The Ethics (or Lack Thereof) of Anonymity: Chelsea Manning and Wikipedia, Jamming, 11/11/2013

It’s hardly an original point today to say that the social conventions of the internet can easily enable trolling behaviour. People can create online handles that entirely mask their real names and identities, which frees them to say whatever they want. I can easily imagine an idealist dreaming of such a venue where people could speak out against any injustice or public harm with freedom from oppression. I can imagine that idealist’s terrible disappointment when he sees that freedom used to bully and offend people for personal entertainment. 

Trolling enables hostile, aggressive behaviour because there are no social consequences for it. Because it’s so easy to harass someone online as long as you have particular basic information, to protect yourself from direct personal harassment, you have to create an anonymous version of yourself. Use some random characters. Cla68, for example.

But anonymity is a totalizing shield. People’s phenomenal experience of you are usually just a few lines of text and maybe a few photos. Same with your phenomenal experience of other people. Empathy is difficult, not just because of sparse stimulus. Even cognitive empathy, the ability to understand sympathetically or from within the other’s shoes, is degraded. Most people write like they speak, imagining the verbal cues exist with the words, or forgetting their required effect for understanding tone. It’s immensely difficult to replicate tone in written language. The people who are good at that, we call literary geniuses.

So we have people who exist in a stimulus-starved field interacting with easily misunderstood overly aggressive people. The internet is a scary place sometimes. 

I write all this as a prologue to my own thoughts on my superior comrade in Doctor Who studies, Phil Sandifer’s recent banning from administrative powers on Wikipedia, the most recent fallout of Wikipedia’s problematic stance on Chelsea Manning. They initially refused to retitle her page with her new name, and in the name of consensus, have since concluded that working in activism for trans rights, being a trans person, or being friends with a trans person, constitutes conflict of interest that would prevent you from editing Manning's page. Phil puts the whole mess better on his blog in a series of posts over the last month or so. I’ll just link there for you to read the background in detail. Consider my own take on this as a hypothesis as to the motives of ArbCom for their actions; and a philosophical meditation on what the consequences of that hypothesis would be, were it to be true. As it is, my own hypothesis is that Phil seems to have been swept into a clusterfuck of cowardice on an immense level, what to me appears to be Wikipedia’s ArbCom shuddering at the greatest test of their social responsibility they’ve yet faced, and failing spectacularly.

When your devoted volunteer job consists of moderating trolls to achieve relative consensus within a group, the goal of any conversation among editors on Wikipedia content and policy, conciliation of all participants (as distinct from reconciling all viewpoints themselves) without judgment can often be the only way to prevent the system from breaking down. This works fine in most arguments on Wikipedia, which are largely pedantic and so detail-oriented as to constitute a quibble of a quibble. It doesn’t matter if you give into the most extremely intense shouter in a trivial concern, precisely because it's trivial.

Conciliation/capitulation to the most intense troll becomes a very big problem when the concern is the nature and identity of Chelsea Manning. The event of her sentencing hearing was a cultural intersection of a powerfully motivating idea for American Christian cultural conservatism (trans life and rights) with the most important issue in our modern democracies, the public revelation of the Orwellian spy regime that collects and sorts through almost all information that passes through the United States. The ArbCom of Wikipedia faced an incredible responsibility to do what was ethically right (retitle/move Manning’s page from her former name to Chelsea). But their actions and justifications, which Phil’s most recent post explains in better detail than I can, I think reveal something else about the ArbCom members.

They were quaking in fear of the conservative trolling firestorm that might be unleashed if they did anything that could potentially be interpreted as pro-Manning. Not only could an army of Republican trolls attack them at any time,* but it would be their job to BRING THEM TO CONSENSUS on issues of trans rights and how much respect to show to Manning. For a socially progressive liberal like me, Manning is a hero for helping poke holes in an intelligence infrastructure that was an insult to democratic values. For socially conservative militarists like the people I would be scared of if I was on the Wikipedia ArbCom on Manning’s sentencing day, Manning is a traitor for whom multiple decades in solitary was probably too lenient.**

* I should make clear that I don’t think such trolls would be under the direction of the Republican Party or Tea Party organizations or leaders specifically. I think hotheads and assholes with those sympathies would begin individual bullying campaigns against the ArbCom if they attempted anything provocative.

** With regard to the historical research I’ve been doing over the last couple of weeks, Chelsea Manning is our own Alfred Dreyfus.

