Anonymity Musings

By Bernice McGowan

I have been thinking a lot about anonymity and harassment recently, given the local political climate and the assertion that people need to be anonymous because they have been harassed for speaking their opinion.

Choosing Anonymity Over Transparency

There are several/many on Cortes who choose Anonymity over transparency, including those who choose to express opinions under a pseudonym. Anonymity is certainly a useful concept. Our votes in an election are anonymous so we can feel absolutely free to choose the candidate we think is best. Participants in medical trials are anonymous so that results aren’t skewed and no one can find out a participant’s private information. Anonymity brings freedom from fear of repercussions for expressing unpopular opinions. We can report a crime anonymously for our own safety. We can donate things anonymously.

Why, then does anonymity feel so uncomfortable? I think it is partly a matter of trust; I don’t trust information if I don’t know its source and am not able to verify it. It is also because anonymity can allow the worst in us to come forth, since we cannot be held accountable for it. If we hide under that cloak, we have free rein to be cruel and be the bully.

Anonymity can be contrary to democratic principles. We have seen “anonymous phone calls” negatively affect the democratic process in our local government. What is the guarantee that the information passed on in these calls is true? Should we assume it is lies? Certainly anonymous “tips” can be the basis of investigations, but they must always be verified to be acted on.

The Freedom To Post Anonymously

It has been stated that “all Canadians have the right to freedom of speech, including anonymous postings.”

The Canadian Charter of Rights does give us some fundamental freedoms:

2. Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:

  • (a) freedom of conscience and religion;
  • (b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
  • (c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and
  • (d) freedom of association.

The Charter of Rights doesn’t specify anonymity as a right. We have the choice to express something anonymously, if the venue allows this, but it is not embedded in the Charter as a “right.”

Why Do Reputable Sources Not Allow Anonymous Commenting?

Anonymous comments are not expressly forbidden by law. Why, then, do reputable news sources not allow anonymous commenting? Because anonymity allows us to say things we would not say if we were attaching our name to it and these are rarely kind or positive things. It prevents us from being accountable for that comment. Simply put, anonymity allows us to be unkind and disrespectful, giving us the ability to say things that we would not say to someone’s face.

And yes, everyone has a right to hear everyone’s opinion….if they choose to do so. Just because you have a right to have an opinion and to express it, I do not have an obligation to listen to it. I give little credence to anonymous posts or comments because I have no guarantee of their accuracy, I have no way to check their truth. If you sign your name, I can potentially learn more about the issue, find out if what you said is accurate, clarify your meaning. Or I may judge the content by who the poster is- have I found them to be credible in the past? Or knowing who a poster is may allow me to keep my opinion to myself and avoid that conversation with them, which might be just the right thing for both of us.

Anonymity allows us freedom from repercussions for expressing unpopular opinions , which brings us to the issue of harassment, which is the common excuse given for needing to post anonymously. Telling someone we disagree with them can be done unkindly and disrespectfully and this can be called harassment. And it does happen and its not OK.

What Is Harassnet

What constitutes harassment? The Canadian Human Rights Commission defines harassment:

Harassment is a form of discrimination. It includes any unwanted physical or verbal behaviour that offends or humiliates you. Generally, harassment is a behaviour that persists over time. Serious one-time incidents can also sometimes be considered harassment.

Harassment occurs when someone:

  • makes unwelcome remarks or jokes about your race, religion, sex, age, disability or any other of the grounds of discrimination;
  • threatens or intimidates you because of your race, religion, sex, age, disability or any other of the grounds of discrimination;
  • makes unwelcome physical contact with you, such as touching, patting, or pinching.

According to, To Harass means:

  • to disturb persistently; torment, as with troubles or cares; bother continually; pester; persecute.
  • to trouble by repeated attacks, incursions, etc., as in war or hostilities; harry; raid.

There a few different options in looking at harassment.

Option 1.

There is a difference between giving honest feedback or attempting to have an honest discussion and intentionally embarrassing someone by calling them out about their opinion. Telling someone we disagree with them, asking them to explain further is not harassment. If you express an opinion, you can expect to be held accountable for that opinion, even if the accountability just means you put your name to it and are responsible for its content. Other people do have the right to respond to published or spoken comments.

Respectful feedback on an opinion/comment/post, is not harassment, but neither is the original commentator obligated to engage in further discussion . We should expect that feedback may come but we should expect that it will be given respectfully and we all have the right not to be vilified for expressing our opinion.

A refresher on giving feedback-

1. Ask yourself if you really need to address the issue with the commentator/poster- it may just not be all that important and the risks of harming your relationship with the person are greater than the benefit of telling them what you think

2.If doing this in person or online, do it privately. Ask permission to give feedback on the opinion/comment/post and if the answer is “No” then leave it alone. The person may not feel safe hearing from you, may have talked about it with 30 other people or whatever. Respect the “No”.

3. If you feel you need to publicly rebut the opinion/comment you can do so in your own respectful post, which you sign. But do go back to # 1 first

4. Use “I” statements whenever possible e.g. “I had some trouble with your comment because….” rather than “You are an idiot for saying that”

5. Focus on the objective things and be specific – e.g. incorrect facts

6. Try to find a positive to end with- e.g.thank the person for the chance to talk, acknowledge your mutual right to express your opinions

7. Perhaps wait a bit before firing off that comment/post. Maybe have someone else read it first.

8. If you get feedback you dont like you can say something like “I hear your disagreement but my opinion still stands. I don’t think we will accomplish anything by continuing this discussion.” or the old standby “ we’ll have to agree that we disagree”. Or just dont respond. (Go back to #1)

Option 2

On the other hand, we all have our triggers and what seems like harassment and aggression to me may just seem perfectly normal to everyone else. Rudeness does not equal harassment. Some people are intimidated when someone speaks forcefully at a public meeting. Some people dont realize that they can be intimidating, but have no intention of being so. Maybe if you feel you are being harassed, check it out with someone else as to whether they found the person threatening or maybe just a bit too forceful. It has been said that 10% of conflict is due to differences of opinion and 90% to delivery and tone of voice

Option 3

Or “fear of harassment” may be a convenient excuse for not wanting to be accountable to what you post. If you are slinging mud at people it is a bit disingenuous to claim you are afraid of being harassed.

Does the value of anonymity outweigh the harm it does by allowing malicious, bullying behaviour? There are those who say that they have to remain anonymous in the face of malicious bullies who harass them for their opinions. Accountability can be uncomfortable, unfortunately, but I do think that the value is in being in the light rather than the shade.

And since bad poems and cartoons seem to be a thing these days, I will add mine.

Who Is Anonymous?

Who is anonymous?

Smashers of glass in the crystal night

The thief, the murderer, the victim

The one who was harmed for telling the truth

The one who harms by not saying the truth

The one not brave enough

The thief who takes away your courage

Treat your neighbour kindly, for they may be anonymous

Treat your neighbour with suspicion for they may be anonymous

Anonymous can say what they want

And will

And who knows

What they say

Definitely behind your back

Watch your back

Top photo credit: Darkness by Transformer18 via Flickr (CC BT YS, 2.0 License)

4 thoughts on “Anonymity Musings”

  1. Thanks Bernice,I’ve never really thought this much about ‘anonymous’ before & how harmful it can be.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.