The Trouble with Anonymity on the Web

Pundits of the Internet age are fond of excoriating the Web because anyone can post on it anonymously. Andrew Keen, whose recent book Cult of the Amateur is a good primer on why people hate the Web, highlights the horrors of anonymity in his work, contrasting the millions of unnamed Web scribblers with honorable, properly identified writers of yesteryear. Keen's point is that people who don't put their names on what they've written don't feel responsible for it; therefore they feel little compunction about lying or misrepresenting their chosen subjects. After all, an anonymous writer doesn't have to worry that their reputation will be tarred -- unlike, say, a writer at The New York Times, whose byline appears on his or her articles.

Every social stereotype has a caricature associated with it, and the "anonymous Web writer" has theirs. They're always portrayed as a he, first of all. And he's inevitably described as being "some blogger writing in his basement in his pajamas." In other words, this anonymous person is not a professional (hence the pajamas) and probably poor (he lives in a basement). He's a nobody, a loner who lashes out at the world from his dismal cell, hiding behind his anonymity and destroying the good reputations of nice people.

Where does this sad little man like to post his anonymous invective? Wikipedia, of course. He can change any entry without leaving his name, adding lies to biographies of innocent mayoral candidates and spewing spam all over facts. And the best part is that most people take Wikipedia seriously. They regard it as a reliable source of knowledge, despite the fact that it's written by unknown, basement-dwelling bloggers in pajamas.

That's why I was so gratified when California Institute of Technology grad student and mad scientist about town Virgil Griffith released his software tool Wikiscanner, which you can use to quickly check on who has been editing Wikipedia entries anonymously. You see, whenever you edit a Wikipedia entry, the encyclopedia logs your unique IP address, which can often be tracked back to a physical location, including your place of employment. Even if you think you're being stealthy with your anonymous writing, you're not. Wikipedia sees all.

And now the public can see all if they visit Griffith's Wikiscanner site. Turns out that all the anonymous propaganda and lies on Wikipedia aren't coming from basement dwellers at all -- they're coming from Congress, the CIA, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the American Civil Liberties Union. Somebody at Halliburton deleted key information from an entry on war crimes; Diebold, an electronic-voting machine manufacturer, deleted sections of its entry about a lawsuit filed against it. Someone at Pepsi deleted information about health problems caused by the soft drink. Somebody at The New York Times deleted huge chunks of information from the entry on the Wall Street Journal. And of course, the CIA has been editing the entry on the Iraq war.

Wikiscanner allows you to search millions of edits, perusing a precise record of all the changes that have been made. While you can't figure out exactly who at the CIA made the changes to the entry on the Iraq war, you can be sure the changes came from somebody on the CIA's computer network.

Griffith created Wikiscanner for a frankly political reason. As he told the Times of London, he did it "to create minor public relations disasters for companies and organizations I dislike." In the process, however, he's revealed something far more fundamental than the fact that acolytes of Pepsi and the CIA will stop at nothing to propagandize on behalf of their employers: he's undermined the myth of the anonymous blogger in the basement.

It turns out that the people who are hiding behind anonymity online for nefarious or selfish reasons are not little guys in pajamas but the very bastions of accountability that haters of the Web have deified. It's not a mean dude with a grudge who is spreading lies on Wikipedia but rather a member of the federal government or a journalist at The New York Times. Cultural anarchy online is coming not from the hordes of scribbling bloggers but from the same entities that have always posed a danger to culture: corporations and governments who refuse to take responsibility for what they're doing.

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