In two previous posts we discussed cryptographic techniques that allow maintaining privacy and anonymity in e-participation platforms. That was the how, but what about the why? In this post we review the main points made in the decidim report regarding the suitability of anonymity for these platforms, and in general for online discussion and deliberation. We will follow up with results from other recent papers in the the next posts. The objective is to present the main ideas in the literature that can be useful for decision makers who are considering anonymity, pseudonymity and privacy for their e-participation initiatives. We collect the relevant references from the report at the end of the text.

The following serves as a starting point[20]

Our long community-network experience suggests that this weak form of identification is inadequate, if a trustworthy social environment that encourages public dialogue and deliberation is to be created. Online identity should, insofar as possible, reflect offline identity: if citizens wish to get a public answer from someone who plays a public role and appears online with her/his actual identity, they must do the same. They have to ‘show their face’ and take responsibility for participating under their actual identity[34]. This serves also to root the online community in the “proximate community” served by the network[35].

The authors consider that deliberation is indeed incompatible with anonymity and therefore privacy, as we mentioned above. Citizens participating anonymously would not be accountable or responsible for their contributions, and these are important requirements for deliberation to take place. On the other hand, the authors also observe that[20]

Nevertheless, even in online deliberative contexts, there are cases in which it is worth protecting participants’ privacy. This might occur during public consultations and discussion on sensitive issues or public assessments of an official that could bounce back on the participants, as in the case of the assessment of a teacher by his/her students as well as in the case of doctors rated by patients (e.g. http://www.patientopinion.org.uk/). In all these cases, there is the need to integrate a strong authentication policy (so that, e.g., only the students who have actually taken a class can rate the teacher) with secrecy techniques for protecting participants’ identity. Software can help achieve this by obscuring the identity of the sender of a message in such critical discussion areas.

Beyond this introduction, the report goes on to summarize the main points found in other studies in literature with short bullet-point descriptions:

Greater anonymity may increase uncivil behaviour and the use of offensive words[21,22].
Greater anonymity may reduce comment quality[23].
Greater anonymity may reduce trust, cooperation and accountability[22].

Conversely

Greater anonymity may increase participation[25] and engagement[26].
Greater anonymity may yield more information[23] and produce more honest[26] and original ideas[29].
Greater anonymity may produce more equal[30,31] interactions leading to free discussion of controversial issues.

From this we can summarize even further and identify the fundamental tension in the discussion of e-participation, deliberation and privacy. If we protect privacy with anonymity we reduce accountability, which may produce suboptimal outcomes. If we enforce real identities we reduce freedom, which again may produce suboptimal outcomes. The central tension is thus between accountability and freedom[36], modulated by the specifics of the particular case.

For example, if the object of deliberation is subject to strong social pressures and therefore self-censorship, then freedom is essential to ensure that dissenting and less represented views are heard. On the other hand, if the deliberation on the platform has a low signal to noise ratio, or is a target of uncivil behavior, measures may be required to increase accountability.

Given the opposing forces in play, it is difficult to find any general recommendations:

Prior research is not specific any enough to warrant practical recommendations for Decidim, only general trends to bear in mind. Some of the drawbacks and benefits mentioned above may not appear when using anonymized pseudonyms, since that technique exists at a midpoint in the anonymity spectrum[32].

The last sentence hints at a possible equilibrium between accountability and freedom in pseudonymity. We will return to this in further posts.


References

[20] De Cindio, Fiorella. 2012. “Guidelines for Designing Deliberative Digital Habitats: Learning from E-Participation for Open Data Initiatives.” The Journal of Community Informatics 8 (2).

[21] Fredheim, Rolf, Alfred Moore, and John Naughton. n.d. “Anonymity and Online Commenting: An Empirical Study.” SSRN Electronic Journal. doi:10.2139/ssrn.2591299.

[22] Cho, Daegon, and Alessandro Acquisti. 2013. “The More Social Cues, The Less Trolling? An Empirical Study of Online Commenting Behavior.”

[23] Diakopoulos, Nicholas, and Mor Naaman. 2011. “Towards Quality Discourse in Online News Comments.” In Proceedings of the ACM 2011 Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work – CSCW ’11. doi:10.1145/1958824.1958844.

[25] Fredheim, Rolf, Alfred Moore, and John Naughton. n.d. “Anonymity and Online Commenting: An Empirical Study.” SSRN Electronic Journal. doi:10.2139/ssrn.2591299.

[26] Davies, Todd. 2009. Online Deliberation: Design, Research, and Practice. Stanford Univ Center for the Study.

[29] Connolly, Terry, Leonard M. Jessup, and Joseph S. Valacich. 1990. “Effects of Anonymity and Evaluative Tone on Idea Generation in Computer-Mediated Groups.” Management Science 36 (6): 689–703.

[30] Flanagin, A. J., V. Tiyaamornwong, J. O’Connor, and D. R. Seibold. 2002. “Computer-Mediated Group Work: The Interaction of Sex and Anonymity.” Communication Research 29 (1): 66–93.

[31] Klenk, Nicole L., and Gordon M. Hickey. 2011. “A Virtual and Anonymous, Deliberative and Analytic Participation Process for Planning and Evaluation: The Concept Mapping Policy Delphi.” International Journal of Forecasting 27 (1): 152–65.

[32] “Identity and Anonymity.” 2016. Accessed December 20. http://web.mit.edu/gtmarx/www/identity.html.

[34] Casapulla, G., De Cindio F., Gentile, O., & Sonnante, L. (1998). A Citizen-driven Civic Network as Stimulating Context for Designing On-line Public Services.

[35] Carroll, J.M. & Rosson, M.B. 2003. A trajectory for community networks. The Information Society, 19(5), 381-393.

[36] This is reminiscent of the privacy-integrity tension found in secure voting, and indeed there is overlap on the privacy part as it relates to freedom.