Bioethics Discussion Blog: Anonymity in Blog Publishing: Is It Ethical, Is It Necessary?

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Monday, November 24, 2008

Anonymity in Blog Publishing: Is It Ethical, Is It Necessary?

The issue I want to present is whether it is ethical to post a comment to a blog as an anonymous writer. Shouldn’t the commenter show the strength of their convictions by taking full responsibility for what the commenter writes? Shouldn’t the reader be provided with a real full name? How else can the reader have the necessary information about the writer to establish whether the writer has changed or modified views from previous commentaries and judge from those earlier commentaries or by public history whether or not the commentator has conflicts of interest which should be considered? And then there is the matter of the tendency toward unethical or illegal ad hominem remarks or libel which is more likely to be written by anonymous writers.

I have found an interesting article about the history of anonymity in the publishing business, it’s rejection in later years and then it’s return as the information media has turned to the internet. The essay “Time to Get Tough: Managing Anonymous Reader Comments” by Vin Crosbie posted 1-26-2006 in the Knight Digital Media Center.

Here are extracts of the essay which emphasizes the need for human intervention in the maintenance of thoughtful and ethical commentary on the Internet and under what requirements anonymity might be used.

Although the technologies of this medium evolve with the speed of "Moore's Law," the actual laws and liabilities governing the technologies evolve about as fast as the eponymous Gordon Moore can walk (he celebrated his 77th birthday this month). That is because the mechanical topic of technology and the human topic of ethics seemingly aren't related to each other. Although we may strive to offer bulletin boards and commentary fields where people might provide thoughtful and ethical comments without scatology, obscenity, or libel, we cannot and will not achieve that through technology alone.


Crosbie also writes:


If you're going to let someone publish something in your publication, whether in print or online, know their identity and read their submission before its publication. If they truly are willing to stand behind their words, then they must be willing to withstand identification by the publisher who has legal responsibility for the publication of their words.
If they request that the publisher disguise or omit their identity in publication, let them first provide the publisher with a cogent reason. (The publisher should state somewhere on the page's boilerplate that a writer's name may be withheld for reasons but only after prior identification.)


What do you think about whether anonymity by visitor commentators or even blog owners is appropriate in blogs generally, in medical blogs specifically or particularly on my bioethics blog where there has been extensive ventilation within topics of concern by my visitors? ..Maurice Bernstein, M.D.

7 Comments:

At Monday, November 24, 2008 11:01:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

WRT medical blogs, to have a free and frank exchange of opinions that includes patients requires anonymity, or at least the option of pseudonymity. Requiring one to append identifying characteristics to a post containing any information about one's health in the age of Google will surely stifle conversation. For example, I am posting this pseudonymously, as I wish for the conversation to flow with a way to refer to me, and I consider it relevant that I have a chronic illness when I comment on almost anything health related. I do not, however, wish for any future employer to be able to find out that I have a chronic health problem by running a simple Google search.

Given that you moderate this blog, though, Dr. Bernstein, it would be relatively easy for you to find out plenty about me if you so wished from the IP number that will register with this post. That gives you plenty of options to deal with me if I am being disruptive, threatening, defamatory, or spreading misinformation. Given that I am not causing trouble, I place my trust in you to respect my wish for privacy given the nature o my disclosures.

For the sake of conversation flow and conversational accountability, I personally believe that pseudonymity is a much better approach to dealing with sensitive information than anonymity, but I believe that restrictions of any kind may silence some timid voices.

--PG

 
At Tuesday, November 25, 2008 11:04:00 AM, Blogger FridaWrites said...

Research tells us that employers use Google and other internet searches before hiring employees.

My field not look kindly on bloggers and fires them outright when they're discovered. Far more importantly, I would never be hired again given what I have said about my health. Imagine going to a job interview in a wheelchair or scooter and what most people's reactions would be (not yours, other people's) even without knowing any details. They will immediately see you as an expense and a liability, even though most accommodations are free. They're also going to be playing "guess what the disability is and how bad it's going to get." Or, as friends have been told, they will be considered to have "lied" if they didn't bring up the disability before the interview, although it's really not appropriate to do so.

