Outing Anonymous Bloggers

National Review‘s Ed Whelan has outed The Blogger Formerly Known as Publius, revealing his name and employer despite being informed by TBFKAP that he had a “variety of private, family, and professional reasons” for wishing to keep his identity private.

While I generally find the practice of revealing people’s secrets to the public distasteful, there are times when it’s appropriate.  Public officials who are abusing their power is the most obvious case.   Here, however, there is no public benefit achieved. Whelan is simply annoyed that Publius had been “biting at my ankles in recent months” and critiquing his blog posts.

Jeopardizing a man’s career and family relationships over something so petty is simply shameful. Anonymous Liberal (which, I’m given to understand, is not his given name) hits the nail on the head:

It’s really difficult to put into words just how despicable and childish this behavior is. This is a man who was a Deputy Assistant Attorney General. He’s currently the President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. And he’s acting like a six-year-old.

[…]

The reality is that if you don’t think your work product can withstand the scrutiny of a few anonymous bloggers, than you have no business publishing it. And if your ego can’t withstand being criticized by people who write under pseudonyms, then you’re far too insecure to be blogging for a living.

I’ve blogged here under my real name for over six years and prefer to read and link bloggers who do likewise.  Signing my name to what I write makes me think twice and the active realization that others whose arguments I’m engaging are real people also tends to make me more reflective.  (Frankly, the blog might be more interesting if my writing were less tempered but I’m ultimately more interested in dialogue than drama.)

That said, I understand why some people can’t blog under the real name and can envision future circumstances where I’d be forced to adopt a pseudonym; not writing really isn’t an option at this point.  As Glenn Reynolds likes to point out, blogging is a low-trust environment.  Every post stands on its own merits based on the strength of the argument made and the quality of the linked sources.

UPDATE: Speaking of Glenn Reynolds, he reminds me of an October 2006 kerfuffle on this matter and links to Eric Scheie‘s post from then which, amusingly, links a contemporaneous OTB post.

He also observes, “if you appoint yourself someone’s anonymous blogging nemesis, you can probably expect to be outed.”  Agreed, as Dave Schuler notes in the comments below, “Posting your writing on the Internet isn’t a private correspondence it’s like posting a notice in the town square and writers would be prudent to post nothing on the Internet that they wouldn’t care to sign their names to.”  Both Dave and Glenn nonetheless agree that the outing in question was bad form.

Dan Riehl would fire Whelan if he were in charge of such things.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. G.A.Phillips says:

    Every post stands on its own merits based on the strength of the argument made and the quality of the linked sources.

    I like to judge them on common sense and understanding of history and reality and spelling.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    I wouldn’t have revealed his secret identity and I agree that it’s rude to have done so. That being said I think it’s important to keep in mind that the Internet in all its manifestations is a very public forum. Posting your writing on the Internet isn’t a private correspondence it’s like posting a notice in the town square and writers would be prudent to post nothing on the Internet that they wouldn’t care to sign their names to.

  3. Our Paul says:

    Well said James!!!

  4. AllenS says:

    Anonymous Liberal said: “It’s really difficult to put into words just how despicable and childish this behavior is. This is a man who was a Deputy Assistant Attorney General. He’s currently the President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. And he’s acting like a six-year-old.”

    Well, it works both ways: “It’s really difficult to put into words just how despicable and childish this behavior is. This is a man who is a law professor at the South Texas College of Law. And he’s acting like a six-year-old.”

  5. Anon says:

    Note that Jonathan Adler, also an academic, blogged anonymously before tenure. I think it’s an entirely prudent thing to do.

  6. James Joyner says:

    writers would be prudent to post nothing on the Internet that they wouldn’t care to sign their names to.

    Agreed. I could see taking jobs where my employer wouldn’t allow me to openly blog and would likely adopt a pseudonym to keep blogging. But I’d still write the same.

  7. just me says:

    Posting your writing on the Internet isn’t a private correspondence it’s like posting a notice in the town square and writers would be prudent to post nothing on the Internet that they wouldn’t care to sign their names to.

    I completely agree with this.

    Also, I think believing your identity will forever remain anonymous is naive.

    I don’t think people should deliberately seek to out those who choose to remain anonymous.

  8. Cecil Moon says:

    The unidentified blogger is little more than one who shouts in the safety of a mob. The element of “necessary secrecy” only invalidates what ever anonymous has to say. If the terms of your employment prohibit posting comments: honor your agreement.

    If your comment is in the least important; man up and stand on your own words.

    If not; shut up and don’t clutter the board with your cowardly opinions.

