Demanding Accountability: Not From Elites, But From Anonymous Internet Commenters

Stanley Fish writes about the latest bout of handwringing from the usual suspects about the "anonymous" Internet. The centerpiece of his discussion is a new collection of essays edited by University of Chicago law professor Martha Nussbaum titled The Offensive Internet: Speech, Privacy and Reputation.

According to Fish (I have not and will not buy the book at $23), Nussbaum asks "“what can be done about irresponsible information” spread by the Internet, a medium that allows slander to “be done with a few keystrokes, with complete anonymity, and . . . with no fear that the Internet provider on whose website the slur is found will somehow be held responsible for incorrect . . . or defamatory statements”? " Before Nussbaum and her cohorts answer that question, perhaps they can deal with the problem of irresponsible information spread through respectable outlets by named persons that recklessly lead us to wars, irresponsible tax policy and nonsensical public discourse, like this volume and Fish's column. More . . .

Here's a question, can these august public intellectuals name one person whose reputation was ruined by false charges made anonymously on the Internet? Cuz I can name one war that was instigated by irresponsible false reporting by "credible" journalistic enterprises - and yes, I mean the Iraq Debacle. Any concern about the lack of accountability for that?

One of the ironies of Fish's piece is that despite the willingness of the writers in this book to engage in all sorts of schemes to curtail free speech, Fish nonetheless calls these folks "by and large strong free-speech advocates." Really? Sez who and why? One of the pieces is by Cass Sunstein, who decidedly does not have a record as a strong free speech advocate. Quite the opposite.

Indeed, I have always considered Sunstein one of the interesting no accountability characters in the public discourse. Here is a man whose writing over the past 10 years should have thoroughly discredited him as a public intellectual. But he remains considered not only a top public intellectual, but a "liberal" public intellectual.

Worried about accountability? The "anonymous" Internet is not the place a real academic should first look. But elites know how to protect their own. Consider this discussion by Fish and this book edited by Nussbaum just one more nail in the coffin of meaningful public discourse.

FTR, I wrote on the subject of anonymity, pseudonymity and the Internet in this piece.

Speaking for me only

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    Really (5.00 / 1) (#1)
    by Ga6thDem on Tue Jan 04, 2011 at 08:04:01 AM EST
    makes me think these people have completely lost it. I mean, if someone posts some "slander" on the internet how many people are going to buy it vs. slander that comes out of "respectable" news organizations? I would guess that an anonymous internet poster would get a few hundred post views of their statement maybe on a good day when a news organizations "slander" could get hundreds of thousands in a day.

    Once again, it's rules for thee and not for me.

    Once again, I think this is (5.00 / 1) (#2)
    by Anne on Tue Jan 04, 2011 at 08:31:38 AM EST
    all about control.  About not being replaced or usurped or scooped.  About being the seen as the only gatekeepers of information that can be trusted - along the lines of, "well, if the New York Times is quoting an anonymous source, the information must be on the money," with the corresponding view along the lines of, "hey, this information came from some blog run by some dirty f'ing hippie - there's no way it can be relied upon."

    It's about fear of being the exposed as opposed to being the ones who control the exposure of others.  

    They're going on the offensive, in apparent unawareness that after their masterful manipulation of the American people on everything from the Iraq war to the economic crisis to the role of the banking industry and Wall Street to the foreclosure fraud mess to health whatever, they have little, if any, credibility - and trying to choke off other sources of information isn't going to improve the quality of the information at our disposal, it's just going to ensure that the traditional media retains control of information, so they can control the message.

    I'm pretty sure this holds some appeal for the powers that be in government and in the corporatocracy - they don't much like not being able to control the flow of information, either.

    It is precisely because there is a growing effort to close off other, non-traditional sources of information, that there must be an effort to preserve and protect those other venues.

    Here's a takedown of Ms. Nussbaum (none / 0) (#3)
    by Harry Saxon on Tue Jan 04, 2011 at 08:47:17 AM EST
    and her former "partner" Sunstein  from www.exiledonline(dot)com:

    If you look at Martha Nussbaum's body of work, what you see is a classic Soviet bureaucrat who hit all the right buttons at the right times, once or twice straying just far enough outside of the current orthodoxy to rate herself as a bit of a maverick--and by "maverick" I mean in the debased John McCain sense of the word. Now Nussbaum doesn't believe in marriage, you see--at least, she has to make a big public show of it, because her quasi-maverick, quasi-feminist books kind of corner her into pretending she's beyond something as cliched as marriage. So she always refers to Cass, whom she clearly loved in a very old-fashioned way right up until he savagely dumped her for someone younger, as her "partner." Which, you know, isn't at all a cliche.


