When Is It Unethical to Publicly Identify an Anonymous Speaker?

This question has been asked before, but it was resurrected by the recent controversy over Taylor Lorenz of Washington Post publishing the Twitter account @LibsOfTikTok’s name. To me, two things are very clear.

  1. Sometimes, publicizing names like these can lead to threats from a small percentage of people learning them. These people can then stop speaking and can discourage others from doing so, fearing that their identity will be revealed.
  2. Sometimes, publicizing names of anonymous speakers can help readers understand possible biases and possible connections between different sources of information online. Sometimes, this can be helpful in helping readers determine whether the speaker is a person other than the anonymous speaker. It also helps readers to investigate credibility and motivation.

The second aspect is that such identification is different from what’s called “doxxing,” which is publishing highly personal information about people or their addresses. However, merely identifying a person’s names is often considered “doxxing”, as this term is used nowadays. It has some value—sometimes modest, sometimes substantial—to many readers, though it can also cause harm as the result of the actions of a few readers.

It is not always important to know who said something. However, it can be a useful data point when evaluating credibility and motivation. With @LibsOfTikTok, which I understand primarily reposts—in order to criticize—other people’s publicly available posts rather than making its own factual assertions, credibility might be less important. However, it is important for some people to understand the motivations of the speaker and any biases that may have affected the selection process, particularly for accounts with 700,000.

This begs the question: What should we do? When is such identification of speakers—whether by the mainstream media or by other speakers—something we should praise, something we should condemn, or something that we should view with indifference? It isn’t illegal, it almost never is. But I am asking if this is unethical.

Please note that I am Not This is the wider question about when media should identify suspects of criminal fraudsters and people who have filed lawsuits or are defendants in lawsuits. Although it may be possible to link all the public identification questions, my focus is on identification of anonymous speakers.

(For an example of my—rightly or wrongly—publicly naming the author of an anonymous account, in the course of discussing her lawsuit against someone aimed at trying to shut down such identification, see here. You can discuss this, and other posts in the comments. I hope that I have behaved properly, but it is possible that I may have made mistakes.