Anonymity, Promotion and Deception #205
On the ethics of Internet influencers
Dear friends of Daily Philosophy,
Something interesting happened today to myself, and I thought it would make a great post for this newsletter. In fact, two things happened.
The anonymous writer
First, a while ago someone sent me an article for Daily Philosophy, asking me not to publish their real name. They admitted that the name they used on the article and in their email was not their real name. They said that they had to keep their name secret for private reasons, without further explanation.
I thought about this request for a while. This does not usually happen in scholarly fields, because the whole point of scholarly writing is that the author gets credit for it, which translates in publications or knowledge transfer karma, and one would be quite misguided to try and build a career on a fake name. After all, at some point one would have to attend conferences or give one’s institutional affiliation away. How would this work? Get hired under a wrong name? This should be impossible in any modern state that keeps tax records and identity papers for its citizens. So trying to publish consistently under an assumed name would not really work in the long run.
But perhaps the author wanted to publish just this one article anonymously. There are a few good reasons why one might wish to do this. For example, the article might express an unpopular opinion, and the author might be afraid of being “cancelled” or encountering other obstacles in their career after publishing it. Many of us are aware what a minefield even academic discourse has become today, and publishing under a pen name can seem like a good idea.
I can also imagine that the author might already be someone famous who does not want to be openly associated with Daily Philosophy for some reason. Let’s say, someone like Donald Trump. If I was him, overcome by a sudden urge to publicly philosophise on our newsletter, I’d probably also change my name.
One might also want to keep one’s writing secret from one’s family, or perhaps one’s employer or government. There are many reasons to seek anonymity as an author, especially in philosophy: a discipline that touches on many dangerous topics.
The sneaky promoter
Recently I had a second case where someone asked me to hide something. A publicist contacted me in the name of an artist (let’s call him John Doe here to conceal their identity — I mean the name given to unidentified corpses, not the actual singer called John Doe). The publicist offered me an interview with the artist, highlighting John Doe’s philosophical ideas on his work, referencing Kant, Plato and other classic authors.
It was a good interview. It was a bit too flattering of John Doe’s work and persona, and it lacked any critical appreciation of his work, or any more challenging questions. John Doe was given ample opportunity to explain his philosophy, and the benevolent interviewer was always serving up just the right questions that would allow John Doe to present his work in the best light. It was just a bit too good-mannered to sound authentic, but the topic was interesting, John Doe is a respected artist (again, that wasn’t the name) as I found out when I googled him, and the philosophy in the interview seemed reasonably sound. So, why not? I accepted it for publication.