In addition, I would not have had the ability to speak of my job as I have in my blog if my name were more public because what I write would be used against me--I have requested protection under ADA, which my former employer did not provide. Now that I've quit my job, it matters less.

At some point I probably will provide my name, when I feel it no longer matters--either when I am established in a long-term job, have published some writing about disability or have become a more public activist, or when it's perfectly clear I will no longer work. If my identity is revealed, there are people who would probably still hire me, and in the big scheme of things it would not be too big of an issue, but for now, I'd rather not narrow my choices.

For physicians, they too can be held accountable for holding beliefs that go against the mainstream and experience backlash because of it. It really depends on how established one is and what position they're in.

 
At Sunday, November 30, 2008 9:34:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think asking posters to identify themselves is tough thing to ask. I personally don't want my employees or acquaintances to be privy to my medical history. There is no way I would talk about my experience during hemmroid surgery if I knew it was going to get back to my office. Nor would I want everyone in my local hospital to know I was complaining about them to the world. That said the best I think you could do to protect the poster and give some security to encourage providers to post would be to have a regestry where you register your personal infomation and pick a name to post under. Thus if someone were to make false claims it would give a trail or some assurance to posters they would need to be a little careful making wild claims and naming names alan

 
At Wednesday, December 03, 2008 9:38:00 AM, Anonymous MK said...

I don't see why identifying oneself on a public post is necessary at all. I try my best to evaluate statements by the content of what is said alone. I think that to discredit a message because of the identity of the speaker (or because you question the motives of a speaker) is an ad hominem attack. I think that believing a message more because of the credentials of the person who said it is a similar mistake in the opposite direction. A madman might speak the truth, and authorities might be wrong. How will we know unless we can evaluate the statements themselves?

How can we have freedom of speech unless people can speak their minds without fear of punishment? If anonymous speech is technically difficult, how will we have anonymous whistleblowers? Sometimes it is very risky to speak one's mind and say what needs to be said. I wish I could find the link offhand, but I have also read about statistical methods that are being developed, that are so far quite accurate at determining whether different passages were written by the same author. These are very problematic for anonymity, especially when authorities are determined to discover the identity of a poster, regardless of whether posters choose to append a signature, or obfuscate their IP address.

 
At Wednesday, December 03, 2008 10:49:00 AM, Blogger Maurice Bernstein, M.D. said...

MK, you wrote "I think that to discredit a message because of the identity of the speaker (or because you question the motives of a speaker) is an ad hominem attack." If "ad hominem" means in Latin "against the man", for an ad hominem remark strictly defined as such, the man about whom the remark refers needs to have been identified.

I can't and don't judge the intellectual capacity nor the wisdom of any visitor to this blog from the fact that they post anonymously. My intent to advocate a name or consistent pseudonym or initials is purely to have some guidance in context continuity as to who has posted what and when. Of course, even the name, pseudonym or initials can be falsified by others but we do hope that visitors to an ethics blog try to be ethical. ..Maurice.

 
At Thursday, December 04, 2008 5:09:00 PM, Anonymous MK said...

What I meant in my earlier post is that anonymous speakers save you from the possibility of making ad hominem attacks on them. I suppose you could prejudge an anonymous speaker based on the fact that he chose to remain anonymous. That was not what I had in mind.

