You’re never anonymous on the internet.
November 2005. Election eve. A comment appears on this blog. It’s from an unfamiliar name. He’s reacting to the bombshell news that attorney general candidate Creigh Deeds — my senator — has been accused of having a sexual relationship with his children’s babysitter. He declares that Deeds must exit the race immediately.
This was a lie, of course. This comment was posted to a half dozen blogs across the state within a few minutes, each time written by a different person. I erased the comment immediately — one of four that I’ve ever erased — and encouraged other bloggers to do the same.
Every computer on the internet has a unique internet protocol address (or “IP”), allowing them to be tracked. By checking with other bloggers, I found that all of these comments came from the same IP address. And by checking a history of all comments ever posted to my blog, I found that the same IP belonged to a regular pseudonymous commenter. It resolved to his apartment, and the name of the town in which he lived was present in the IP address’ domain name. On a hunch, I searched my e-mail archives for that IP address to see if I’d ever corresponded with anybody using that IP. Bingo, I had a match.
The kid who’d posted that invented accusation was an acquaintance, a Republican activist who was actually working for a statewide campaign. He was a nice kid, if overzealous. He may have a bright future in politics if he can control himself, something he’s historically had trouble with. I e-mailed him immediately to let him know that I was onto him. He was upset, and started inventing excuses, insisting that I call him so we could talk. I didn’t — I just told him that he must never, ever do this again, and that it would be our secret that he’d done it. Provided I never saw a repeat of this incident.
It’s been a year and a half, and he’s kept himself in check. Maybe he’ll make it in politics after all.
It is popularly held that the way you behave when you think you’re anonymous — that’s the real you. If all it takes is a goofy pseudonym for you to become misanthropic then congratulations, you’re a misanthrope.
Oddly enough, this is what makes other people misanthropes.
There was a regular commenter on this blog for a year or so. He posted under a pseudonym. He disagreed stridently with everything that I wrote. Which is fine — that’s how good discussion happens. But, gradually, he began crossing the line into simply being nasty, insulting me and other commenters along imagined personal lines, bringing any discussion in which he participated to a screeching halt. After repeated public warnings, I finally e-mailed him to inform him that he was simply no longer welcome on my blog, explaining my reasoning politely, but firmly.
What he presumably didn’t know is that I could see his IP address. That IP is the internet gateway for a law firm run by a powerful Democrat in the General Assembly. Not only is this guy commenting during work hours (one hopes not billable hours), but what he’s writing would prove embarrassing to the head of his firm.
I never mentioned this to him. Didn’t see the need. But I can only assume that he had no idea that his behavior didn’t just reflect badly on his pseudonymous creation, but it could actually come back to be identified with him personally.
He’s more or less been good about staying away from this blog, and has moved along to other blogs, his tone not improved in the least. He never e-mailed me back, but I preferred silence to the desperate excuses spun by many people who know they’re caught in a lie.
I had had a few comments from “Billy” last year. Nothing inappropriate, but I couldn’t help but notice that Billy shared an IP address with another commenter, a fellow political blogger. It seemed likely that it could end in embarrassment for him. I pointed out to Billy that that if his name was a pseuodnym, I’d know who he really was, and that perhaps he should keep that in mind.
The e-mail that came in response was from Carl Kilo, a Republican political blogger, the very person that I knew to be leaving the comments. Carl informed me that he lives in “a commune of sorts,” and that “Billy showed me your reply to his comment.” He insisted that it was somebody else using his computer without his knowledge, implying that he couldn’t be held responsible for what people did with it. I found this excuse too embarrassingly transparent to even argue with, so I sent back a polite note and left it at that.
Two days ago, another post was made from the same IP address, using the same e-mail address (an e-mail address that doesn’t show up in Google), this time under the unfortunate name of “Teddy’s Turds.” This was a moderately nasty comment, employing a tone that I try to discourage on my blogs. So I changed the comment’s author name to “Carl Kilo.”
So Carl again found himself caught in a lie, only this time publicly. He’s flailing the same as a year ago, rather than quietly admitting it was him or, better yet, saying nothing. (Or calling the police to alert them to the intruder in his home, using his e-mail address.)
This is why I should handle these things privately. It’s embarrassing to watch.
Democrats in Northern Virginia are having a field day with some poor fellow by the name of George Burke. It seems he’s the chair of a democratic committee, and has also long commented under the pseudonym of “Thomas Paine Patriot.” For many months he has posted rude comments to blogs under that name, and then went and posted a comment under his real name a few days ago. Using the same IP each time. So he was nailed. Everything that he wrote while safely wrapped in pseudonymity is public.
The real George Burke has been exposed, and he’s not good.
You’re never anonymous on the internet. You can make it difficult to find out who you are, such that a subpoena or a DMCA request is necessary, but neither of those are real difficult to get. Everything you do — every comment you post, webpage you read, e-mail you send — leaves an electronic trail that can be pieced back together. That trail of digital bread crumbs leads straight to your front door.
So who are you, really? Read over the pseudonymous and anonymous comments that you’ve written, the way you’ve behaved while behind your mask.
That’s you. Do you like who you are?