The Outing of a Blogger: Social Transparency or Violation?

Filed as Features on March 28, 2009 8:32 pm

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We live in an age of transparency. I’d say that “transparency” should have been the word of the year last year, and it’s popularity as a buzz word this year continues. It pops up in most news reports, demanding transparency from banks and financial institutions, politicians, governments, corporations, and individuals.

It also litters our social media interaction. We want our online social interchanges to be with real people who want to know us as real people. We want people leaving comments on our blogs to have names. We want folks on Twitter to have real names, not CD Handles and cute nicknames or keywords. So is it okay to be anonymous any more?

Over the years, there as been an ongoing debate about anonymous bloggers as more and more people take to the Information Highway to have their say. For some, anonymity is a matter of life or death. For others, it’s just wiser. But it isn’t for everyone.

Some use a pseudonym, similar to what writers and artists have been doing for many years, either for protection and security, or because their real name, Hildibob Slibbervitzenson, just isn’t “writerly” or “artistic.” Would women have swooned over Archie Leach? Sang the memorable songs of Barry Alan Pinkus, or sang along to Bohemian Rhapsody with Farrokh Bulsara? Or believed in the sung words of Robert Allen Zimmerman with such fervor? Would Moses have been so memorable if played by John Charles Carter? Would the sexy pottery scene in “Ghost” have been so memorable if performed by Demetria Gene Guynes? Replaces those real names with their pseudonyms of Cary Grant, Barry Manilow, Freddy Mercury, Bob Dylan, Charlton Heston, and Demi Moore and everything changes.

There are many people who blog under a pseudonym without condemnation, but there are still those who choose to publicly blog anonymously. They use CD Handle style names, making a visible statement about their need to be private and choosing to hide behind a masked name while not hiding their opinion.

And there continues to be a witch hunt on to out them when their opinion doesn’t agree with the government or politicians.

Politician Outs Alaskan Blogger

Article on Mudflats about blogger being revealedSuch is the case for Mudflats or AKMuckraker, an opinionated blogger in Alaska being threatened by an Alaska state representative with “outing” their identity.

Author and state representative Mike Doogan is the author of several books about Alaska and mystery novels, and states in his bio that he worked most of his life as a journalist and writer. Of all people, he should know more than most about protecting the rights of authors and writers. It seems he doesn’t.

Let’s start the story in the words of Mudflats talking about the excitement of starting a new blog and finding a voice with their blog.

I wasn’t quite sure what this whole blogging thing was about, but a dear friend of mine who is a brilliant writer was doing some work for the American Cancer Society blog, and urged me to start one of my own. And so, one evening after some crazy shenanigans from Don Young and a glass of shiraz, the first post went up on Mudflats. It was a strange sensation to write, and then click on that blue oval button that said, “Publish”. With that click, I was putting my opinion out to the world. I was giving permission for people to peek into my brain, and read my diary, as it were. I had no particular desire for anyone to know it was coming from me, and why should they care, anyway? I’m just….me. I’m not a politician, nor a writer, nor a journalist, nor a state or federal employee, nor a lobbyist. I was just a citizen who was paying attention, feeling frustrated, and liked getting stuff off my chest.

I checked my blog statistics later in the day, and noticed that two people had clicked on my article. I sat there utterly amazed. I called to my spouse, “Look at this! Two people read it!” Then, the next day, eight people had read it. I was getting about a dozen hits a day the next week. I didn’t know where they were coming from, but I imagined my little group of a dozen people who enjoyed Mudflats enough to come back and read more. Then twenty people. And by the end of the summer, about 250 a day. Maybe they liked feeling like somebody was speaking their particular truth. Maybe they liked it. It was a good feeling.

These aren’t the words of an anarchist or professional writer. They are the same feelings so many get every day when they write that first blog post and realize that they have just found a soap box they can stand on and call their own. Maybe they aren’t heard in their day-to-day real life and this is the first time they get to have their say. We’ve all been there. We know that feeling of watching a blog grow and how good it feels to have someone pay attention.

