Pseudonymity and Accusations

December 21st, 2023
Here's a category of situations I'm not sure how to think about: Avery, writing under a pseudonym ('Alex'), accuses Pat of something, let's say abuse. A major motivation of Avery's is for people to know to consider this information before in their interactions with Pat. Pat claims that actually it was 'Alex' who was abusive, and gives their side of the story. While it's all pretty hard for outsiders to judge, a bunch of people end up thinking that they would like to take some precautions in how they interact with 'Alex'. Under what circumstances is it ok for Pat, or someone else familiar with the situation, to identify 'Alex' as Avery?

Revealing who is behind a pseudonym is usually considered a kind of doxing, and in the communities I'm part of this is usually considered unacceptable. For example, the EA Forum prohibits it:

We also do not allow doxing—or revealing someone's real name if they prefer anonymity—on the Forum.
And while I can't find anything in the LessWrong docs about it, they recently issued a temporary ban to someone for revealing a pseudonym:
We (the LW moderation team) have given [commenter] a one-week site ban and an indefinite post/topic ban for attempted doxing. We have deleted all comments that revealed real names, and ask that everyone respect the privacy of the people involved.

In general I'm in favor of people being able to participate online under a pseudonym. I think there are better and worse ways to do it, but there are lots of valid reasons why you might need to keep your real life identity separate from some or all of your writing. Doxing breaks this (though in some cases it's already very fragile) and so there should be a pretty strong presumption against it.

On the other hand, there's no guarantee that the person who speaks up first about an issue is in the right. What if Pat is correct that it really was entirely Avery being abusive, and publicly accusing Pat of abuse is yet another form of this mistreatment? If we say that linking 'Alex' back to Avery isn't ok, then the social effects on Avery of posting first are very large. And if we settle on community norms that put a lot of weight on being the first one to go public then we'll see more people using this as an intentional tactic. [1]

Public accusations of mistreatment can be really valuable in protecting others, and telling your story publicly is often heroic. Sometimes people are only willing to do this anonymously, which retains much of the value: I don't think I know anyone who thinks the 2018 accusations against Brent, which led to him being kicked out of the in-person Bay area rationality community, were negative. Even when many people in the community know who the accusers are, if accusers know their real names will be shared publicly instead of quickly scrubbed I suspect they're less likely to come forward and share their stories.

But it seems like it would normally be fine for Pat to post publicly saying "Avery has been talking to my friends making false accusations about me, here's why you shouldn't trust them..." or a third party to post "Avery has been saying false things about Pat, I think it's really unfair, and here's why...". In which case I really don't see how Avery going a step further and pseudonymously making those accusations in writing should restrain Pat or other people.

I think the reason these feel like they're in tension is that my underlying feeling is that real victims should be able to make public accusations that name the offender, and offenders shouldn't be able to retaliate by naming victims. But of course we often don't know whether someone is a real victim, so this isn't something community norms or moderation polices can really use as an input.

There's a bunch of nuanced discussion about a specific recent variant of this on the EA Forum and LessWrong. I don't know what the answer is, and I suspect whichever way you go has significant downsides. But I think maybe the best we can do is something like, a trusted community member or group that isn't close to the dispute [2] evaluates the situation and makes a judgement on the balance of available evidence whether the norms against doxing still apply. But what if the evidence is hard to interepret? What if someone says more evidence is coming but it's not ready yet? How high is the burden of proof? Messy all around, with real consequences to potentially-incorrectly doxed accusers, to potentially-falsely accused people, and in important warnings we never hear because people are worried about being doxed.

[1] I think it also means that for many private disagreements there would be a stronger incentive to go public. If I was in a messy situation with someone and my community used these rules maybe I should quickly tell my side of the story publicly if I think otherwise the other person will tell theirs first under a pseudonym and initiate an asymmetric battle of reputations.

[2] In the specific case that prompted this post it's especially tangled in that one of the two main places where this dispute is playing out is run by people closely tied to the pseudonymous accusers. And so while the forum mods would normally be natural judges I think in this case they're too close to the situation.

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