To add to the discussion, I thought it would be useful to look at the utility of anonymity through the lenses of both a content creator and a consumer of information via social media. I will use one project I just completed, called Immigrant X, to discuss the significance of anonymity for these groups.
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Immigrant X was a project that tried to form a realistic narrative of an activist organization fighting the immigration system. The project played out in real time on social media, primarily Twitter, during the last two years, and involved three main characters . The location of Immigrant X’s operations were never specified (a generalized Western democracy). Immigrant X relied on a live audience to sustain the drama where, at any one time, part of the audience was following the story as a fictional serial, while others believed they were following a real organization involved often in quite dangerous and illegal direct actions. The intention was to keep the audience off balance, questioning: can or should this be real?
I also wanted to capture the perspective of the audience towards the unfolding drama, transitioning through time and concomitantly aware of the transition others were similarly making. On Twitter, before and after every action and on character profiles, I stated that Immigrant X was fiction; similarly, on the website and Facebook, there are disclaimers. Despite this transparency, I was contacted by literally dozens of journalists with the majority wanting to discuss the group as a real entity. Many people also wanted to join the activist group Immigrant X. I was upfront about the fictional construct of Immigrant X and who I am to anyone contacting me.
This post is part of a TBR Forum on online anonymity. You can also read:
In the first interview I did on Immigrant X with the media I was uncertain whether to use my name in the article. I did not want Immigrant X associated with the organization I work for as I was unsure how the project would be received and what might be its impact. That interview (with Jacobin Magazine) made it easier for me to use my name going forward. I felt assured then that the project wouldn’t have any adverse impacts or unintended consequences for my “real” organization or my day job. I started to better understand the territory I was covering and the limits of this form of expression. The option of anonymity made it possible for me to start the project and explore its terrain.
What is more interesting to the discussion on anonymity is that that those who followed Immigrant X weren’t concerned, for the most part, about the identity of those behind the group. The narrative itself was all that mattered to the reader, whether fictional or not. The apparent illegal actions unfolding live on social media created a premise that few details could practicably be known about the group and the location of its actions. This was plausible because of the nature of the content displayed on social media; the premise of an underground activist organization protected the construct from being unmasked by curious Immigrant X “believers,” although the mask was intentionally, for all intents and purposes, transparent. Those following Immigrant X as a work of fiction similarly had less need to uncover the backstory or source of the content. To the audience, the context in which the story sits defines what they are willing to accept from the creator or author, in terms of anonymity and disclosure.
Tweets by @Immigrant_X
I believe the reliability of the information we consume is graded against the source, and in many contexts, we will take the image, video or text at face value irrespective of the intent or “validity” of the publisher. Media reports from the Iranian Green Revolution or Arab Spring, for example, were often essentially source-less and this was acceptable to those viewing because of the very likely danger to those capturing and distributing the images. Ubiquitous audio, video and images from smartphones gives us insights about the world around us, whether we view these via an established media source or shared via social media.
The source becomes significant to us when we detect an anomaly in the message or the way the information is constructed or delivered. Similarly, if the information is false but constructed in a palatable manner fitting our expectations and the wider narrative, we are less likely to seek to try to uncover the backstory or to ask if it is indeed reliable information. Consumers of social media, simply by retweeting or adding a comment, transform content and become creators and distributors of content themselves. The original source and intent of the transformed content is, in effect, modified and given a new significance and likewise has to be evaluated by its consumer.
Here’s one example of how content can fit the expected narrative and be accepted, regardless of the source or be transformed to a wider narrative. Two stories were written on the Immigrant X Stop and Search Mobile App that I created to warn the undocumented of stop and frisk operations by the authorities (you can download the app it but is essentially functionless). The stories appeared at around the same time, the first published in a left-leaning online magazine and the other by a right-leaning tabloid, both in the UK. Both publications assumed Immigrant X was a UK activist group. The Immigrant X Stop and Search Mobile App fit the immigration narrative for both the editors and audiences of these publications. I was not contacted by the journalists and they obviously didn’t download the app (which has a large disclaimer stating it doesn’t work).
The utility of Immigrant X’s assumed anonymity for these stories was lending credence to the narrative of a secretive organization developing innovative smart apps to disrupt the system. The easily googleable truth about the functionless mobile app and the fictional Immigrant X were superfluous to the stories; the “truth” underneath the story transformed to fit a wider narrative.
The example above is, I believe, more than just about sloppy journalism. It says something about under what conditions we perceive the “truth” as plausible and how much evidence we need to support that “truth” that sits in a wider narrative. The backstory to the information presented is important, depending on the context, its contentiousness, the nature of the message and the intended or likely impact. Questions about the level of disclosure from content creators and the veracity of information become significant when an accepted narrative or status quo is being challenged. This is precisely the moment when anonymity is often called upon to test the waters of what is acceptable to the wider society and its institutions.
One footnote: the story about the mobile app was so plausible it was in fact true. An organization had created pretty much the same innovative app that is fairly widely used in the U.S., unbeknownst to me at the time.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.