Mudflats’ life changed when Sarah Palin entered the US election as John McCain’s sidekick and much ignored Alaska became center stage for the world’s attention. Intrigued and wondering what the future may hold with Palin in charge, Mudflats wrote an opinion piece called “What Is McCain Thinking? One Alaskan’s Perspective.”

Within an hour or two, this personal blog had more than 7,000 hits. By day’s end, the count was up to 64,000. Mudflats started being besieged with emails and blog comments asking for more. The few Alaska bloggers around the state were also besieged, becoming overnight sensations as everyone got out their shovels on the web looking for anything and everything they could about Sara Palin.

With the sudden and persistent interest and enthusiasm, Mudflats was stunned at the response and the process that soon had a life of its own.

Fast forward to the present. Mudflats has become something of an amazement to me. Over the months, kind souls from many places have volunteered their time, and their energy to build this community. It was hard to manage posts that were getting 500 or 600 comments in just a few hours. So the Mudflats Forum was born, run by a team of administrators and moderators who all work very hard for nothing but gratitude. The forum was a way for readers to connect and discuss issues of the day, start their own threads, support each other, and talk everything from Sarah Palin to Barack Obama to salmon recipes…I felt quite qualified to give my perspective and opinion. All of us are.

Mike Doogan outs Alaska BloggerAmong the growing number of political commentaries the site and author started writing, put into the spotlight with the politics of Palin, Mike Doogan was one of the targets, bringing this community blog under his microscope.

Tracing the Path to Outing a Blogger

The email exposing Mudflats is currently on the Alaska House Democratic Legislators front page of their site under “Extra! Extra! Newspapers and Bloggers Edition; Biased? Who? The Alaska Press Club?; A Treatise On A Newspaper Crusade; Anonymous Blogger Anonymous No More.”

It began with this:

Alaska legislator Mike Doogan announced today that it is his civic duty to reveal the identity of Alaska’s most prestigious anonymous blogger. In his weekly email bulletin, Doogan ended with this:

The identity of the person who writes the liberal Democratic Mudflats blog has been secret since the blog began, protected by the Anchorage Daily News, among others. My own theory about the public process is you can say what you want, as long as you are willing to stand behind it using your real name. So I was interested to learn that the woman who writes the blog is Anchorage resident [name withheld].

Why it would change anything to know the name of the person behind the blog remains a bit of a mystery. Until you read the email exchange with Progressive Alaska’s author, Phil Munger, and Mike Doogan. These are part of an email conversation that started with a political issues inquiry, with no mention of Mudflats. Mike Doogan challenges Munger’s questions for clarity, which Munger clearly states in his reply, and gets this back.

Phil:

Thanks, that’s a much better set of questions. Now, why are you asking? Running low on fodder for your blog? And if it’s not for the blog, why are you asking me instead of your own representative?

Mike

The “fodder” reference was ignored by Munger as he struggled to reply professionally, trying to return the conversation back to the original inquiry. What starts out as a simple set of questions becomes a vindictive hunt for the blogger behind Mudflats.

Phil:

Thanks for the response.

I think that if blogging might be detrimental to the “professional and/or business situation” of the person writing Mudflats, then he/she shouldn’t be doing it. But even if it is, are your arguing that it’s okay for people to stand in the shadows and shout into the public debate? What next? Hoods and torches?

How does you keeping this person’s name a secret comport with your “let’s put everything on the blog” ethic? You are talking out of both sides of your mouth, Phil. As long as you are going to pick and choose what information you make public, there’s really no reason for me to communicate with you.

…Mike

While Munger kept the identity of Mudflats private, imagine the shock Mudflats got when the email arrived in the inbox telling the blogger they were about to be exposed:

I was a bit surprised to see my real name, as you can imagine. But after the initial surprise wore off, it really hit me. This is an elected State Representative, of my own political party, who has decided that it’s not OK for me to control the information about my identity; that it’s not OK to express my opinion on my own blog without shouting from the rooftops who I am.

