On Wednesday, Haley softened her harsh proposal, saying: “I don’t mind anonymous Americans having freedom of speech; what I don’t like is that anonymous Russians, Chinese and Iranians have freedom of speech.”
Haley’s proposal collapsed under the gentlest scrutiny. In order to prove that you are an American worthy of speaking anonymously under his regime, shouldn’t you… identify yourself, thereby losing your anonymity? And that’s to start with. Would such a project imposed by the government be legal? Probably not. Is the scourge of anonymous misinformation somehow unique to the Internet and requiring special rules? No. How practical would it be to identify each social media account by name? Not very. What if we said to hell with practicality and rolled out the Haley Plan, what would we lose?
Haley’s education involved not only law but also history. The right to anonymous speech dates back to our country’s founding, when anonymous pamphleteers championed independence. Although not an absolute right, anonymity is closely linked to press freedom and has proven to be of inestimable value to citizens, particularly those deprived of their rights . Haley’s plan would easily violate some legal privacy rights established by the courts (although it must be said that nothing prevents private social media, acting on their own, from instituting policies requiring users to ‘identify accurately).
Putting all that aside, how would this work? Haley’s demand that social media companies verify usernames raises several questions. Would this fall under the honor system? If so, there would be no point because it would be easy to give a fake name or, as the bars can already tell you, a fake ID. Would it be related to driving licenses or passports? If this is the case, you will need to check 1) that the driving license or passport is valid but also 2) that it was presented by its owner. This would prove costly and time-consuming for both users and social networks, and could even put them out of business. If the site survived, would they turn their backs on international users, who might be too costly to verify? Does Haley expect social media sites to use facial ID or other biometric data, like fingerprints, which poses huge privacy concerns?
There is no shortage of articles and books denouncing internet misinformation like QAnon and lesser sources to confuse, cause damage, and drive people crazy, so there is no need to reproduce those findings here. But no one should pretend that anonymously generated misinformation is unique to the Internet. This is a dilemma that dates back centuries, if not millennia, before the advent of the Web.
Anonymous accusations of witchcraft fueled the Salem trials of the 17th century. Governments around the world have long relied on the power of anonymity to spread propaganda against their enemies. The Soviets and Russians have long poisoned the truth with their misinformation and disinformation. During the AIDS crisis, the Soviets anonymously planted a conspiracy theory that the virus was engineered by U.S. military researchers. Hitler’s so-called diaries were filled with false information and written in the Führer’s name by an anonymous writer. At the bottom and base there is toilet graffiti and word of mouth, often in the form of urban legends.
One of the main reasons misinformation exists, besides the fact that it can be convincing where information is not, is that it exists. People want to believe in fantastical conspiracies like the Pizzagate hoax or that the Procter and Gamble company logo is a satanic image. At one point, the demand for entertaining misinformation was so great in the United States that supermarket checkouts were filled with tabloids – the Weekly World NewsTHE StarTHE WorldTHE National Examiner and the National investigator. Many of these posts disappeared as the web grew to satisfy the appetite for misinformation, especially the juicy stuff.
While it is obvious that anonymous disinformation spreads more quickly and widely across the Internet than before the Internet era, it is also true that fixes can be gathered more quickly and more widely dispersed in this environment. This is of course not a panacea, but it contradicts Haley’s implicit position that we are somehow powerless to counter anonymous misinformation unless we shut the mouths of hundreds of millions of mouths.
As an article from RAND Corp. pointed out. of 2016 on Russian disinformation, you cannot fight a jet of lies with a water gun of truth. Misinformation is less likely to take root in a culture if its inhabitants have first received correct information, and correct information cannot surface and prevail without vigorous debate. Misinformation – anonymous or otherwise – must be anticipated and confronted directly, the RANDites preach. Where people cannot be convinced that misinformation is disinformation, the article’s authors argue that it is worth communicating how the disinformation machine works in order to reduce susceptibility next time.
If the Haley ID plan succeeded, what would we lose? Anonymity gives both courage and some security to speakers who might otherwise fear retaliation from those rattled by crude speech. This protects you personally from being fired by a boss or from an angry mob. It promotes the dissemination of controversial and unpopular speech and promotes debates that might otherwise be suppressed. And this encourages denunciation.
Instead of campaigning against anonymous speech, Haley should bow to rivals Ramaswamy and DeSantis and endorse it.
This piece is based on Jeff Kosseff’s 2022 book The United States of Anonymous: How the First Amendment has shaped online discourse. Send your anonymous speech to (email protected). No new email alert subscriptions are being honored at this time. My Twitter feed and my Blue sky The accounts request anonymity but must admit that they are written by me. My RSS feed does not believe in anonymous or non-anonymous speech.