Pseudonymity and Ethics

Last week, the Los Angeles Times suspended the blog of Michael Hiltzik, one of its columnists, when he admitted posting comments both on his blog (which was hosted by the paper) and on other blogs under pseudonyms. Apparently these efforts were a ham-handed attempt at creating an ego chamber by suggesting that there were other participants who agreed with Hiltzik’s views. The L.A. Times has posted a notice at Hiltzik’s blog, stating that Hiltzik’s actions were “a violation of The Times [sic] ethics guidelines, which requires editors and reporters to identify themselves when dealing with the public.”

Put to the side for the moment what Hiltzik actually did, which, if nothing else, was not a bright career move (and serves as yet another reminder to the public of the existence of IP addresses). What if Hiltzik had used a pseudonym to comment on another blog merely to engage in a discussion without revealing that he was a columnist for the L.A. Times? What if the resulting discussion then became interesting enough that Hiltzik or another reporter decided to write about the debate? Is there something improper or unethical about the fact that the hypothetical Hiltzik did not disclose his identity in the course of the discussion? Assume, even, that Hiltzik engaged in pseudonymous commentary precisely to spark a discussion on a given topic — which is, of course, what many blog authors do on a daily basis — to see if it would develop into any interesting column fodder. Would he have acted unethically? Given that the participants responding to such comments are engaging with a pseudonymous individual in an open forum in any event, does it matter whether that individual is the hypothetical Hiltzik or a CPA in Schenectady? Or whether the individual is a reporter for the L.A. Times rather than the author of AcmeBlog?

Presumably the L.A. Times does not enforce its policy to the extent of requiring its reporters to “identify themselves when dealing with the public” when they are, say, participating in an online dating service or ordering a burger at the local fast food joint. I would imagine that the point of the policy is to protect members of the public who would unwittingly say something in a conversation with a nonreporter that they would not say if they knew the comment could potentially be published in the paper. But when the hypothetical (i.e., nonlogrolling) Hiltzik comments pseudonymously on another’s blog and encourages comments that are intended for public consumption from the moment the “post” button is hit, is he “dealing with the public” in the way that the paper’s policy contemplates?

(To be clear: I am in no way defending Hiltzik’s actions. But I am curious about where the line between proper and improper is in a medium in which pseudonymity is not only accepted but often encouraged.)

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13 Responses

  1. Adam says:

    Interesting question! I think the split may come down to when your name exposes an important interest. What the guy did wasn’t just not stating his name or using another one (which is ok when ordering a burger or using an online dating site), but lying about it to conceal his interest in the matter.

  2. Actually, the issue wasn’t his use of a pseudonym, but his use of multiple pseudonyms to create a false dialog – one that supported the positions he took in his column and criticized his opponents – whereupon he seized on these comments and used them as reinforcements for his own opinions.

    The technical term of this is a “sock puppet”, and the last newsworthy use of them was by John Lott.

    Marc Danziger

  3. RCinProv says:

    Hmmmm. Puts me in mind of all those Amazon “book reviews” that are obviously written by the author — or by the author’s cowardly nemisis, who also uses a pseudonym. I’d love to see someone put the brakes on that practice. Two cheers for identified speech.

  4. prof says:

    I’m more sympathetic to Hiltzik, whose work I occasionally read. The context is that he was being viciously attacked from the right both by some non-anonymous bloggers, some anonymous bloggers, and various anonymous commenters on both his own and their blogs. You know the kind of nasty stuff: just spewing, ad hominem, garbage, not courteous disagreement. Now, what Hiltzik did was dumb– naive– probably pointless at best– and clearly it has been totally counterproductive for his reputation, at this point.

    But here is why I feel a lot of sympathy for him: the attacks on him were irresponsible, vicious, and mostly (tho not entirely) anonymous; some were probably libelous; there is no way for any of us (or for him) to know whether in fact those attacks came from two people, three people, or ten million people, since *he* can’t access the IP addresses of commentators on other blogs (and probably he can’t even find out IP addresses of comenters on his own blog, since it was run by his newspaper, not by him). So… what to do? I am not saying that posting his own anonymous defenses of himself was wise or useful– but I think increasingly there is this phenomen of blog “mobbing,” if you will, when one or more influential bloggers will gang up on some commentator. The mobbing blogger may just be local maniacs, and generally they are not themselves constrained in any ethical or legal way, since they operate outside of institutions. Meanwhile, their “victim” is constrained– or at least was in the case of Hiltzik– since he’d get in trouble with his bosses if he openly engaged in tit for tat on the official LA Times blog. So though I think what he did was dumb, on the whole I think he may have been more sinned against than sinning.

    Bottom line, I’m not advocating what he did– but I think that the focus on his “ethical shortcomings” partly misses the point.

  5. William McGeveran says:

    I agree with the previous commenter that the real issue is the sock puppetry, not the psuedonyms themselves. Patterico, the conservative blogger who unmasked Hiltzik’s secret identities, has been saying the same thing.

    Unfortunately, the L.A. Times, along with stories in the New York Times and Washington Post, all define Hiltzik’s infraction as the mere use of pseudonyms, not the deceptive way he used them. As a result, they imply there is something dirty about anonymity itself.

