I think the title of this blog post puts it best: Marianne Mikko is wrong. The Estonian MEP is campaigning for bloggers to be identified – “We do not need to know the exact identity of bloggers. We need some credentials, a quality mark, a certain disclosure of who is writing and why. We need this to be able to trust and rely on the source”.
I first read about this in the Guardian, where Marcel Berlin wrote about the problems of “abuse, very personal remarks and hysterical ranting” in the comments threads that accompany his online articles. He also referred to libellous remarks. Let’s take Marcel’s comments first. If someone wrote something abusive about me in the comments section on my blog, I’d laugh. I wouldn’t delete it or get huffy about it, I’d simply let the comment speak for itself. Abuse is not big, it’s not clever and it does not show the commenter in a good light. As for libellous remarks, there is already a system in place for dealing with libel and anonymous bloggers or commenter who write libellous remarks can be identified.
Why do all bloggers need to be identified then? Not to protect people from libel (it probably wouldn’t prevent many cases of someone being libelled, and there is already a way of dealing with libellous remarks once they’ve been made) and not to protect people from abuse (come on Marcel, are you really such a fragile flower that a naughty word in the comments following one of your pieces is too much to bear?).
According to the Telegraph Marianne Mikko is concerned that growing numbers of blogs are being used by individuals with “malicious intentions or hidden agendas”. We’ve already (briefly) covered libel and abuse, so onto hidden agendas – if someone writes a blog post on the internet it doesn’t really matter if they use their real name.
When it comes to facts, what they write is either true or it is untrue and facts can (generally) be checked. When it comes to opinion, I don’t know why it would be more helpful to know the writer’s name – you will either agree or disagree and if the author is someone you know of then you are probably more likely to prejudge the piece than you would otherwise be and I reckon this makes it less likely that you will appraise the piece objectively and look at the actual arguments.
As I said on the Bad Science forum, I think that what is said is more important than who said it. If we can’t evaluate ideas without knowing whose idea it is and what their political stance is (for example), then our ability to evaluate ideas must be shockingly bad.
I find Marianne Mikko’s emphasis on source over content worrying – if we are going to dismiss what people say on the basis of their personality instead of judging what they say according to the merit of their ideas.
These are some reasons why I don’t think that it is necessary to have declarations of identity on blogs – the suggestion that competing interests should be declared is, perhaps, a fair one. Identities? No. The Education Watch blog post that I linked to at the start has some reasons why bloggers should be allowed to preserve their anonymity.
Firstly, it is clearly the case that there are some very odd and very aggressive people involved in online discussions. I wouldn’t want these people knowing who I am. The Education Watch post refers to 9/11 truthers as a case in point – I’m sure most people who use online forums and blogs will be able to think of examples they have seen.
Other reasons provided include: protection for whistleblowers*; separation of personal identity from work identity; and the final reason was that the ability to evaluate what someone says makes their identity pretty much irrelevant. As I said in my comment on Education Watch’s post, the day someone can convince me that assumptions [made about the work from what is known about the writer] are more worthwhile than verifiable information is the day I agree with Marianne Mikko.
* Education Watch cites whistleblowers on corruption, which could be relevant to the EU given the accusations made in the past of shenanigans in European politics and the constant references we have heard over the years to the “EU gravy train”. I’m no conspiracy theorist, but I was amused to note that The Telegraph’s report made the point that:
A recent internal European Commission report, leaked three weeks ago, found that the EU was losing the battle for hearts and minds online. “Blog activity remains overwhelmingly negative,” it said.
I’m sure it’s a coincidence that it has come out that MEPs think it would be a good idea to reveal the identity of bloggers three weeks after an internal report was leaked pointing out that the EU was being criticised on people’s blogs – but it doesn’t look, good does it?
You would have thought that politicians would be smart enough not to allow themselves to be seen as whining about nasty bloggers at roughly the same time it is being made clear to them that a number of bloggers don’t like them. They could probably do with better spin doctors.
I also think it’s amusing that they’ve picked on bloggers as being individuals with malicious intentions or hidden agendas, and Mikko has referred to less principled people wanting to use blogs. She’s worried about bloggers?
What about the inaccurate, unprincipled, malicious journalists in the mainstream media? Their reach is far further than the average blogger’s. And let’s not pretend that the media barons (who basically have the final say on their paper’s editorial stance) don’t have their own agendas – which are probably no less dangerous when they are known, they don’t even need to be hidden to pose serious problems.
There’s more reactionary right-wing libertarian blogs covering this than you could shake a stick at – but there should be some decent ones in amongst the dross. That’s the thing about blogs, there’s one or two diamonds in a big pile of dogshit and it’s up to the reader to find the diamonds – an “EU-approve” tag will not be helpful for these readers, in my humble opinion.
Some of the best blogs on the net are anonymous to some degree, Gimpy and Holford Watch to name but two. They have thus far managed to refrain from libelling people – possibly because they are far too busy writing sensible, nuanced and accurate blog posts; with proper references to back up factual points, and comments enabled so there is a right of reply offered to any persons or organisations that are named in their posts. A damn sight more consideration than you’d ever get in the mainstream media.