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About media framing • (written by Brian Dean)

Identity politics, “trolls” & anonymity

monty_python_headerOct 29, 2014Just as UKIP and the rightwing press forever trumpet identity (“Losing Our Britishness”, etc) so do sections of the left always seem snarled up in identity politics. Strangely enough, both the far right and “radical” left use some of the same identity-labels to denounce what they see as the fungible wrongdoer class: “liberal”, “elite”, “establishment” (although perhaps the favourite bad-identity label on the left is “corporate”).

Framing by assertion of identity (as opposed to argument) triggers the territorial “us vs them” mode of cognition. This kicks in quickly and (to put it mildly) tends to reduce one’s empathy with those on the ‘wrong’ side. It’s no more a conscious choice than adrenaline is. But there’s an argument (quite a good one) which claims that identity politics increases and/or reinforces “authoritarian” tendencies over time – even among those with “progressive” aims.

Can there be authoritarian progressives? In a word, yes. One reason is that means and ends can function as different domains of experience. Thus one can have progressive ends but authoritarian conservative means. One can even, in the extreme, be an authoritarian antiauthoritarian. (George Lakoff, The Political Mind, p73)

The increased opportunities for communication brought about by blogs, online newspaper comment sections, social media, etc, seem, in some cases, to have amplified the worst tendencies of identity politics: preoccupation with status, “importance” and celebrity, intolerance of ambiguity regarding allegiances and, in particular, fear of anonymity. (I wrote about a similar trend in my pieces on radical churnalism, group generalisations and populist framing).

Fear of anonymity & “trolls”

anon-vs-identity-politicsGiven that anonymity is the absence of identity, fear of it seems a natural corollary of identity politics. Anonymity has had a bad press recently, with media focus on abuse of celebrities by internet “trolls”. As a result, anonymity seems to be framed in “negative” conservative terms – as “suspect”, “criminal”, etc – by virtually everyone I read. This view of anonymity also reinforces the authoritarian “Nothing to hide, nothing to fear” frame, which establishes the case in people’s minds for more surveillance, more online policing, more recording of personal data, etc.

Perhaps people should stop worrying about anonymity and pay more attention to accountability, which is a different thing altogether. Lack of accountability for harmful acts or remarks is the problem, not anonymity (the authorities, of course, require proof of identity in legal cases). Identity doesn’t confer accountability (some of the biggest “identities” – eg our ostensible “leaders” – lack accountability). Conversely, the anonymous can easily be accountable. How? By supporting their statements and correcting errors, etc – by abiding by shared conventions that generally apply to argument (as opposed to identity).

Anonymity doesn’t (and shouldn’t) make one suspect. Most internet users, studies tell us, prefer to be anonymous. We need to reinforce a progressive framing for anonymity, otherwise the authoritarian view will become “common sense” in an increasing number of public domains. Identity politics of both left and right takes us in the conservative direction on this, unless we reverse the trend.

Anonymity – a progressive view

id-card-smIn the early days of the web, people experienced the liberating effect of communication without identity. Everyone had “handles” (screen names, aliases) – a term borrowed from the world of CB radio. You didn’t know if the person talking to you was a rich, elderly Alaskan woman or a poor young man from Pakistan. And that seemed, generally, a good thing.

Anonymity threatens the “authoritarian” mindset – it blocks the reflex to pigeonhole people, something we all do to establish a sense of control. At the ugly extreme, you have those who need to identify your ethnicity, gender, etc – so that they “know who they are talking to”. Less extreme, but very common, people want to know how “important” or “successful” you are, who you’re associated with, what your political allegiances are.

Anonymity demands that we evaluate the content of communication without the crutch of authority. No status, no presumptions or prejudices – we have to think for ourselves. Intelligence is the main currency, and no ID card or DNA sample is required. Of course, that doesn’t stop abusive idiots from being anonymous – but then identity never stopped destructive fools from reaching positions of authority.

Creative/”guerilla ontology” type uses of anonymity: The Association of Autonomous AstronautsDiscordianism, Decadent Action, Luther Blissett, Luther Francone, etc.

