The Volokh Conspiracy

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Free Speech

When Is It Unethical to Publicly Identify an Anonymous Speaker?

The @LibsOfTikTok controversy brings up this question, though the broader question is an old one.


The recent controversy about the Washington Post's Taylor Lorenz publishing the name of the Twitter @LibsOfTikTok account reminds me of this question, though it has of course also come up before. Two things seem to me quite clear:

  1. Publicizing such names can sometimes lead to the user (a) receiving threats (from a tiny fraction of the people who learn the name), (b) potentially being targeted for physical attacks (likely from even a tinier fraction), and (c) losing jobs and other economic opportunities (whether because the employers or others disapprove of the person's speech, or are just afraid of lost business if they deal with someone controversial). This in turn can cause these people to stop speaking; and it can deter other people from speaking, for fear that they will be identified this way.
  2. Publicizing such names can sometimes help people understand the possible biases of the previously-anonymous speaker, the possible relationships between various sources of online information, and the like. In some situations, it can also help readers figure out if the speaker has said or done things inconsistent with the speaker's anonymous persona, and help readers further investigate the credibility or the motivation of the speaker.

On the second point, such identification differs some of what is called "doxxing," such as publishing people's highly private information or even their home addresses (though mere identification of a person's name is indeed often labeled "doxxing" as that term appears to be used these days). It has some value—sometimes modest, sometimes substantial—to many readers, though it can also cause harm as the result of the actions of a few readers.

Generally speaking, knowing who is saying something is often seen as one possible data point in evaluating the credibility or the motivation for the statement, though of course it isn't always especially important. With @LibsOfTikTok, which I understand primarily reposts—in order to criticize—other people's publicly available posts rather than making its own factual assertions, credibility might be less important. Still, understanding the speaker's motivations and biases that might affect the selection process could be important to some readers, especially for an account with 700,000 followers.

What then should we think about this? When is such identification of speakers—whether by the mainstream media or by other speakers—something we should praise, something we should condemn, or something that we should view with indifference? I'm not asking here whether this is illegal (it almost never is) but rather whether this is unethical.

Note that I'm not speaking here of the broader question of when media or others should identify, for instance, criminal suspects or alleged fraudsters or people who file lawsuits (or are defendants in lawsuits). Rather, I'm focusing specifically on identification of anonymous speakers, though of course it's possible that all these public identification questions are logically linked.

(For an example of my—rightly or wrongly—publicly naming the author of an anonymous account, in the course of discussing her lawsuit against someone aimed at trying to shut down such identification, see here. Please feel free to discuss that, or other of my posts, in the comments as well; I hope I've acted properly in such posts, but I'm certainly open to the possibility that I have erred.)