In the past several years, the anonymous Twitter troll has emerged as a force in American politics, culture, and national defense. The emergence of this platform, which does virtually no vetting of the individuals who use it to espouse political views, has birthed something new and dangerous. Free of consequences, these voices not only often say false and misleading things, at their worst they are active agents of foreign governments trying to sow discord in our country.
There have been calls for Twitter to clamp down on anonymous accounts using systems similar to Facebook’s. This would be a mistake. In the broad context of social media, anonymous accounts can be fun and humorous, and there is something to be said for people having the ability to make political statements anonymously. The answer is not to ban anonymous accounts. In fact, the answer is simpler and more in our control. Just stop interacting with these accounts about politics.
There are several reasons having a political debate with an anonymous Twitter account is a bad idea. They run the gamut from being an annoying time suck to being a powerful tool of our international rivals. On the flip side, there is negligible if any value in dueling an anon, beyond maybe the rush of owning the other side, which is not a particularly virtuous goal.
Healthy Discourse Requires Consequences
Healthy discourse requires rules — for decency, fact-checking, conflicts of interest, and many more. Anonymity is poison to such rules. This is because rules only work if breaking them comes with consequences. If a real, identifiable person in the world uses Twitter to lie, harass, or push a nefarious agenda, there are ways for us to know. At a certain point, how far they are willing to push the envelope is conditioned by how much risk they are willing to take.
Every working journalist — in fact, any working person even vaguely in the public eye — knows that right now, within 10 seconds he could destroy his career with one single tweet. This fear is a moderating force, and it’s a good and useful one. It makes people consider how far they want to go, how insulting they want to be, and how willing they are to fudge the truth. Without the consequences, there is no external reason to follow any rules or norms.
This is one reason it is not a good idea to engage with anonymous accounts. It’s not a level playing field: you are being held accountable to rules that your interlocutor is not. If you make a mistake, you risk actual punishment, but if they deliberately lie they suffer nothing, not even embarrassment, since nobody knows who they are.
Teaching the Enemy
The most important reason not to go back and forth with anonymous accounts is that so doing can be a free education for foreign trolls, employed by intelligence agencies abroad to disrupt American democracy. The best way to learn a foreign language is immersion. The same is true with learning how to effectively troll on Twitter.
Always consider that the account you are sparring with could be a foreign operative, and even if you own them, you are only making them better at what they do. Also, understand that the operative sitting next to them on the troll farm is probably arguing the other side and thankful for your fantastic argument.
None of this is speculation. U.S. intelligence agencies and military have all warned against very large troll farm operations. Twitter is also well aware of the issue. If there is a chance that arguing with an anonymous account is aiding foreign enemies, why do it? Why run that risk just because some account with an ugly or offensive avatar said something stupid or mean spirited to you? Just ignore them. Deprive them of rhetorical oxygen and free training.
No, You’re Not the Founding Fathers
If you really want to kick up the wasp nest of Twitter, take some shots at the value of anonymous accounts. The angry rebuttals will come pouring in. You will quickly learn that many of these so-called American citizens are desperately afraid that by expressing a political opinion they will be fired, doxed, or SWATted. To the extent they really exist, these people believe they live in an oppressive society just waiting to crush them for their opinion. Their favorite analogy is the founding fathers, who did indeed, often publish anonymously.
Publishing anonymously was a common practice at the time for a whole host of reasons, including not wanting to be charged with treason, a fear no American on Twitter faces. But this was anonymity of a very different kind. Thomas Paine didn’t create a fake email account and upload a pamphlet to a printer in Philadelphia who had no idea who he was. In fact, when Robert Bell published “Common Sense” he did so at considerable risk, and Paine was under much greater threat than are the trolls on Twitter pretending to be his heir.
Anonymous publication in the federal period came with gatekeepers. You might not have known who wrote it, but the person who published it did and could be held accountable. This is not the case with Twitter. It is the case when outlets run stories by anonymous writers. Most outlets, including this one, do so infrequently and with a fair amount of trepidation.
Outlets use a test when choosing to publish anonymous pieces: they must balance how much real harm the author might face with how important and accurate his information is. Unlike with the anonymous Twitter troll, if an article turns out to be garbage that outlet pays a price unlike anything Twitter could face for hosting bad information.
As with almost anything, there are plausible exceptions to this rule. There exist serious and longstanding anonymous accounts that may be worth interacting with for a host of reasons. That’s a judgment call, but unless one has inside information about the account, it’s a judgment call to make very carefully.
The very extreme version of free speech practiced in the United States is a good but dangerous thing. Since the state is rightfully prevented from suppressing speech, anonymous or otherwise, it is incumbent upon citizens to use good judgment regarding what they believe, engage with, and amplify. Making it a general rule not to engage politically with anonymous accounts is a common-sense step to ensure we do not lend credence to unaccountable bad actors.
The right to anonymous speech is God-given and inalienable. The right to a response is not. Nobody’s rights are threatened if you make a good-faith decision only to engage in this new and apparently important public square with those willing to stand firmly behind their words. Give it a try. I doubt you will be disappointed.