Slander, politics, the Internet, and anonymity

Posted on July 10, 2008

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It takes guts to be a social scientist and scholar of government and still publicly quote Machiavelli, even if those quotes are from his less controversial “Discourses on Livy,” never mind “The Prince”. And yet that’s what Danielle Allen of the Institute for Advanced Study does in her Washington Post commentary titled “Worse than Mud about how accusations differ from anonymous slander.

In case you aren’t familiar with Allen, she attempted, somewhat successfully, to track back the vicious “Muslim Obama” slanders to their origins (the Washington Post wrote a long story on how she did it, and what she found, late last month). Today’s commentary appears to be an extension of that investigation.

Slander is, by definition, a lie. Mirriam-Webster online defines slander as follows:

  1. the utterance of false charges or misrepresentations which defame and damage another’s reputation
  2. a false and defamatory oral statement about a person

Allen uses Machiavelli’s word, calumny, instead of slander, but it’s the same thing – a lie told in the hope of maliciously damaging the target’s reputation. And in Allen’s opinion, the problem with slander in the Internet-era is twofold – the anonymity of the Internet makes lying both easier and harder to correct, and the use of lies creates hatred that makes reconciling opposing factions difficult, if not outright impossible.

Machiavelli offered an account of calumny’s threat to free republics: “Calumnies sting without disabling; and those who are stung being more moved by hatred of their detractors than by fear of the things they say against them, seek revenge.” We can see these very sentiments in John McCain’s response to the apparent involvement of a man named Ted Sampley, who operated a Web site devoted to attacking John Kerry in 2004. (Sampley’s central Web site, U.S. Veteran Dispatch, appears to feed some of the e-mail against Obama, and he apparently also was involved in the South Carolina campaign against McCain in 2000, though he certainly has not been alone in these efforts.) As the New York Times reported in 2004, McCain described Sampley as “one of the most despicable people I have ever had the misfortune to encounter.”

Allen’s most important point, however, is that the tolerance of slander in political campaigns encourages cynicism and destroys trust in both the system and the politicians who function within it. Tolerance of lies destroys the rule of law, and when lies are effective, there is no reason to tell the truth. In fact, telling lies itself becomes the most effective tool available in defeating your political opponent.

Allen calls on people to make anonymity a rare exception instead of the rule, as it is on the Internet at present. There’s a reason I always post under my real name – if I’m unwilling to face the consequences of my words, then I shouldn’t say them in the first place. This same basic premise is the foundation of the government transparency movement (a la the Sunlight Foundation). Unfortunately, neither Democrats nor Republicans have been willing to call for this level of personal responsibility, and because our leaders refuse to accept that the buck stops with them, our national culture has become too litigious.

Unfortunately, Allen fails to take the necessary next step and call for the abolition of all political anonymity. The organizations that are most responsible for spreading lies about their political opponents are funded privately and organized under IRS rules in such a fashion that they aren’t required to reveal their patrons. As a result, wealthy donors back groups like the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (Allen’s example) without fear of public backlash if it’s demonstrated that their money has produced slander instead of substantiated accusation.

There are times and places where anonymity is necessary. Political donations and discourse is not one of them.

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