Written by NewsFrames

October 29, 2014 at 8:35 am

20 Responses

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  1. A Pythonesque “case study”

    I observed an interesting “identity politics” rumble recently – it illustrates some of the above points well…

    The website, Medialens, and blogger Jonathan Cook, took exception to George Monbiot’s retweet of something from Mediocre Lens (a Twitter account which spoofs & criticises Medialens). Cook called Monbiot “the left’s McCarthy” and wrote that he “is no longer what he claims to be or seems”. In addition, Cook asserted (falsely) that Mediocre Lens was something similar to a corporate front (“corporate lobbyists hiding behind front organisations”).

    Medialens, like Cook, questioned Monbiot’s “integrity”, and wrote: “it’s hard to believe he hasn’t guessed who’s behind Mediocre Lens and that he’s unaware that it’s not what it claims to be”. But Medialens disagreed with Cook on the identity of Mediocre Lens, asserting that it was the work of a “lone troll” (their words) named Robert Shone.

    Cook further wrote that Mediocre Lens had smeared itself by being anonymous, and added: “Seems then we have to take your anonymous word for it that you’re not shills”.

    Medialens, meanwhile, went one better, with a wild, unsupported (and false) accusation: “This is someone who once had a letter published in New Statesman, responding to our criticism of Iraq Body Count’s work, by pretending to be a female doctor/academic.” (David Cromwell, Medialens co-editor, Facebook comment)

    I know a little about Mediocre Lens and its contributors (I’ve contributed some of its tweets myself), so I know how irresponsible Medialens and Cook have been in their hodge-podge of false accusations and guesses-asserted-as-facts. It’s interesting to note that the Mediocre Lens tweet which they objected to (the one Monbiot retweeted) has been supported by evidence, whereas their own smears/allegations are unsupported. (See my points about anonymity versus lack of accountability).


    October 29, 2014 at 8:39 am

    • Thanks for putting that brief summary on the record. Good article, also.

    • This is more thinking out loud than any truly developed thoughts. But regarding “anonymity versus lack of accountability”, at some point accountability can requires a loss of anonymity. For example a Twitter troll who commits a crime by threatening to rape someone will have to lose their anonymity – to the police at least – if they are to be held accountable. That’s not to say people should have to reveal their identities in case they commit a crime, but just that accountability and anonymity are deeply connected.

      Regarding Media Lens, one of the things I dislike about the organisation is their clandestine approach to public engagement (which would not be possible without the internet). The fact that they do not participate in public debates or engaged with MSM is of course their right, but I find it diminishes rather than improves their credibility. I have always wanted to know who donates to Media Lens? They have written countless favourable things about George Galloway; is he a donor? We can’t know.

      While they rightly criticise the influence of advertisers and proprietors on MSM, they say little about their own paymasters. Their silence on this issue implies they are funded by a benign crowd, sending numerous micro-payments, and, therefore, no individual or organisation has any serious influence over their editorial. This however, is unprovable, and based on trust, which I find objectionable, just as I find it objectionable that “think tanks” which promote fossil fuel refuse to list their donors.

      Regarding Mediocre Lens, why not have everyone be open about who writes for it? I see there being little to lose, and could open the door to asking Media Lens to be open about the money that sustains them.


      October 30, 2014 at 11:22 am

      • Agreed regarding anonymity & accountability, although the connection is bureaucratic/legal in the sense that personal details are only a necessity when it gets to that level. So it’s only a small subset of “accountability” which is necessarily connected to issues of identity/anonymity (online, at least).

        There are good reasons why we don’t disclose personal details when dealing with Medialens and their intrusive followers. We’ve mentioned them in the past, eg: https://twitter.com/MediaLensWipe/status/292279017019682816

        There’s a history. Some of Medialens’s critics (eg Daniel Simpson, Robert Shone) were subjected to endless character assassinations, with Medialens calling them “stalkers”, insinuating they were mentally disturbed, etc. It’s all been documented with evidence (eg at Robert Shone’s site). This kind of mud sticks, unfortunately – it’s not pleasant. And while these identity-related slurs have been endless, reasoned responses from Medialens to the arguments of these critics are conspicuous by their absence. At one point George Monbiot intervened, saying that Medialens & Co should consider the arguments from Shone, rather than simply vilifying him. Of course, Medialens didn’t listen.