  9. Paul A'Barge says:

    I followed the links and I read what Ed Whelan wrote.

    And I agree with Mr Whelan. Good for him for outing the South Texas Law professor John F. Blevins, blogging anonymously

  10. PD Shaw says:

    If the terms of your employment prohibit posting comments: honor your agreement.

    I don’t see that as being the case here at all. He is a non-tenured professor concerned about whether tenure might be more difficult due to the social conventions of older professors and the subjective, less-than-transparent criteria employed.

    He also believes that anonymity improves the learning environment of his classrooms. He may be catering needlessly to the perceived prejudices and influences of his classroom, but it doesn’t appear to be an employment requirement.

    His concern for former legal clients could be a problem. As a lawyer he retains continuing legal obligations to former clients. He doesn’t tell us what he means by his concerns — they simply could be that former clients might be embarrassed by his positions. The lawyer doesn’t owe a duty not to embarrass him or herself.

    The concerns for family seem strange and paranoid though . . .

  11. J.R. Taylor says:

    Whelan was right on this one. It seems reasonable to think that Publius’ main reason for needing anonymity was to keep anyone from realizing that he actually knows he’s wrong about much of the Leftist crap that he’s routinely spouting. That, or Publius might simply be an incompetent hack–in which case, Publius’ students have the right to know what kind of lousy professor they have.

  12. Aunt Moe says:

    I guess it would be impossible for Alexander Hamilton and James Madison to publish THE FEDERALIST PAPERS today. They wrote annonymously, under pseudonyms, one of which I beleive was PUBLICUS.

  13. Mike G says:

    This is awful! Doesn’t Whelan realize the danger he might pose to this man’s career if he reveals that, as an academic, the guy holds leftwing views?

  14. If one reads Whelan’s post, it is clear who is behaving the most like a six-year-old, insofar as the post is a rant that mostly delights in exposing Publius out of spite. He really doesn’t address Publius’ arguments or positions. he engages in ad hominem and then basically says “neener-neener, I know your real name.”

    Having said that, I am not a big fan of anonymous blogging–although I did do it for a few months when I first started.

  15. SV says:

    The perception of bad writing does not ‘irresponsible’ make.

    Irresponsible is getting people killed. Trying to keep on tenure track doesn’t nearly count.

  16. Ed Whelan’s outing is actually a further sign of collapse of conservatism in america today. He writes for the National Review, which for most of my lifetime was the leading conservative journal. I still subscribe to the magazine(and my original subscription date is late 1980!) but I’ve seen the magazine consistently decline in recent years. Mostly through the contributor’s writings at NRO and The Corner. The bilge that spews out of there has to have William F Buckley rolling over in his grave. The racist Mark Krikorian, Whelan, Mark Steyn who considers facts too often optional when he’s writing, to the shrill and inconsistent nonsense of KLO and Jonah Goldberg. I also forget which contributor thinks Sonia Satomayor is Harriet Miers part two. Is conservatism and intelluctalism unable to exist in harmony today or is it just all the people at NR have all lost their minds?

  17. Since I’ve got some “stalkers” who follow around me when I leave comments at other sites (like Reason or MattYglesias) and who never provide a counter-argument but are only capable of engaging in ad homs, I tend to sympathize with Whelan.

    There are ways to preserve anonymity, and I’m going to guess that 99.9% of those who blog or leave comments don’t know anything about them.

    What that means is that eventually most of those who think they’re anonymous are going to realize they made many mistakes. I’m not familiar with what “publius” wrote, but what might happen is some of his more “interesting” posts might end up at the top of Google searches for his name where others can easily find them.

  18. Jim B says:

    Here’s the deal: If you use your anonymity to expound upon a policy position without attacking others, then keep your anonymity. However, if you use your anonymity to take pot shots at those who have the courage to sign their names, then you absolutely deserve to have your anonymity exposed.

    Blevins is a coward who hid behind his anonymity to take a lot of cheap shots at a lot of people. There are plenty of whiny, cowardly, small-minded Blevinses on the internet who think they can attack others with impunity without repercussions by not using their real names. With his actual name attached, he might have to actually act responsibly when he does so.

    I don’t feel bad for Blevins, and I don’t blame Whelan. If you’re going to attack another person’s reputation, then you should have the courage to back it up with your own. If you don’t, then you need to shut up and sit down. When you grow up, you can rejoin the class discussion.

  19. Janis Gore says:

    Mr. Whelan responds to current criticism.

  20. Davebo says:

    I think you all are confusing blogging anonymously with blogging pseudonymously as publius did.

    There’s a big difference you know?