    Speaking of that, Samantha's new husband Cass put out his most popular book yet last year, called "Nudge." See, he's a "paternalistic libertarian" who thinks the way to make America work is not to tell people what to do, but to-yes, that's right-"nudge" them to the right thing. (Sort of like how Cass "nudged" his wizened ex-partner Martha out of his life for the tight-skinned Samantha-supposedly, in keeping with the retro-70s horribleness, Cass and Martha and Samantha are all pals still.) Anyway, Cass's big breakthrough, the thing that got Obama's attention, is that Cass believes that government should nudge The People gently, and that way, The People will make the right choices but feel they've done it on their own. Because deep down, Americans will do the right thing if you just show them the way without pushing them too hard. Reverend--I mean Dr. Sunstein uses examples like 401Ks and organ donor cards to make his example. (You have to wonder if Sunstein stole this brilliant theory from a third grader's civics class report.) Like his wife Samantha, Cass has to make exceptions for just about every horrible thing that human beings do in order to make his theory work. So he makes those exceptions, and voila! Everyone agrees that it works! It's a hit! Now Cass and Samantha are a Washington Power Couple. Wow, I just gotta get their cards!

    Click Me NSFW

    contrary to popular opinion, (none / 0) (#4)
    by cpinva on Tue Jan 04, 2011 at 09:22:02 AM EST
    there's no such thing as anonymity on the web. if someone really, really, really wants to know who you are, they can find out. start with an IP address, and work your way back. it might take a while, but eventually you'll get to the source. and every computer on the web has an IP address.

    What we need more of for sure (none / 0) (#5)
    by vicndabx on Tue Jan 04, 2011 at 10:04:45 AM EST
    tough skin - the perfect antidote to both strongly expressed opinion masquerading as fact and venom spit from the mouth of idiots.

    Slander and related concerns don't ever deal w/truth, rather, they are based in some opinion - which will exist and can be spread w/or w/o the internet.  If some employer wants to believe what people say about me on facebook, then that employer is stupid, that's not the fault of anonymity.

    Likewise those who firmly "believe" some falsehood they read on the internet.  The hyperlink is wonderful tool - it can point the way to truth.

    What Stanley needs to do is encourage more & better education - and it's by-product critical thinking.  An ex-in-law of mine once told me the internet couldn't be trusted because there's no accountabiity.  "Any crackpot can put something up on the web."  That's true and consequently we need to encourage the non-crackpots in as many ways possible.  Anonymity helps w/that balance.

    In response to this (none / 0) (#6)
    by brodie on Tue Jan 04, 2011 at 10:16:32 AM EST
    Here's a question, can these august public intellectuals name one person whose reputation was ruined by false charges made anonymously on the Internet?

    back in 2005, wikipedia posted false and defamatory assertions by an anonymous contributor alleging that journalist John Seigenthaler, ex aide to AG Rbt Kennedy, had played a role in both Kennedy assassinations.  Those statements stayed up on wiki for some 4 months before being detected and removed by the site's owners.  Interestingly, accd'g to JS he was unable to edit the entry himself to remove the false charges.

    It does happen, and wiki in particular has become a very popular site for quick, easy reference and so has an added responsibility not to allow defamatory assertions to be published there.

    Wikipedia knew who they were (none / 0) (#7)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Tue Jan 04, 2011 at 10:19:54 AM EST
    False statement were posted on Wikipedia about me in 2006.

    I protested them.

    Wikipedia is in fact a mess.

    But anonymity is not the issue.

    LAck of control of Wikipedia, which purports to be authoritative and thorough is.

    An article about Wikipedia would be interesting.


    A mild disagreement (none / 0) (#10)
    by Abdul Abulbul Amir on Tue Jan 04, 2011 at 12:20:15 PM EST
    But anonymity is not the issue.

    LAck of control of Wikipedia, ... is.

    The issue is that too many people mistakenly believe Wikipedia is in some way authoritative.

    My prodigal son told me that it was common in his dorm for students to edit Wikipedia to "settle" disagreements over factual issues.  


    Kinda sounds like... (none / 0) (#8)
    by kdog on Tue Jan 04, 2011 at 10:29:48 AM EST
    the "intellectuals" don't like the competition in the "pullin' sh*t out yo arse" department...they used to have nearly exclusive bullsh*t distribution rights, and now any knucklehead with a pc can play too.

    Perhaps the Federalist Papers should be banned (none / 0) (#9)
    by Abdul Abulbul Amir on Tue Jan 04, 2011 at 12:09:02 PM EST

    Someone needs to inform Fish that criticizing the behavior of those in office should not require one to provide one's name to the maintainer of the enemy's list.