Anonymity is power. It’s a power that comes from imbalance, as Lynn Walsh, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, explains in “An ‘Aha Moment’ on Anonymous Sources.”
A few years ago, Walsh participated in a panel discussion about ethics in journalism in the wake of the Gamergate movement. It was her first experience with Gamergate, “a harassment campaign conducted primarily through the use of the Twitter hashtag #GamerGate. … Many of those organizing under the Gamergate hashtag argue that they are campaigning against political correctness and poor journalistic ethics in the video game industry, while numerous commentators have dismissed Gamergate’s purported concerns with ethics and condemned its misogynistic behavior.”
This description of the 2014 controversy was created by a group of anonymous editors on Wikipedia. Though Wikipedia gives its volunteer editors a choice — “You can let everyone know who you are by using your real name. Or you can make your edits with a pseudonym, hiding your true identity, and keeping it to yourself” — the pervasiveness of quirky usernames and obscure handles found in the edit history of the Gamergate Wikipedia page points to a preference for anonymity.
Anonymity can either be experienced or perceived, and the disparity between these two situations is crucial. When you experience anonymity, you control the flow of information, as in the classic cases of the tipster who calls the police to report a crime and hangs up without giving a name, or the “secret admirer” who slips an unsigned Valentine into a mailbox.
When you perceive anonymity, however, you’re at a disadvantage. Are you the only one who doesn’t know the true identity of the anonymous party? Are you the only dupe?
In the Gamergate debate, it was the public’s perception of anonymity that led Walsh to a sudden and startling realization.
“While discussing how journalists report information, the direction turned to the use of anonymous sources. Very quickly I realized the gamers and I had very different definitions of an anonymous source. The consensus in the crowd was that when journalists attributed information to an anonymous source, the journalist has no idea who the anonymous source is — that sometimes journalists were taking quotes from unverified, unknown Twitter accounts and just including them in news articles.”
And with that, Walsh’s overview of the code of ethics adopted by members of the Society of Professional Journalists changed into a discussion of journalism industry jargon.
“I quickly explained that if an anonymous source is being used in a story, it is someone who the reporter and sometimes that reporter’s editor knows. They may have met before, many times, but their identity is withheld – for some reason – from the story. The source is not named because of an important reason that could deal with protecting their identity because of possible retaliation, safety concerns, etc.
“When I explained this, I remember hearing so many surprised reactions from the crowd. They didn’t realize journalists knew the individuals they were citing as anonymous sources. The assumption was that neither the journalist nor the public knew who the anonymous source was, thus bringing into question information attributed to them.”
Anonymity may be power, but evaluating who holds that power can be tricky.
As the anonymous editors of Wikipedia note, “Most Gamergate supporters are anonymous.”