Saturday, March 5, 2011

Failed Anonymous Letter Experiment "Failure" or Failed Test of Anonymity?

The results are in regarding a controversial experiment carried out to determine whether or not offering anonymity via anonymous letters to the editor for commenting purposes would result in an increase in comments. The Freeman Courier in Freeman, S.D. conducted the study over a 6 month period and has revealed that anonymity does not lead to a significant increase in letters to the editor.

Unfortunately- there is considerable "error" in this experiment. The newspaper hoped it could increase letters to the editors by protecting the identity of commenters. The newspaper included one caveot that most likely affected the experiment and the ultimate outcome. Commenters could write in anonymously but have to reveal their true identities to the publisher. The publisher would "promise" to keep their identities secret. This experiment was self-defeating from the start. You cannot offer people freedom of speech through anonymity but turn around and tell them before they can be anonymous they need to provide their identifying information.

The conclusions made by the newspaper that the experiment "failed" are both true and inaccurate at the same time. It was a failed experiment from the beginning because it was not really measuring the impact or "effect" of anonymity on readers willingness to participate in editorial debate. If their comments were ultimately considered defamatory or controversial the publisher may be pressured or subpenaed to provide the true identities of the commenter. So, it is true- the experiment failed.

However, it is inaccurate to say that readers would not participate "more" by using anonymity to provide comments to the editor if they were truly anonymous. Sending an anonymous letter with the caveot of putting a veritable return address on it defeats the purpose of anonymity.

Anonymous messaging and the ability to send an anonymous message is a effective tool as long as individuals believe they are actually protected by the veil of anonymity. It is the belief that they are protected from reprisal and retribution that gives people the impetus to use anonymous speech.

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Discover how to send an anonymous email - Go Silent! The Truth Will Set You Free...


  1. Agreed. True anonymity means that not even the publisher gets to take a peek at the writer. Most major news stories were always broken with an anonymous source. Publisher's always took the author's word that the information was correct before publishing.

  2. In the Philippines, it better to be anonymous because of high incidence of killing of media personnels. Imagine over 100 lawyers and mediamen get massacred in Maguindanao in 2010.

  3. I cannot imagine living in a country where reporting the news is potentially deadly.


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