If I were to appear, as many of you have, at a political rally and I were to hold up a sign that expressed my opinion, I don’t have to sign my name on the bottom. And if someone wants to come online and read my diary, they are free to do so. And if they want to disagree, that’s OK too.

Mudflats continues listing the reasons bloggers have for wanting to stay anonymous such as privacy concerns, security, risk to friends and family, risk of losing their job, even risk of personal attacks and violence. While few people blog at risk of life and limb, many blog anonymously to protect their privacy and that of their family, and even to protect their job.

Justification for Exposing a Blogger

As I read through all the blog posts, I want to understand a politician in the “freedom of speech” based United States would care about a blog. It seems that Mudflats was thinking the same thing.

What appears to matter to Rep. Doogan is that either 1) he feels that if he “outs” me, he’ll change what I have to say, or keep me from saying anything. 2) he gets to play mystery detective (like in his books) and believes people will think he’s really cool for figuring it out, or 3) he feels like getting revenge. He knows I want to remain anonymous, so he’s going to take it away. In any of those three scenarios, he didn’t think it was important to get the bigger picture.

And in any of those three scenarios we should probably find it disturbing that an elected official is using his time and mental energy in this way, against an ordinary citizen.

The outing didn’t escape the notice of the Huffington Post, reporting:

Doogan has been quick to make hyperbolic comparisons between the anonymity of AKM and the anonymity of the KKK, drawing not-so-subtle historical parallels between the anonymous post-Civil War editorials of the KKK’s original Grand Cyclops. He has also mentioned “hoods and torches” in several emailed responses to constituents who voiced concerns about the ‘outing’ of AKM.

No doubt Doogan feels vindicated by outing this anonymous blogger — someone associated with a media form that is taking the jobs of his colleagues, someone whose work is lesser in his mind than the print journalists of yore. Doogan says that AKM gave up her right to anonymity when her blog began influencing public policy, but America also has a rich tradition of anonymous political commentary — so much so that the framework of our country was shaped by anonymous political prose.

….Doogan would do well to remember that, although he is a mystery novel writer, he is not a detective in real life, and this was one mystery that should have gone unsolved. New media is replacing traditional media regardless of whether Mudflats continues to exist or not. Taking down one blogger — or even thousands of bloggers — will not bring back your dying newspaper industry.

Historically, many have protected themselves with pseudonyms, so why not bloggers? Or is it okay to have a “real” sounding name? Would the attempt to uncover Mudflats be as such a big deal if the blogger had called themselves Jane Smith? Is it the blatant obfuscation that irritates so many?

In the next article on the issue of anonymous blogging and the Mudflats outing, I want to know if you think it is right to out bloggers and reveal them to the public, and I’ll give you some insights into those who have been outed and fear such revelations.

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  1. By Rick posted on March 28, 2009 at 10:30 pm
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    What a blogger writes is what’s important, not who they are. The way to respond to words one does not like is to ignore them, respond in the comments, write a rebuttal on your own blog, etc.

    Reply

  2. By AKMuckraker posted on March 29, 2009 at 1:20 am
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    Thanks for your coverage of this topic. While, for obvious reasons, it affects me personally in one way, it really is the bigger picture that is important. This is a conversation that needs to be had, and the boundaries of the law must be made clear.

    I’ll look forward to the next article. Well done.

    Reply

  3. By gahanson posted on March 29, 2009 at 6:44 am
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    I’ve read several postings about this issue, primarily from those on the left, and not surprisingly, find quite a bit of hypocracy. Where was the lefts outrage over privacy when Palin’s email account was hacked, or when Joe the Plumbers private information was rifled through and turned over to those in the media who gleefully made it public? Matter of fact AKMuckraker’s opinion on these two events may be of interest. Maybe a review of Mudflats would be useful to see if she condemned them or perhaps reveled in them. Would this particular column have been written if it was a conservative or right wing blogger exposed, probably not. I’ve seen many a dedicated leftist gloat about how they managed to crash a rightist website, or use threats against the site provider to get the site pulled altogether.

