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Should All Activists be Anonymous?

By       Message Lily Chamberlain       (Page 1 of 2 pages)     Permalink

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Anonymity is a useful tool for activists.
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"Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth." Over the past ten years or so, this quote from Oscar Wilde has been flagrantly overused to the point where it qualifies as a cliche. During a decade in which whistleblowers and anarchic hacking collectives have undeniably come to the fore, Wilde's statement, promoting anonymity, has become a mantra for the new movement.

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And rightly so. The argument is as persuasive as it is intriguing; surrounded as we are by evidence to support it, ranging from the antics of internet trolls to the courage of all breeds of whistleblower, it seems that anonymity truly is the best means of securing total honesty. Without the fear of repercussions, a masked man becomes a vessel for the truth -- his own and everyone else's. As a free agent, capable of actions anyone else would deem horribly reckless, he is a valuable tool for 21st Century activism. So, taking that point to its logical conclusion, we should surely be arguing for every activist to be anonymous, right? Why bother with celebrity figureheads whose lives are endangered by their work, when there's a much safer alternative just waiting to be put into action? Why not push for total anonymity in every area of activism?

The benefits of this strategy are far greater even than those implied by the above quote. Imagine: in a world without famous leaders at the head of every activist movement, there would be no personal issues to serve as potential 'dirt', capitalized upon inevitably by the mainstream media in order to obfuscate the goals and message of the movement / organization in question. WikiLeaks' recent troubles serve as an appropriate example. Regardless of your thoughts on the rights and wrongs of the legal action pending in Sweden against Julian Assange, you can't deny that the case has changed the focus of all the media attention on the organization. An article about WikiLeaks' releases would seem incomplete nowadays without a small paragraph dedicated to the affair in Sweden, which detracts from the attention that should really be given to the work of the organization, not one man's personal business. Granted, Mr Assange and his legal team have themselves made every effort to interrelate the two stories -- WikiLeaks' truculent pissing off of the American elite and the sudden reemergence of charges against the organization's founder -- and the possibility of a link between the two is worth seriously considering. But the case against Mr Assange is still a major distraction, and, depressingly, has actually tainted WikiLeaks' reputation as far as a number of people are concerned. As Owen Jones put it shortly after Mr Assange first took refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy, London: "Assange should go to Sweden to face the allegations. That doesn't mean abandoning the struggle to hold Western governments to account... But this is a struggle that has become tragically compromised by Assange." 1 If Mr Assange had maintained the relative anonymity he enjoyed before summer 2010, the issue could have been dealt with privately and without the risk of damaging WikiLeaks. Heck, if the man himself is right in attributing a political motive to these allegations, perhaps they wouldn't have even come about if he'd never publicly become the head of the hacktivist hydra that the establishment most wants to chop off.

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Anonymity hence protects both the individual in question and the movement they represent, by defining a sharp dichotomy between the personal and the political. Yet it also serves another purpose. While the status of celebrity (and the accompanying wealth, popularity, praise, etc) is on the cards, self-promotion of course comes into play to a certain extent. A person's actions may be driven in part by their own ambitions, rather than their sense of logic and morality, when personal gains are within reach. The nature of anonymity is to deny the possibility of personal gains. All the gains made are to the benefit of the cause, the organization, the specific end goal towards which the movement is working. So, as long as those involved believe in their chosen cause, their decisions will be guided by reason and morality first and personal ambition second. Indeed, psychologists Robert Kraut and Paul Resnick found that anonymity boosts "identity-based commitment", which arises "when people identify with a community or group as a whole" 2 rather than specific members thereof. Anonymous members of a movement are hence more likely to connect deeply to their role therein, rather than concern themselves with personality and agenda. Marxism's explicit rejection of individualism and existentialism, giving its followers significance only in relation to the system in which they live and hence denying them a personal identity, springs to mind as an example of a movement that relies on the positive psychological effects of anonymity.

This is all looking very good for the total anonymity argument. Given its propensity to safeguard personal privacy and the relevant movement's integrity, while also inspiring selflessness and honesty, anonymity seems like the best thing since sliced bread from an activist's point of view. Yet the counterargument is equally compelling. One of the most interesting points here is also a common argument against Marxism, comprised of the same reasoning as that used to support anonymity in the previous paragraph. A rejection of individualism and agenda is not conducive to hard work or ambition; in most cases, we humans need a personal reward for completing a task in order to drive us to complete it to the best of our ability. Indeed, Phillip Tetlock found that the lack of accountability brought by anonymity leads to a kind of "cognitive laziness" 3 and reduced efficacy in problem solving and completing simple tasks. We are innately selfish, after all; true altruism is rare indeed. Even the 'martyrdom' undergone by many of the great heroes of political activism is accompanied, often, by a silver lining of sorts: that of public adoration, fame, or merely the knowledge that one has made an indelible impact on history. Not that I wish to undermine in any way the struggle that our modern-day martyrs have suffered through, of course. It is just important to acknowledge that personal gains are an important motivation for most people; as psychologist Dr. Leon F. Seltzer put it, "virtually everybody dreams of standing out, being admired, acclaimed--even, well, applauded. To be viewed, and to view ourselves, as merely 'average' or 'adequate' really doesn't do very much for us" 4. A quote about Leon Trotsky by Bruce Lockhart, a British intelligence agent, comes to mind: "He strikes me as a man who would willingly die fighting for Russia, provided there was a big enough audience to see him do it." 5

Furthermore, the "identity-based commitment" elicited by anonymity within a group can have some (unsurprising) negative side effects. A diffusion of responsibility, meaning individuals develop a 'mob mentality' conducive to amoral behavior, has been reported in most every study on anonymity; in his seminal work, Albert Bandura found "lessened personal responsibility [a feature of anonymity] enhances aggressiveness, with dehumanization serving as the more potent disinhibitor" 6. Behind his mask, a man may tell you the truth, but that truth is liable to be ugly.

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In light of this, it can be concluded that the decision whether or not to be completely anonymous is one that will be different for every organization, with pros and cons that will vary in size and importance depending on what kind of group / movement is involved. For larger collectives, a system based around many prominent figureheads and more anonymous underlings may be preferable, so as to play upon personal ambition and maintain accountability while preventing, where possible, negative media attention focused on one particular character who may come to personify the movement. Smaller organizations that boast a more close-knit dynamic may opt for total anonymity to prevent unproductive competition between members vying for recognition. These strategies are not set in stone, and cannot afford to be; as with everything that relies on human nature, we must expect copious exceptions to the rule. But, in the age of the Internet, we must seriously consider the benefits and downsides to anonymity, which will, if the success of groups like Anonymous and Lulzsec is anything to go by, shape the future of political activism.

Endnotes:

1. Owen Jones, "There Should be No Immunity for Julian Assange from These Allegations," The Independent, 17 August 2012

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I am an amateur writer and aspiring human rights lawyer, with a passion for political history and an extensive collection of Supertramp albums. I am most knowledgeable on the subjects of the history of the Soviet Union, the Israeli-Palestinian (more...)
 

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