It recently came to light that John Huppenthal, Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction, has been using various aliases to post comments on several blogs for years. Some of his comments have been described as racist and disparaging towards welfare recipients. There were also times that he used his alias to write comments that endorsing himself and his position.
Allegedly Huppenthal said he used an alias to participate in the free exchange of ideas. To a degree, I get that. Before the internet, the best way to be heard was to write a letter to the editor. I knew of at least one public official who used an alias to express ideas as an individual rather than as a person holding political office. I also suspect that if this person was unmasked it would be a non-issue for them. (They also weren’t sending in letters dripping with discriminatory speech. They were just expressing themselves as a concerned citizen.)
So what can we learn from John Huppenthal’s mistakes about being anonymous on the internet . . .
Use an IP Address that’s Hard to Trace to You
According to the reports, Huppenthal made several posts from the Arizona Department of Education. If you want to be anonymous, make it hard to for people to track your internet connection. Don’t use the internet connection at work, home, or your personal hotspot. Use the public internet at a coffee shop, hotel, or library.
Protect Your True Identity
If you want to be anonymous online, take steps to protect your identity. Besides using a public internet source, create a dummy email address for your anonymous posts. Choose usernames that don’t reveal anything related to who you are, your job, your location, or your hobbies. Don’t use photos of yourself as your avatar.. That’s partially how Shashank Tripathi got caught as the man behind the fake tweets about Hurricane Sandy.
Don’t Endorse Yourself
It’s one thing to use an alias to participate in public discourse and another to create a fake persona to endorse yourself when you’re running for or holding political office. If you want to respond to your critics, do it as yourself. It’s classier and it shows you have integrity.
Expect to be Unmasked
I frequently tell people, “Don’t post anything online that you wouldn’t put on the front page of the newspaper.” This includes everything you post anonymously. Act as if everyone you care about is going to see what you posted with your name and picture attached to it. That way if your identity is ever revealed, you can own it without any personal issues.
If you have aspirations of being or remaining anonymous online, this video may help.
Huppenthal said he won’t resign over these posts and he’s currently up for re-election. We’ll see if the revelation of this behavior will impact his career. If nothing else, he’s the living embodiment of the risks that come with an attempt to be anonymous and the mistakes you can make when you think no one knows what you’re saying.
If you’re interested in learning more about how to be anonymous online, please check out my books, The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed and The Legal Side of Blogging for Lawyers. The latter includes an afterword by an anonymous award-winning legal blogger The Namby Pamby about the challenges he faces.
If you want to chat with me about anonymous speech on the internet, feel free to connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, or you can email me. You can also subscribe to the Carter Law Firm newsletter.
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