Recently there’s been debate about the ethics of using burner accounts to make attacks and accusations on this forum. See The number of burner accounts is too damn high and Why People Use Burner Accounts especially. This post is a more systematic discussion of poster identity, reputation, and accountability.
Types of Accounts
We can roughly break accounts down into four categories:
Real name accounts are accounts under a name that is easily linkable to the poster’s offline identity, such as their legal name. A real name account builds a reputation over time based on its posts. In addition, a real name account’s reputation draws on their offline reputation, and affects their offline reputation in turn.
Pseudonymous accounts are accounts which are not easily linkable to the poster’s offline identity, and which the poster maintains over time. A pseudonym builds a reputation over time based on its posts. This reputation is separate from the poster’s offline reputation.
Burner accounts are accounts which are intended to be used for a single, transient purpose and then abandoned. They accrue little or no reputation.
Anonymous posts are not traceable to a specific identity at all. This forum mostly doesn’t have anonymous posts and so I will not discuss them here.
All of these accounts have some legitimate uses. Because of the differences in how these types of accounts operate, readers should evaluate their claims differently, especially when it comes to evaluating claims about the community. Posters should use accounts appropriate for the points they are making, or restrict their claims to those which their account can support.
Arguments, Evidence, and Accountability
When it comes to abstract arguments, the content can be evaluated separately from the speaker, so all this stuff can be disregarded. If someone on this forum wants to post a critique of the statistics used in vitamin A supplementation trials, or an argument about moral status of chickens, or something like that, then the poster’s reputation shouldn’t matter much, and so it’s legitimate to post under any type of account. When 4chan solved an open combinatorics problem while discussing a shitpost about anime, mathematicians accepted the proof and published it with credit to "Anonymous 4chan poster". When it comes to abstract arguments, anything goes, except for blatant fuckery like impersonation or sockpuppet voting.
If someone wants to claim expertise as part of an argument, then it helps to demonstrate that expertise somehow. If someone says “I’m a professional statistician and your statistical analysis here is nonsense”, then that rightly carries a lot more weight if it’s the real-name account of a professional statistician, or a pseudonymous account with a demonstrable track record on the subject. Burner accounts lack reputation, track records, and credentials, so they can’t legitimately make this move unless they first demonstrate expertise, which is often impractical.
Things get trickier when it comes to reporting facts about the social landscape. The poster’s social position is a legitimate input into evaluating such claims. If I start telling everyone about what’s really happening in Oxford board rooms or Berkeley group houses, then it matters a great deal who I am. Am I a veteran who’s been deep inside for years? A visitor who attended a few events last summer? Am I just repeating what I saw in a tweet this morning?
Advantages of Real Name Accounts
Real name accounts can report on social situations with authority that other types of account can’t legitimately claim, for two reasons. First, their claims are checkable. If I used this pseudonymous account to make a false claim, like that I was denied a job at an EA organization because I had the wrong friends (I emphasize that this did not actually happen!), then there’s no practical way for anyone to investigate. However, if I used a real name account to post the same claim, then people close to the community would at least be able to check whether I had politically disfavored friends and whether I had been denied a job at an EA organization, and could report back to the forum that the story didn’t check out.
The second reason is that a real name account’s reputation gives it an incentive for honesty. If a real name account makes a bunch of social claims that turn out to be false, those lies or errors will likely be discovered and reflect poorly on their reputation. In extreme cases this has led to people being run out of the EA community, IMO justly. My experience is that, in accordance with their incentives, real name accounts are substantially less likely to exaggerate, misrepresent, or outright fabricate social claims. (But this does still happen sometimes and it’s important to actually check the ones that matter.)
The Costs of Privacy
In contrast, reports on social situations from pseudonymous or burner accounts are much less trustworthy because they generally cannot make their claims specific and checkable without compromising their privacy. Instead they will often share impressions and vibes without the supporting evidence, or describe events in airy generalities that could correspond to many different situations—and that’s when they’re operating in perfectly good faith. The inability to check claims means people have an easier time getting away with skewed narratives, reporting rumor as fact, exaggerating claims, or making shit up out of whole cloth.
The choice to preserve privacy breaks the epistemic link between concrete social events and the online reports. This is a perfectly legitimate tradeoff for a poster to make, but the cost is real. Pseudonymous writers should bear in mind the limits of the form and be very cautious about how much weight they ask others to put on claims they’re not willing to support. Readers, in turn, should be especially skeptical of uncheckable claims.
Burner Accounts Make Misbehavior Cheap
Burner accounts reporting on social situations run into two additional problems which pseudonymous accounts don’t face. The first is sockpuppeting. People can easily create multiple different accounts to report the same or similar claims, deliberately cultivating an illusion of broad support or consensus.