      • I originally had a whole paragraph on legal (etc) consequences of accountability (which includes providing proof of personal identity to the police and other parties). But I removed it, thinking it was unnecessary. Do you think I should add an explanatory note on this aspect? It’s sometimes difficult to gauge – does the piece read as if I’ve overlooked it?


        October 30, 2014 at 1:13 pm

      • “Agreed regarding anonymity & accountability, although the connection is bureaucratic/legal in the sense that personal details are only a necessity when it gets to that level. So it’s only a small subset of “accountability” which is necessarily connected to issues of identity/anonymity (online, at least).”

        I think the connection is stronger. When we write under our identity we are accountable socially for what we are saying – when we don’t, we are not (unless it is revealed against our will). I accept that there are good reasons often not to reveal one’s identity, however, our behaviour will be altered based upon our online identity, and how much of our “real” identity we reveal through it.


        October 31, 2014 at 10:37 am

      • True. There’s also professional accountability. But social, professional and legal accountability are based on relevance in a particular domain only. There’s also something called “appeal to authority” – usually regarded as poor argument. But sometimes an appeal to authority *is* relevant. If a claim to expertise in a given field is part of an argument, then identity becomes relevant. But it’s certainly possible to argue/debate in a way in which one’s own identity is completely irrelevant to the arguments one makes, don’t you think? In fact, that seems to be a trait of what’s regarded as “good” argument.

      • “But it’s certainly possible to argue/debate in a way in which one’s own identity is completely irrelevant to the arguments one makes, don’t you think? In fact, that seems to be a trait of what’s regarded as “good” argument.”

        Very much so, and I think this has been a great strength of the internet. It allows people to debate and explore ideas without a lot of the constraints, prejudices, and inhibitions that the physical world can place on us.

        I think we are in agreement. Interesting article, and interesting comments.


        October 31, 2014 at 4:12 pm

    • Just a couple of things that are wrong about your follow up statement. Firstly Johnathan Cook doesn’t assert that Mediocrelens is something similar to a corporate front, he asserts that they perform a similar function to fake persuaders, which as far as I can see is correct, Mediocre Lens’s blurb says that they are critics, but an awful lot of their output is devoted to hijacking Medialens tweets with, you have to admit, some pretty snidey comments. That strikes me as performing a function similar to that of a fake persuader.

      A second point where I feel you/ve made an error is that of anonymity. I’m sure there are valid arguments for posting comments anonymously and letting the strength of the argument carry it through. However medialenswipe are living in a halfway house. Their blurb, again their blurb!, tries to give weight to their comments by having us beleive that they are journalists, not only that, but that they are especially positioned to criticize Medialens, because Medialens previously viewed them as allies. And from that position they proceed to criticise Medialens’ output. That surely isn’t anonymity in any true sense. Instead it’s slightly baity behaviour inviting people to guess who they might think these mysterious shadowy ‘heroes’ might be. And when anyone falls into their trap of trying to guess what their secret identity is, you and your colleagues at medialenswipe shriek and howl in faux outrage shouting ‘smear’, which is, on balance my least favourite word in the world. In terms of accountability and anonymity, I was wondering if the posts that you made as medialenwipe were the ones that directly linked back to your own articles? Which would be fairly dishonest behaviour. but we’ll never know, will we? As you invoke your right to anonymity.

      By any measure Medialenswipe’s output is not driven by a desire to provide a clear and just view of the world to counteract Medialens’s Chomksy-led view. It is muuuuuch more driven a grudge, by a sense of perceived injustice. And as a result is becoming increasingly trollish and hypocritical.



