In the last century, states have had great control over channels of media. In most of the West, lobbying groups and cartels working with “liberal” and “democratic” governments regulated who could broadcast while governments, with their endless pools of money and political force, competed alongside private, or foreign, establishments. South Africa banned television entirely, and then after legalizing it in the ’70s, the industry was still controlled by the state.
All media in the Soviet Union was centralized and controlled by the state immediately after the October Revolution—the Bolshevik leaders understood the importance of media control. Every state in the last century has had some grip over the country’s media, propagating favorable narratives and restricting the unfavorable to maintain control over the population.
Traditional media centralization by the state was then rendered obsolete with the popularization of the internet. As the internet and its related technology developed, decentralization became more pronounced and widespread. When anyone can start a podcast on a plethora of websites with anyone else in the world who has the technology, or when miniature documentaries and video essays can be produced and uploaded by anyone to anywhere that accepts the format, the state-operated or state-supported media that dominated the last century becomes effectively out of date. The new competition was too dynamic, adaptive, decentralized, and evasive for the old system to outcompete, outproduce, or outright ban.
Traditional media wasn’t the only thing affected by the internet. Chat boards, forums, and other means of direct communication undermined multiple key legitimizers of the state, specifically academics and journalists. Barring local rules and guidelines, anyone was free to question and discuss any aspect of academia, usually under the freedom afforded by anonymity.
This innovation was disastrous from the state’s perspective. Total dominance of every channel of media was rendered impossible in the span of a few years. Some nations attempted to restrict the internet though whatever means were available, like with China’s Great Firewall, although there are multiple ways to circumvent the restrictions through VPNs or proxies. Western nations opted for subtler restrictions like working through private companies behind closed doors. A stronger and more insidious attack against the benefits to liberty provided by the internet, however, lies in the campaigns against anonymity. Eliminating anonymity, and privacy by extension, solves most of the state’s problems that were caused by the advent of the internet, which is exactly why states and their apologists have embarked on their crusade against it.
Solving the State’s Problems
Anonymity is very dangerous from the state’s perspective as it can no longer rely on its narratives, academics, journalists, and other sources of legitimacy to be publicly unquestioned. With anonymity, superior arguments (as determined by the onlookers) win out. While this does not necessarily mean that truth will prevail in every instance, it does mean that credentialism, a major crutch of the state’s defenders, is bypassed. Onlookers can instead view arguments where one or both sides have entirely removed their person from the discussion through anonymity, leaving only facts and their application as well as rhetoric for consideration. If an academic or a journalist performs poorly against these anonymous posters enough times or is proven to have lied, their credibility will be weakened, preventing them from legitimizing the state in their full capacity.
The state’s apologists have a counter. If anonymity is somehow removed and the once-anonymous person is revealed to have controversial or “far-right” opinions, mobs and miscreants can threaten that person’s safety, forcing them into the decision of either continuing in the face of potential retaliatory violence or leaving the conversation entirely. This tactic is employed if a specific person or group of people has been particularly successful in contradicting the state’s academics and journalists, but it is difficult, time-consuming, costly in terms of reputation and trust, and ultimately not usable on a large scale. Outsourcing the tactic to unsavory and “unconnected” groups helps to alleviate the reputational hit, but this too can only be done for so long until everyone can see the pattern, creating a greater potential for backlash.
Instead of threatening a person, the state’s academics and journalists may opt for other, much weaker methods of discrediting anonymous posters. The most popular method centers around trying to make the fact that someone is anonymous a discrediting quality in and of itself. This is an analogous tactic used by interest groups who lobby for licensing. Those without the approval of the status quo are unsafe or unserious or malicious, so the rhetoric goes, and therefore a standard in the form of a license, or nonanonymity, must be implemented to guarantee status quo–approved quality. Unlike a license, this social standard does not necessarily need to be forced by the state; social pressure could suffice.
Unfortunately for the antianonymity crowd, the intensity of social pressure required to make anonymity a taboo is out of their reach. Another strategy is to appeal to honor. If the argument is so important or good, then the arguer should have the confidence to attach their name and face to it. While this is formally a non sequitur and inconsistent (I doubt this standard is ever applied unless one has been exposed by an argument from an anonymous poster), it is popular nonetheless. Despite its popularity, I have not yet come across anyone willing to defend their nonanonymous honor that has been attached to an argument or statement, even when challenged.
The state and its collaborators have another solution, though. If anonymity on any major website can just be done away with entirely, eliminating online privacy altogether, not only will the issue of anonymous critics be solved, but the state could easily reassert itself as the controller of media. The state’s control over media is severely hampered because of its decentralization, yes, but if the decentralization is maintained while privacy is eliminated by way of an anonymity ban (be it state edict or public-private agreement), then the state can control whoever it wants to, just not to the extent that it did last century. Anonymity, therefore, must be defended if the state is to be weakened and ultimately dismantled.
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.