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  4. By Daniele posted on March 29, 2009 at 8:46 am
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    Good post. I think the web citizens must have the freedom of opinion. A blogger is not only a citizen of the web, but especially a citizen, a man or a woman with own opinion.

    Reply

  5. By Dean Allen posted on March 29, 2009 at 8:53 am
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    It is sort of common sense that rights and responsibilities are intertwined and always balance each other. You have an absolute, even unfettered, God given right to speak, write, publish, comment and even complain. However, there are common sense responsibilities that go along with this right. Things like being civil and respectful. You should also tell the truth. A wise man once said everyone is entitled to his own opinion; but NOT to his own facts.

    You ask for my name and e-mail address before I can post this commentary on your essay. You also noted that I may be “Moderated” because this is my first post. I happen to believe that there is a huge difference between giving a family recipe for salmon and attempting to influence elections or public policy.

    When you venture into the latter effort the “transparency” you mention becomes relevant and important. Your “Mudflats” writer is certainly entitled to an opinion, even a controversial or unpopular opinion. She is also entitled to print or publish that opinion. When it is an opinion about an elected official and the opinion is given for the purpose of influencing either an election, or the outcome of pending legislation; then the same public that opinion is expressed to, has a right to know who is speaking and what their associations are.

    If an opinion comes from Louis Farrikan, we don’t want it attributed to the Dali Llamma. The identity, background, and the associations of someone attempting to influence public policy are indeed fair game. President Harry S. Truman had some advice for “Mudflats,” he said “If you can’t take the heat; stay out of the kitchen!”

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  6. By Rick posted on March 29, 2009 at 9:15 am
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    Keep in mind that someone who is anonymous is merely keeping their identity secret, they are not impersonating anyone else. Also Mudflats could always have some other blogger publish her articles as an anonymous guest writer. I recently did just that for someone wanting to remain anonymous while identifying problems with a certain company (which shall remain anonymous here).

    If one criticizes a powerful political office holder, being anonymous may merely be keeping the playing field level. Of course, your message could be much more effective if your identity is known.

    One recent example of where anonymity was needed was where Proposition 8 supporters were harassed, property damaged, and some losing their employment, because their donations were made public.

    Reply

  7. By Shawn posted on March 29, 2009 at 12:44 pm
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    Rick, there was already a law in CA, stating that anyone who makes political contributions does so in the public eye, and this law is well-known during the time people chose to make donations to, or defend against, this hate law. In fact, the Mormon church tried to use it to blackmail people into contributing to prop 8.

    Meanwhile, there are already established rights to internet privacy. And really, given the do-it-yourself ways of the internet, the whirlwind, as someone else has said, that Doogan is now reaping– is his very own.

    Reply

  8. By Becky posted on March 29, 2009 at 2:01 pm
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    Did you write about privacy issues that related to what happened to Joe The Plumber during the campaign or when that college kid hacked into Sarah Palin’s private e-mail account? Just asking.

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  9. By Ennealogic posted on March 29, 2009 at 2:04 pm
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    For those who say (like Doogan) that if you influence public opinion you have no right to do so unless you identify yourself — how do you determine the extent of the influence? Where is the line? If you influence 1% of a given population, is that enough? Or maybe 10%? or 28.7%?

    If you self-publish observations and opinions, not under anyone’s banner and not with any organization’s backing or protection, but simply on your own, who gets to say you are influencing public opinion to such a degree that you can not do so pseudonymously? Who gets to make that decision?

    Had Doogan wanted to force AKM out from behind the curtain of Mudflats, the proper course of action would have been for him to take the issue to court. He could have attempted to show that AKM’s words swayed an audience huge enough to change the outcome of an election, for instance. But then, he’d have to face up to the fact that pseudonymous political commentary comes from all sides (think Free Republic, for example…). I doubt he would have made much headway in bringing this case.

