Ethics

Public Relations and Anonymity

As public relations professionals, we understand—or should understand—that anonymous Internet postings are to be avoided. Still, it’s one thing for us to realize the obligation we all share to disclose our identities for the sake of transparency, it’s quite another for a state legislature to try to compel such a practice.

Two New York state lawmakers recently proposed an act to amend the state’s civil rights law that, if enacted, would require New York website administrators to “remove any comments posted on his or her website by an anonymous poster unless such anonymous poster agrees to attach his or her name to the post,” upon request.

The Internet Protection Act, as it’s being called, is intended as a response to cyberbullying, and what the senators describe as “baseless political attacks.”

Because the First Amendment does not explicitly identify what constitutes free speech, it will be up to the Courts to decide if anonymous online speech falls into that category. In the digital age, when the most basic facts of our lives are made public via social platforms and profiles, anonymous postings are seen by some as both a useful tool and a welcomed reprieve.

As public relations professionals, we understand—or should understand—that anonymous postings are to be avoided. Still, it’s one thing for us to realize the obligation we all share to disclose our identities for the sake of transparency, it’s quite another for a state legislature to try to compel such a practice.

Perhaps we should have seen it coming. The Internet’s evolution and social media’s ascendency shone a spotlight on personal privacy which, if you think about it, is really an anonymity derivative.  There was a time when Internet users were convinced a non-personally identifiable screen name and password would shield their identities from the world. But when music companies commenced suing consumers to prevent file sharing, the FTC began tracking down spammers,  and employers started asking for our Facebook passwords, we realized just how little control we actually have over our online identities.

As the notion that “privacy is dead,” began to grow, so did our desire for online anonymity. And for most average users, a comment posted to Facebook or Twitter or a blog anonymously, or under a pseudonym, is a cheap and easy way to keep their views hidden.

The problem, as we now know, is that anonymity seems to breed what the British would call “boorish” behavior. That is, rudeness, vulgarity, hate speech, rumor mongering, name-calling and other forms of indecorous behavior, if not outright stupidity.

At the same time, though, anonymity can serve useful purposes. An Internet user may feel more comfortable asking sensitive questions about personal health or financial or legal issues if they can do so anonymously.  And some users may have a legitimate fear of retribution, as America’s founding fathers and other authors of the day did, leading them to publish political writings under pseudonyms. Today, activists advocating for human rights and political reforms in countries like Iran, Syria, China, Egypt and Libya no doubt fear the same.

Still, this bill serves as a useful reminder that we all must examine the question of anonymity, and our online conduct, more closely.

For those of us in public relations, the issue of anonymity in the conduct of our professional responsibilities, is addressed in the PRSA Code of Ethics; it states that a member shall:

•    Be honest and accurate in all communications.
•    Reveal the sponsors for causes and interests represented.
•    Avoid deceptive practices.

PRSA’s Professional Standards Advisory from October 2008, “Deceptive Online Practices and Misrepresentation of Organizations and Visuals,” takes these ethical concepts even further, as they pertain to online conduct, specifically, “Misrepresentation by organizations and individuals using blogs, viral marketing and anonymous Internet postings with undisclosed sponsorships and/or deceptive or misleading identities.”

Given the constitutional issues, jurisdictional questions and public policy considerations, it’s unlikely that the debate over privacy and anonymity will be settled with the passage of the Internet Protection Act in the New York State Senate. But as public relations professionals, our obligation to represent ourselves and our clients with honesty, transparency and disclosure is well-established.

Gerard F. Corbett is 2012 Chair and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America.

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