  21. An Interested Party says:

    Publius can take some solace in the fact that even though Whelan may have won this little battle, he’s going to lose the larger war, as nothing that he or any other conservative does is going to stop Sotomayor from being confirmed…

  22. Eric Florack says:

    I am unimpressed with the defense’s offered for “Publius”.

    I am reminded of the signatories to the Declaration of Independence, and the consequences they all, to a man suffered at the hands of King George. I dare say the consequences “Publius” might now face pale in comparison. If we take that lesson, though, taking a stand means having the courage to subject yourself to the consequences… both good and bad… of that stand. Secrets have a tendency to be exposed eventually despite any efforts, and when they are so exposed, they tend to distract from the arguments being made… as ““Publius” “ is now finding out just now.

    I suspect that what is really happening here is that his arguments of traditionally been so frail that he’s embarrassed to sign his name to them. Frankly, I would be too…. Keep in mind, I’ve been reading the man since the days of Usenet.

  23. Mike Sigman says:

    Some of this is pretty bizarre. Anyone who anonymously critiques someone else is fair game. If you have something important enough to say, it should be important enough to sign your name. All these defenses for some anonymous sniper (oh, he’s a lawyer and professor? Glad he’s gainfully employed) are incredible. Anonymous snipers should all be exposed.

  24. James Joyner says:

    Anyone who anonymously critiques someone else is fair game.

    But he’s not seeking out someone minding their own business and sniping them. He’s critiquing the arguments of public intellectuals posting on blogs.

  25. Pug says:

    So, I guess commenters are next? Should guys like me, An Interested Party and Davebo have to start signing our real names? Because, even though I try not to use profanity much and write in clear sentences, without a nik I’m no longer commenting on anything.

  26. G.A.Phillips says:

    If your comment is in the least important; man up and stand on your own words.

    If not; shut up and don’t clutter the board with your cowardly opinions.

    yup……

  27. G.A.Phillips says:

    I guess it would be impossible for Alexander Hamilton and James Madison to publish THE FEDERALIST PAPERS today. They wrote annonymously, under pseudonyms, one of which I beleive was PUBLICUS.

    No It would not, they would not have to, but I’m sure they would end up on D.H.S. terrorist watch list……..

  28. PD Shaw says:

    Pug is Dick Cheney.

    Now that’s over with, whos’s next. Oh, Davebo is Phil Spector.

  29. PD Shaw says:

    One of the blog comments section I like to read is full of state government workers who wouldn’t begin to think of signing their names. I find it very educational.

  30. Pug says:

    Davebo is Phil Spector

    Guess we won’t be seeing many more comments from Davebo. I don’t think they allow commenting at Folsom Prison.

    BTW, how do we know that James Joyner is not a pseudonym? Hmmmm….?

  31. RetiredE9 says:

    B.S.

    People who are “privileged” who say things they don’t want to be attributed to themselves are better off keeping their mouths shut.

    In other words, if your alligator mouth is writing checks that your mockingbird post is afraid to cover, keep your anonymous ass quiet

  32. Janis Gore says:

    I’m interested to see what the editors at The Corner will do. That sort of confrontational behavior hasn’t been their style.

  33. Gustopher says:

    Would it be wrong to hunt down every snippet of information on Ed Whelan (home address, phone number, etc) and publicize that information?

  34. Eric Florack says:

    Gus;

    You really think that’s not already been done long ago? If you do, you under-estimate the vicious nature of the left.

  35. Every post stands on its own merits based on the strength of the argument made and the quality of the linked sources.

    I disagree here, James. Every post also threads together with every other post. One reads OTB, or Poliblog, or Sullivan, or whomever, because of the overall quality of the posts. That said, on occasion, a post will fall flat. That one post that fails doesn’t often destroy the credibility built up over many other posts.

    However, that post also doesn’t just get read and interpreted “on its own merits,” but based upon the previous quality posts.

    That said, for those who talk about “don’t say something if you won’t put your name behind it,” I shudder to think of the society we would live in were people not able to write pseudonymously or anonymously. Look up “spiral of silence” sometime.

  36. James Joyner says:

    One reads OTB, or Poliblog, or Sullivan, or whomever, because of the overall quality of the posts. That said, on occasion, a post will fall flat. That one post that fails doesn’t often destroy the credibility built up over many other posts.

    However, that post also doesn’t just get read and interpreted “on its own merits,” but based upon the previous quality posts.

    True/one would hope. For regular readers, one would hope the quality of previous posts would allow patience for clunkers. At the same time, though, previous good posts don’t make bad ones good on the basis that “Joyner said so.”