    So again, who gets to decide who influences people enough that their names must accompany their voices? Doogan obviously thought he could decide. I hope he learns, quickly and emphatically, that it is not up to him.

    Reply

  10. By Rick posted on March 29, 2009 at 3:09 pm
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    Shawn,

    With Proposition 8 I was pointing out that requiring public disclosure has caused people to be harassed and to lose their employment. Hence I can understand why a blogger would want anonymity when writing about a powerful political figure.

    As for the Church of Jesus of Christ of Latter-day Saints blackmailing people, where did you dig that up? I followed the campaign from the beginning and didn’t come across anything that could remotely be called blackmail from either side.

    Reply

  11. By Brian Carnell posted on March 29, 2009 at 3:44 pm
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    Weird. Personally I don’t see a problem with either side. Mudflats wanted to blog anonymously and did so. Doogan thought this was inappropriate and thought people might want to know who she really was, did some research, and outed her.

    *Both* are completely within their legal rights. No one’s done anything wrong here. No one’s violated a law.

    Bottom line — if you really want to stay anonymous you’re going to have to do a bit better job of it than Mudflats and others have done.

    If I had been Doogan in this case I wouldn’t have outed her, since it doesn’t appear she had a hidden agenda. If it had turned out, for example, that Mudflats was really being written by the head of the Democratic Party in Alaska, that would have been worth outing her. But just “here’s the name of some ANchorage resident you’d never heard of before” isn’t exactly compelling news.

    However, I’m not Doogan and he’s got every right to do what he did.

    Reply

  12. By Ennealogic posted on March 30, 2009 at 7:05 am
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    To the author of this Blog Herald page, the criminal charges made by “Gary” on March 29, 2009 at 11:02pm are serious. If true, they certainly should be answered for. If false, they are slanderous and “Gary” is in the business of defamation of character of not one, but three Alaska bloggers.

    I strongly urge the Blog Herald to remove this comment from the screen until and unless “Gary” and his Team Sarah associates can provide proof of this illegality.

    To “Gary” – this is not the place to make these charges. If you have proof of your assertions, please take it to the appropriate law enforcement official.

    FWIW, I know AKM. AKM is a friend of mine. AKM would not hack into anyone’s forum account. And you, “Gary,” are no AKM.

    Reply

  13. By Linda Kellen Biegel posted on March 30, 2009 at 9:13 am
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    I was anonymous while I worked for the Feds. Once I quit, I “outted myself” in order to be in the running as the Dem blog for Alaska. My reason for being anonymous was gone.

    However, this week has made me long a little bit for those anonymous days. Palin’s official press release was that of a bully and it “unleashed the hounds”. I’m up early this morning because Ann Coulter talked about my ethics complaint on Geraldo last night which prompted some idiot from Tennesee to call me at 4:00 AM in an attempt at intimidation.

    Doogan, like Palin, is a bully. He has “unleashed the hounds” on Mudflats against her will, opening AKM up to folks giving out as much private information they could find. It makes one wonder if doing this gains Doogan a little consideration from our Governor.

    Our situation cannot be compared to that of a newspaper for a number of reasons:

    1) WE’RE NOT JOURNALISTS–what we do is the equivalent of a diary

    2) WE’RE NOT A BUSINESS–most of us don’t make money on the blog. Even those who try hard to do so usually only manage to break even.

    3) WE DON’T HAVE A CORPORATION, EDITOR, ETC… TO BACK US UP–it’s just us. We are private citizens in every definition of the word.

    Newspaper folks are under the mistaken impression that blogs are their competition. They are wrong. Newspapers have failed due to systematically poor decisions made by their corporate heads and their editorial staff. They have refused to read the writing on the wall as to the future of journalism — now they blame their poor choices on others. Mike Doogan, Sheila Toomey, Amanda Coyne and Tony Hopfinger remind me of dinosaurs lashing out at anyone while in the death throes. I used to care–defending support of the ADN. Now, when Toomey gets her pink slip, I’ll throw a party.

    Reply

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