      November 1, 2014 at 7:25 pm

      • Hey, Mr Anonymous, I followed the link to Jonathan Cook’s piece to see who’s wrong on this. And guess what? You’re wrong. This is what Cook says (funny how you missed the “corporate”, “front” and “business interests” bits):

        ‘Mediocre Lens is the poor cousin of what Monbiot has rightly exposed elsewhere as the phenomenon of “fake persuaders”, usually corporate lobbyists hiding behind front organisations that pose as “concerned ordinary citizens”. The point of the fake persuaders is to create the impression of popular support for corporate policies that harm our interests, such as destroying forests and polluting rivers. In short, the fake persuaders are there to uphold official narratives that serve business interests.’


        November 1, 2014 at 10:14 pm

      • Nope you’re absolutely right, he does use those words, to define what a fake persuader does. He calls Mediocre lens a poor cousin of them, he then goes on to say that ‘Mediocre Lens does something similar…’
        Which to my reading is not the same as saying they are corporate lobbyists, but that they perform a similar function to what corprate lobbyists do. 🙂


        November 1, 2014 at 10:51 pm

      • Quite the disingenuous bellend, aren’t you.


        November 2, 2014 at 12:15 am

      • ?


        November 2, 2014 at 12:57 am

      • It was all about Monbiot’s single RT? From that they question his integrity, and everyone else’s identity? How silly.

        Ann W

        November 12, 2014 at 8:35 pm

    • LoL. The best part is where Cook-Medialens say the twitter account has smeared itself by being anonymous, after accusing said Twitter account of being a corporate front or whatever. Only on the weird political fringes of the internet!


      November 2, 2014 at 2:51 pm

  2. Interesting piece. I can definitely see how identity politics has split the left. It all seems so depressingly tribal. And, yes, there’s far too much about celebrities like Russell Brand.

    paul w

    October 29, 2014 at 9:44 am

  3. Good stuff. Even without the examples you cite, most people, I suspect, appreciate the virtues of anonymity – simply because of another media “scare” story, namely: identity theft. We know not to provide personal details unless absolutely necessary.

    Sometimes all the identity politics noise (and the various scares on “trolls” and online abuse) just seems to be media fodder. But then we see the effects in the “real world” – Ukip’s popularity and the total disarray and quabbling on the left. And, of course, as you rightly mention, the move towards greater online policing and paranoia over identity.

    Andre SC (@Andre_Serov)

    October 29, 2014 at 10:46 am

  4. I am currently caught up in the #GamerGate ‘movement’ which has been raging on Twitter for more than two months now, and I believe on many levels it is a struggle for control over the identity of ‘gamers’.

    Identity politics seem to have been used extensively on both sides of the argument. Initially games journalists (apparently) colluded to write 10+ articles on the 28th of august stating in one way or another that the ‘gamer’ identity was ‘dead’. The reason they had come to this conclusion, was because ‘gamers’ no longer fitted their ‘progressive’ view of gaming culture as a space for everyone. It is still not clear how these journalists thought they could get away with attempting to ‘destroy’ the identity of their core demographic, and continue to have any credibility remaining. The reason #GamerGate has become a protracted ‘movement’ is due to these journalists doubling down on this initial attack by further and further associating ‘gamers’ with every stereotype and pejorative term possible, in the hope that people will abandon it.

    What these articles have in fact done is create a group who feel they are fighting for their very identity as ‘gamers’.

    Is there any precedent for this situation? I cannot imagine any niche group of journalists has ever attacked it’s audience in such a self-destructive way before. The Escapist, in an article titled ‘The State of Gaming’ uses a comparison of ‘gamers’ as ‘gearheads’ (car enthusiasts) a group that identifies as an enthusiast culture. Gaming journalism can only exist due to the passion of this culture. Would a ‘gearhead’ publication ever write an article titled ‘gearheads are over’ or ‘gearheads don’t have to be your audience’? What if those articles also insinuated that ‘gearheads’ were also misogynists due to the actions of some unaccountable, anonymous car enthusiasts? I believe, if enough publications reinforced this message and coverage was wide-spread enough, you could antagonize enough ‘gearheads’ into a similar situation as is facing ‘gamers’ today.


    October 29, 2014 at 11:58 am

  5. Valuable article. Spot on regarding anonymity, which is rarely a problem in itself (except for those who wish to box you or use your personal data).

    Jack O'R

    October 29, 2014 at 1:26 pm

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