    But here’s the thing: Widely read posts (including this one, thanks to links from InstaPundit and elsewhere) are a one-off for most readers. A lot of any high traffic blogs traffic is drive-bys coming in from Google, Memeorandum, or links from other major blogs. Those readers take the individual post on its own merits.

  37. Eric Florack says:

    But here’s the thing: Widely read posts (including this one, thanks to links from InstaPundit and elsewhere) are a one-off for most readers. A lot of any high traffic blogs traffic is drive-bys coming in from Google, Memeorandum, or links from other major blogs.

    Or, the lower trafficked ones, for that matter. Trust me on this. My logs are showing around half my traffic from such sources, in the last week.

    Those readers take the individual post on its own merits.

    But your point doesn’t seem to explain well the number of regulars you get, and their quality, either, whereas ‘arguing’ would seem to have that nailed with his reading on the point. You’re both half right. (grin)

  38. You’re both half right. (grin)

    To be certain, I gladly give James his due regarding “fly by night” readers. But some percentage of those readers will return in the future, and that’s the point at which I think my take kicks in.

    However, now that I think about it, the “post stands on its own merits” argument might not even make sense in many cases regarding those “high-trafficked” posts.

    Does the post stand on its own merits if it’s linked by instapundit? I’d think not. The fact that instapundit links to it adds “gravitas” or an added credibility. Memeorandum or some similarly machine-generated linking site might be closer to the “on its own merits” paradigm, but there’s still a lot of agenda setting going on as long as there are humans involved in the linking.

  39. Eric Florack says:

    There’s something else needs addressing here, too, James… Let’s please recall that the blog under discussion is the same place that got lots in the way of traffic based on a series of posts calling for GOP delegates to be photographed in the hopes of getting something to be used against them and by extension, the party. Apparently, they don’t consider the identity of such people worth protecting. So why are we angry that Publis got outed? “Arguing”‘s point fits well to this point, I think; the current bitching from that site about Whelan’s actions has to be taken in light of their past behavior.

  40. Let’s please recall that the blog under discussion is the same place that got lots in the way of traffic based on a series of posts calling for GOP delegates to be photographed in the hopes of getting something to be used against them and by extension, the party. Apparently, they don’t consider the identity of such people worth protecting.

    I should note here that I don’t regularly read obsidian wings, and have no idea what this discussion about outing people who frequent prostitutes has to do with this episode. My point is more to the “stands on its own merits” ideal.

    There’s a lot of “live and let live” in my general take on this issue, obviously, since this is a pseudonym.

  41. Eric Florack says:

    and have no idea what this discussion about outing people who frequent prostitutes has to do with this episode.

    Hmmmm. How to explain this breifly? A question, I guess.

    If we assume that previous postings affect the weight of the current argument, what can be said about the situation as I described, and it’s effect on the current argument against Whalen?

  42. If we assume that previous postings affect the weight of the current argument, what can be said about the situation as I described, and it’s effect on the current argument against Whalen?

    Well, one direct question would be whether the pseudonymous author in question actually engaged in those previous efforts? I don’t know, that’s why I’m distancing from those earlier ideas. To take the opposite view, it’s possible to view Ed Whelan as a complete ass and still write for National Review (I suppose) and never actually deal with how much of an ass Ed Whelan is.

    Should that require that any pseudonymous blogger on NRO be “outed”? I would propose not. I don’t necessarily judge bloggers based on *where* they blog, but on their own blogging ability. Sullivan and the Atlantic are separate to me. Similarly, I think Douthat is an ass, and I don’t care if the New York Times pays him handsomely, i still don’t care for what he writes.

    I hope that makes sense.

  43. Eric Florack says:

    I guess.

    Things is, what this really comes down to is you’re (correctly, I think) making such judgements based on ethics.

    So, explain to us where the ethics are that allow “Publius” to attack Whelan without being directly connected to his words and the consequences of them, while Whealan is not only dealing with the attack, but is also directly connected to his own words and their consequences?

    See, there’s the nut of this thing, for me. A lot of folks have compared “Publius’ to the then-anonymous authors of “The Federalist Papers”. Problem is the federalist papers did not focus at any point on personal attacks.

  44. So, explain to us where the ethics are that allow “Publius” to attack Whelan without being directly connected to his words and the consequences of them, while Whealan is not only dealing with the attack, but is also directly connected to his own words and their consequences?

    I’ll try as best I can. Whelan is supported by at least two organizations that are well-funded (NRO and the [wrongly named, imho] Ethics and Public Policy Institute).