    This is particularly galling because, if any crowd should be eager to defend the importance of anonymous speech in general, it’s the journalists who rely on it every day when including anonymous sources in their news reports. Of course, anonymity can be abused in that setting too (see, e.g., Scooter Libby leaking to Judith Miller of the New York Times). But I am sure these newspapers would agree with me that the remedy to abuses by anonymous sources is not a ban on them!

  6. Kaimi says:

    Agreed with the comments that the real issue is the sock puppetry and conversation with self, in a deceptive way.

    There are many instances in which use of a pseudonym, I think, has to be considered just fine.

    First, there are sensitive matters. If people are discussing (for instance) child abuse or drug addiction or some other potentially sensitive topic, and I wish to weigh in with personal views, I may well choose to do so with a pseudonym, or anonymously. If I’m saying “I have struggled with drug addiction in the academic setting myself” or the like, I may choose to do so as “lawprof” or some other pseudonym.

    Second, I may just want to be frivolous and fun on some topic. I may just want to post about my favorite music or video games or what I thought of the movie I saw last Friday. And if I want to do so as some psuedonym, like “u2fan,” that should never be a problem.

    Third, there are a limited number of instances in which one-shot use of a psuedonym may be humorous. If we’re discussing Oliver Wendell Holmes, and someone posts a humor comment as Oliver Wendell Holmes, that _may_ be fine. (Not all such attempts are actually funny, but some certainly are).

    The real problem is when I post (for example) as “John Smith” or “Tom Jones” or whoever else and have conversations with myself, creating the illusion of added support by saying things like “I agree with Kaimi Wenger’s comments. He is so smart.”

  7. John Smith says:

    I agree with Kaimi Wenger’s comments. He is so smart.

  8. Redhawke says:

    IANAJournalist, and not to be contrary, but I see the issue as worse than mere sock-puppetry (don’t get me wrong, “socking” is a major infraction, one that will get one banned from several of the boards I am aware of). This is, in fact, a breach of the most basic of journalistic canons – Thou shalt not invent sources. Here’s why (you edge toward the same conclusion in your post):

    Hiltzik, on at least one occasion that we know of, posted a particularly harsh criticism of Sen. Arlen Specter in his blog, under his own name (perfectly OK). He then went onto Patterico’s site and posted, as mikekoshi, a criticism of Specter that mirrored the one he posted on his own site (a case of sock-puppetry, but not quite yet a breach of ethics). He then reported on his own comment, as an instance of Specter being attacked, on the merits of his criticism, in conservative blogs, and reported this as news especially because it was happening in a conservative blog, by a conservative (one independent of the reporter). Not only was this inaccurate and misleading, it reports as news an incident entirely of the reporter’s doing. I see no difference between this and writing a story about an eight-year-old junkie who was a composite of real people, but did not actually exist, or rigging a gas tank to explode on impact.

    Sock puppetry is generally bad because it is an attempt to mislead other readers into believing that the “author” has more support than he actually has. In at least one case, however, Hiltzik’s action went beyond merely ghosting himself into a larger contingent of believers, but into representing that “sources” were saying things when there was no real source saying what he said they were saying.


  9. Laura Heymann says:

    Very interesting comments, and I don’t disagree (as I noted in the original post) that what Hiltzik actually did was questionable. But is it equally questionable when a journalist uses pseudonymity not to engage in sock puppetry or to create fictional sources but rather to spark discussion on a blog that then may turn into the subject of a piece? Should a journalist have to disclose his identity in such circumstances?

  10. Redhawke says:

    Well, I read that wrong, but am not yet sure how it affects analysis:

    “Specter” was a poster who fought with Hiltzik in Patterico’s and Hiltzik’s blogs, NOT Sen. Arlen Specter. My humblest apologies for somehow getting the two confused. It was an honest (though particularly stupid) error.

    I think I need to retract a goodly chunk of my critique. It may serve to delete my comment, though I will accept keeping it up, if for no other reason than to illustrate the foolishness of jumping to a conclusion.

  11. DRMPro says:

    With this publicity, he can probably now double his salary.

  12. William McGeveran says:

    In answer to Laura Heymann’s follow-up question, I would argue that the apparent complete ban on psuedonymous commenting by reporters, at the L.A. Times and elsewhere, is wrong.

    One of the virtues of the potential for anonymous speech on the internet is the outlet it provides for people who are otherwise professionally constrained from participating in public debate. Journalists, clergy, schoolteachers, political staffers — all kinds of knowledgeable and civically-engaged people — feel a need to muzzle themselves at times on controversial subjects because they need to act impartially at work (and to be percieved as doing so). Some public statements interfere with their ability to do their job well. When that happens, we all lose the benefit of their voices.

    So, as I said above, some anonymous commenting by reporters might be inappropriate, but a blanket ban is an excessive response to such abuses. Any reporters or priests out there who care to respond anonymously?

  13. Safely anonymous says:

    So, I should comment here. I’ve commented in the past (anonymously) on things which I prefer not to link. I’d agree with some of the above analyses, but that feels wrong, for reasons I shan’t explicitly disclose.