 
At Tuesday, December 16, 2008 7:35:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Published on: www.beforeyoutakethatpill.com

The Prevention of Ignorance

Historically, information sources provided to American citizens were limited due to the few methods available to the public, such as radio, TV, or news print. And also this information was subject to being filtered and, in some cases, delayed. This occurred for a number of reasons, which included political ones.
Now, and with arguably great elation, there is the internet, which can be rather beneficial for the average citizen.
Soon after the advent of the internet well over a decade ago, web logs were created, that are now termed ‘blogs’. At that time the blogs were referred to as personal journals or diaries visible on line. As time passed, blogs became a media medium, and blog communities evolved into addressing topics that often were not often addressed in mainstream media, as they crossed previously existing political and social lines. In addition, blogs provide immediate contributions by others, the readers of the posts of the blog authors, instead of the cumbersomeness of opinion and editorial pieces historically and not always presented in such media forms as newspapers or magazines.
The authors of blogs vary as far as their backgrounds and intent of what they choose to address on their blogs exactly, just as with other media forms. Some are employed by the very media sources that existed before them. Furthermore, they are not exonerated from the legalities of what is written, such as cases of libel. While we can presume that bloggers like to write, they may not be quality writers, yet several are in fact journalists, as well as doctors and lawyers, for example. But to write is to think, which I believe is a good quality one should have. Regardless, a type of Socratic learning seems to be occurring due to the advent of blogs.
Yet presently, blogs have become quite a driving force for those with objectives and issues often opposed by others, and therefore have become a serious threat to others. These others may be politicians, our government, or corporations- all of which have been known to monitor the content of certain blogs of concern to them for their potential to negatively affect their image or their activities previously undisclosed. This is why blogs, on occasion, have become a media medium for whistleblowers, which will be addressed further in a moment.
While one disadvantage of blogs is the potential lack of reliability, blogs however do allow in addition to the comments of its readers the posting of authentic internal or confidential documents that typically are not created to be viewed by the public, yet are acquired by certain bloggers. For example, blogger Dr. Peter Rost, a whistleblower himself, not long ago posted a newsletter published by pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca on his blog site, and this newsletter was given to him by AstraZeneca's employees who called themselves the ‘AZ Group of Seven’- with the intent of this group being to bring to the attention of others the illegal activity of off-label promotion of one of AZ’s cancer drugs promoted by their employer. Yet this particular concern by AZ seven, by surprise, is not what caught the attention of so many who viewed the posted newsletter by Dr. Rost and was read with great interest by others. It was instead a comment included in this newsletter that was stated by former regional AZ manager Mike Zubalagga, who was being interviewed by a district manager in this newsletter. Mr. Zubalagga, who in this newsletter posted on Dr Rost's blog site, referred to doctors’ offices as ‘buckets of money’, which caught the attention of several readers. This and other statements by this man were in fact published in this newsletter clearly not reviewed before its publication. . Again, the statement and the newsletter created by AZ was indeed authentic and further validated due to the content being in the written word, which added credibility.
Mr. Zubalagga was fired the next day due to this ‘buckets of money’ comment due to the effect it had on the image of his employer. His manager resigned soon afterwards from AZ.
Blogs, one can safely conclude, reveal secrets.
And there have been other whistleblower cases on various blogs in addition to this one described a moment ago, which illustrates the power of blogs as being a very powerful and threatening media medium of valid information disclosure that others cannot prevent from occurring.
This, in my opinion, is true freedom of information- largely free of embellishments or selective omissions. It’s a step towards communication utopia, perhaps, yet a force that has the ability to both harm and protect many others.
Yet again, the information on these blogs should not be taken as absolute truth without proof to verify claims that may be made, as with other media sources. Of course, documents that are authentic is an example of a good validation source. And this, in my opinion, is the blog’s greatest value, combined with the comments on blogs from the growing number of readers who are allowed to contribute to the subject matter so quickly, which fuels the objectives of the blogs, which may be a type of Socratic learning.
Like other written statements, some on such internet sites are composed with respect of the written word. Others are not. It's the freedom that may be most appealing of this new medium which has the ability to convert citizens into journalists who want to contribute to an issue of their concern they share with the blogger often with great conviction and accuracy.
Because we, the public, have a right to know what we are entitled to know and what we want to know. This is especially true if the information disclosed on blogs could potentially be adverse to our well-being.
Ignorance is bliss, but knowledge is power.
“Information is the seed of an idea, and only grows when it’s watered.” --- Heinz V. Berger
Dan Abshear

 

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