    Can only people who have similar backing “attack” Whelan? Is that right? IIRC, publius did not engage in a lot of ad hominem. I mean, he could have called whelan an ass, or someone who has the mind of a 12-year-old. But he didn’t. If I read the posts correctly, he said that whelan *acted like* someone who was an attack dog.

    If publius called whelan a dick or some such, then I’d see the point. As it was, it seemed like publius went out of his way to establish that whelan had bona fides.

    Am I missing something here?

    Rather, it seemed that Whelan was the one being petulant and childish.

    If you’re going to “man up,” as seems to be the meme du jour, then it seems that “manning up” means not listening, or not engaging with, pseudonymous bloggers.

    Rather than dealing with the substance, it seems Whelan was deflecting by delving into the pseudonymous nature of the criticisms. I’d rather he just dealt with substance.

    If publius is wrong, then he’s wrong on merits. His *name* and *real identity* have absolutely nothing to do with the issue of sotomayor.

    To get back to the “ethics” argument, it should be obvious that the ethical thing to do would be to deal with the arguments, not the person. And, fwiw, Whelan’s dealing with pseudonymous bloggers only gives them props, it doesn’t serve his ultimate purpose – dealing with the larger community of thought.

  45. Eric Florack says:

    Can only people who have similar backing “attack” Whelan? Is that right? IIRC, publius did not engage in a lot of ad hominem. I mean, he could have called whelan an ass, or someone who has the mind of a 12-year-old. But he didn’t. If I read the posts correctly, he said that whelan *acted like* someone who was an attack dog.

    While ignoring the attack dog nature of his own writings, while hiding behind anonymity.

    And I fail to see any significance in the groups that Whalen is connected to, unless you’re going to suggest that these would protect him in a legal situation resulting from a disagreement between them, something I must say I highly doubt.

    Hell, I’ve bounced off Whalen a couple times over the years, too… but using my real name, and subjecting myself to the consequences of those statements.

  46. And I fail to see any significance in the groups that Whalen is connected to, unless you’re going to suggest that these would protect him in a legal situation resulting from a disagreement between them, something I must say I highly doubt.

    Um, there’s where you’re wrong. By posting as an associate, he is “by definition” a part of those organizations and they would be more likely to be liable for his postings (see CDA section 230).

    You ignore the point to glom onto a secondary issue.

  47. Eric Florack says:

    By posting as an associate, he is “by definition” a part of those organizations and they would be more likely to be liable for his postings (see CDA section 230).

    Complicating that concept is the idea that the website isn’t part of EPPI, though i can understand the more direct connection to NRO…. Though I don’t think the case to be enough to mount legal proceedings, I also don’t think we can take as a given that they’d legally defend him in that situation.

  48. Eric Florack says:

    After thought;

    It still comes down to an immunity from consequences on the part of Blevins that Whalen does not share. Let’s assume for the sake of discussion, that this situation never occurred, and rather that someone levels a suit against Whalen for something he’s said. regardless who defends him, he himself or some group or other, he still faces direct consequences for his words and his positions taken. Not so for Blevins, assuming his anonymity is intact.

  49. truthteller says:

    I can understand why some bloggers have to stay ‘underground.’ For several years, I authored a conservative blog with a wide readership.

    At the same time, I was employed by a very liberal company. As an example, my employer fired a small group of Christians who shared a few encouraging words every morning via the company’s email system. The Christians never attempted to recruit people into their ideology or spam anyone, but just kept to themselves with the short email.

    The same company contributed $2 million a year to the Gay, Lesbian and Transgender group that also used the company email system. Those folks were not fired, and instead, allowed to make politically-charged speeches in group meetings.

    In an environment like this, with an obvious employer bias, you can imagine the result of my being ‘outed.’ There is absolutely no doubt that I would have immediately lost my job.

    I have no animosity towards anyone who I disagree with, but my experience with those on the other side is quite different. They have enormous ill-will towards me and they have expressed it hundreds of times.

    If a blogger is sticking to the facts and sticking to reliable public information, then they should be able to maintain their animosity. If they engage in contrived information, hear-say and conjecture, and present these as facts, maybe they should be exposed. The court of public opinion will never find consensus on this topic.

  50. An Interested Party says:

    As an example, my employer fired a small group of Christians who shared a few encouraging words every morning via the company’s email system.

    Under what grounds were these people fired? If it was for this reason, that seems to me to be grossly unfair and probably illegal…didn’t they try to seek legal recourse?

    I have no animosity towards anyone who I disagree with, but my experience with those on the other side is quite different. They have enormous ill-will towards me and they have expressed it hundreds of times.

    That “enormous ill-will” is hardly unique to one side of the political spectrum…people from either side can feel/act that way…