Anonymity and Democratic Citizenship
48 Pages Posted: 21 Jan 2011 Last revised: 6 Apr 2011
Date Written: January 1, 2011
Many aspects of modern democratic life are or can be performed anonymously – voting, financial contributions, petition signing, political speech and debate, communication with and lobbying of officials, and so forth. But is it desirable for citizens to perform such tasks anonymously? Anonymity frees people from social pressures associated with observation and identifiability, but does this freedom produce behavior that is democratically beneficial? What, in short, is the effect of anonymity on the behavior of democratic citizens, and how should we evaluate it?
In this paper, I attempt a first pass answer to these questions by turning to both democratic theory and empirical research. Democratic theory provides a baseline account of the qualities that citizens of a democracy ideally ought to possess. Here I focus on three: sincerity in political expression and action; independence in the formulation and expression of political beliefs; and public-mindedness in outlook. The question, then, is whether anonymity helps or hinders citizens in developing these qualities. To answer it, I turn to the empirical work. To date, very little research targets the impact of anonymity on overtly political behavior, so it is necessary to resort to more general research on the effect of anonymity on behavior in other realms. What these studies tend repeatedly to show is that the effect of anonymity on behavior is highly variable and context-dependent. Anonymity tends to reduce inhibitions, but the kind of behavior that results from reduced inhibition depends on a host of contextual factors: the predispositions of the individual in question, the norms of groups to which the individual belongs that are made salient by the specific behavior in question, the nature of the decision to be made, and the immediate context of decision making.
To the extent these results apply to political behavior, it is probably impossible to assert as a blanket proposition that anonymity in political speech, financial contributions, petition signing, communication with officials, or any other activity will either enhance or undermine the sincerity, independence, and public-mindedness with which citizens behave. More likely is that anonymity will have such an effect for some people in some circumstances but not for others. The paper concludes with a brief consideration of some of the common contextual factors in which contemporary democratic politics occurs, including the infrequency of hard coercion, the general pluralism of American political belief, the ubiquity of "soft" forms of coercion imposed by social networks, and the inevitability of framing and priming effects.
Keywords: democracy, anonymity, democratic theory, citizenship
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