you to create a new character. Pretense. They say it’s OK if it “fits your content.” Like, if your blog involves content that “you received anonymously.” Turning cardboard into silk. Last, they seem to believe that blogging anonymously places a shroud of mystery around the author. Hide our name, your content, and try to reach a hidden audience?

I am a consistent reader of the NY Times because it is always well written. They proved it by publishing a well-written political statement anonymously. But this op-ed is a mushy ethical stew. It’s politically unethical because it sets a precedent that violates its mantra—All the News That’s Fit to Print. They decry fake news, but publish opinions that may or not be fit to print, given the uncertainty about authorship.

Ethics in journalism are straight forward. Morality. Professionalism. Truth. Which of these principles is visible in an anonymous opinion, attributed to a senior White House aide, but not identifying the writer? Deep Throat is a cultural icon, but no one anyone ever said he was an ethical model. He broke a few laws by helping to identify law breakers anonymously. Are we there yet? Professionally, betraying media ethics is not just a slippery slope; it’s a chute to some pig’s pen.

Who’s in the pig pen? Trolls, of course.  The NY Times, in a 2010 opinion piece, defined trolling: “[It is] the act of posting inflammatory, derogatory or provocative messages in public forums . . . it is a problem as old as the Internet itself, although its roots go much farther back. Even in the fourth century B.C., Plato touched upon the subject of anonymity and morality in his parable of the ring of Gyges.”[12] It expanded a bit: “Psychological research has proven again and again that anonymity increases unethical behavior. Road rage bubbles up in the relative anonymity of one’s car. And in the online world, which can offer total anonymity, the effect is even more pronounced. People — even ordinary, good people — often change their behavior in radical ways.”

There is no bottom line in ethically assessing what a publisher publishes. But that is the real ethical issue here. This op-ed is what it is—an opinion. The question I posed in this blog (Is it ethical to write anonymously?) applies to the anonymous writer of the Times op-ed. Does it also apply to the publisher of the anonymous op-ed? That’s a different line in the digital sand. “But the law by itself cannot do enough to disarm the Internet’s trolls. Content providers, social networking platforms and community sites must also do their part by rethinking the systems they have in place for user commentary so as to discourage — or disallow — anonymity.”

I’m quoting the Times article cited above in fn12. I agree.

[1] https://novni.com/

[2] http://theanonymouswriter.com/fiction/

[3] https://oureverydaylife.com/write-anonymous-letter-8191599.html

[4] https://www.instagram.com/anonymously_writin/

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_anonymously_published_works

[6] https://ethicsforadigitalworld.wordpress.com/2014/02/09/the-ethics-of-anonymous/

[7] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/05/opinion/trump-white-house-anonymous-resistance.html

[8] Id at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/05/opinion/trump-white-house-anonymous-resistance.html

[9] https://www.chronicle.com/blogs/linguafranca/2018/09/09/who-is-anonymous-an-extraordinary-writer/

[10] http://ethics.npr.org/tag/anonymity/

[11]  https://problogger.com/5-reasons-to-blog-anonymously-and-5-reasons-not-to/

[12] https://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/30/opinion/30zhuo.html