I’d hold the ArbCom in less contempt if I thought they were all open homophobes and militarist supporters of the surveillance state. At least I could respect the open opinions of someone who despises me and who I despise. There’s something healthy about direct contempt. Instead, when Phil kicked up a fuss and publicized the ethical misconduct of the ArbCom over their failure to rename Chelsea Manning’s page, they used a questionable interpretation of their policy on when an editor’s identity can go public (that is, when an editor can be removed from the internet’s cloaks of anonymity) to criminalize and banish him.

Here’s Wikipedia’s policy on outing editors:
Posting another editor's personal information is harassment, unless that person had voluntarily posted his or her own information, or links to such information, on Wikipedia. Personal information includes legal name, date of birth, identification numbers, home or workplace address, job title and work organisation, telephone number, email address, or other contact information, whether any such information is accurate or not.
Because Phil Sandifer had posted the details of Cla68’s real identity outside Wikipedia, he was punished as having violated this law. But Cla68’s real information is already public, on publicly accessible pages on Wikipedia. Indeed, one of the commenters on some of Phil’s posts on this subject has devoted himself to publicizing Cla68’s identity wherever he can find it. I say go for it.

But Phil didn’t really cross this rule. The most that can be said is that he might have been the first person to describe Cla68’s name outside public Wikipedia pages and describe his role in the debates over what should be the proper name of Manning’s page, transcripts of which are also public. On that dubious ground, he was punished.

I think the real cause of his punishment was that he’s a notable scholar in the Doctor Who community and the nerdly community in general, and he used his relatively public profile to publicize an injustice on Wikipedia regarding Chelsea Manning. And I think such a scramble to keep his impact quiet and remove him from power inside Wikipedia was because he publicized the ArbCom’s cowardice.

If you were on the ArbCom, and you were faced with the prospect of having to come to consensus in an official and open discussion of THE NATURE AND STATUS OF CHELSEA MANNING(!!) with people ON THE INTERNET, you’d be scared too. A courageous person faces that situation, tells their day job that they have to take a couple of days off, pours themselves a few pots of coffee, and digs in to stand up for what was right. The courageous course of action is ethically required, because Wikipedia is an immensely powerful element of globally networked human knowledge. Given the weight of their decisions, an ArbCom member would have a moral obligation to do the courageous act.

A cowardly person, in contrast, hides from conflict by capitulating to every socially conservative and combative opinion from people who will refuse to change their minds no matter what you might say. They bend over backwards to the most reactionary voices because they’re afraid of those voices bullying them on their utopian totally open forum for rational and calm discussions about the breadth of human knowledge. 

The Wikipedia ArbCom didn’t just feed the trolls on Chelsea Manning and the fallout that has seen my friend and fellow scholar Phil Sandifer punished for attempting an ethical act. They left the trolls the keys to the castle before the battleships even showed up.
There are three lessons we can take from this in our moral philosophy. 

1) Freedom of speech doesn't imply the sanction to disrespect and bully others for any reason, but especially if the reason is as petty as a philosophical or political disagreement. The anonymity that the internet allows is sometimes fetishized as the only thing that can protect people from assaults by the unfriendly. Ironically, indignation at state assaults on personal privacy is part of what motivates our modern Dreyfuses, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, to leak the information they did. But it also protects people from social sanction for their actions, which is all that can usually hold a genuinely malicious person back from committing awful social acts. Shame is the last, most desperate, resort to keeping a community from being destroyed by assholes, and the customs of anonymity required to protect people from online harassment also prevent any meaningful public shaming of malicious people.

2) Governance by consensus has serious flaws. It only works when we accept that all participants in a discussion act in rational good faith, listen attentively to arguments, and hold a similar skepticism to their own views as they do to those of others. Once figures appear who don't hold to these principles of arguing in good faith or at least don't always hold to them, then the only way to achieve consensus is to give in to participants who won't stop bullying others until their perspectives prevail.

3) In addition to understanding and clarifying our moral principles, as philosophers we have to realize that of equal importance is building virtues of courage in people so they can stand up for their principles when they're put to a test. Pontificating about what you believe doesn't really mean anything until you can generate meaningful effects in the world based on those beliefs. You have to be able to defend people's freedoms from reactionary bullying and violence if you're going to believe in them without hypocrisy. 

Sometimes, all you can do is say some words that you hope at least influence people in better positions to act. And when you use words alone, like I do right now, you have to be careful. Don't just attack the first person you see on twitter who expresses a view you find retrograde. Shouting at a random private on Team Breezy doesn't accomplish anything but a squawk in the wilderness. Maybe by writing this piece in the wake of Phil's own publicity of the matter, I can add to whatever wave his higher profile can make.

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