This is not hypothetical. Within our community, su3su2u1 [1, 2] and Ryan Carey [1, 2] have been caught spinning up sockpuppet burner accounts as part of campaigns they waged against institutions they disliked. I am extremely confident that, most of the times this happened, I did not learn about it. I don’t know how many of the recent burner account accusation posts and comments are sockpuppets from a very small number of people, but I expect it's a large chunk, possibly even an outright majority. (Note that it’s possible for most people using burner accounts to be operating in good faith, and simultaneously for most burner accounts to be sockpuppets. Most of What You Read on the Internet is Written by Insane People.)
The second problem is specific to using burner accounts to make accusations and launch social attacks, which in practice is their main use on this forum. Some degree of fighting and conflict is an important part of any healthy community. However, the asymmetry of a conflict where the accused stakes their reputation and the accuser stakes nothing corrupts the social accounting. It is unjust and impractical to demand that people defend themselves against a host of invisible foes. There is a reason that the United States Constitution enshrines the accused’s right “to be confronted with the witnesses against him” in the same sentence that it establishes the right to an attorney. History offers plenty of examples of how removing the right to face one's accuser cuts against justice and the pursuit of truth, as the system becomes more arbitrary and easier to use for witch hunts and private grievances.
Recommendations for Writers
- Be deliberate about the choice between using a real name, a pseudonym, a burner account, or speaking anonymously. Pay attention to how much trust any given identity has earned, and how much trust you are asking for.
- When reporting on social and community events, be aware of the tradeoffs between privacy and verifiability.
- Never ever use multiple different burner accounts to argue for the same position in a conflict in a way that could give an illusion of independent support or consensus. This is a serious and banworthy offense.
- Do not make accusations or attacks anonymously or through burner accounts. This is illegitimate, unaccountable, and not very effective.
- If you believe it is correct to make an accusation or attack, but you lack the courage to do so under your real name or a reputable pseudonym, then consider reaching out to a trusted third party to act on your behalf or endorse your claims.
Recommendations for Readers
- When reading reports of social and community events, pay attention to whether the claims made are verifiable, and what the consequences to the writer’s reputation would be if they were discovered to be false. Remember that people on the internet sometimes lie, especially (but not only) when their story can’t be checked.
- Pay attention to how the writer claims to know about the events they describe.
- Remember that people use sockpuppets on this forum. If you see multiple burner accounts espousing the same position, do not conclude that multiple people hold that position.
- Do not participate in, or pile on to, attacks on the basis of evidence given by burner accounts or anonymous accusers. At most these should be taken as starting points for investigations by people with accountability.
While these categories aren’t 100% precise, exceptions are rare. For example, there was a period of several years when insider community members could easily link the “Scott Alexander” pseudonym to the poster’s offline identity, but outsiders could do so only with effort; this ended when Alexander was doxxed in the New York Times. While this essay does not discuss these rare in-between cases, they are subject to the same principles.
My own account is a pseudonym. I have been posting as “Sarah Levin”, which is not my real name, since I joined this forum.
Both su3su2u1 and Carey deny that their intent when using sockpuppet accounts was to create an illusion of consensus. While I personally don’t believe them, intent is not the issue here.
Apart from legitimacy, using burner accounts to get redress for complaints is less effective than using a real name account or reputable pseudonym. To quote myself from an earlier discussion: “I dunno, a lot of these burner account accusations just strike me as trying to provoke a fight that the poster themselves lacks the courage and conviction to actually participate in, and I have very little patience for “let’s you and him fight”. I assume that the point of posting this stuff is to advocate for some sort of change, but that can’t happen unless specific people lead the charge. And if you’re not willing to bear any costs at all, then why should anyone else pick up your banner? Even if I wanted to, how would I lead the charge against “my friend who I won’t name got the impression that someone else who I won’t name did something bad, based on circumstantial evidence that you can’t check”? Questions of right and wrong aside, this plan just won’t work, you can’t actually lead from the rear like this.”
I agree completely with your "recommendations for readers". Burner accounts should be treated with increased skepticism.
However, I strongly disagree with the following:
Many, many burner accounts have cited a fear of professional or personal retaliation as their motivation. If you feel that way, then a burner account is an entirely appropriate response. We will never know about serious issues if people are too afraid to speak up. I don't think adopting the policy above would lead to more open accusations, I think it would lead to more misconduct being hidden away, and less flexibility to coordinate around dealing with bad actors.
We will also never know about serious issues if people are too afraid to speak up in a way that can be trusted and acted on. Creating a burner account out of fear might be a psychologically understandable reaction (although I suspect its prevalence is overstated), but it is not an effective or tactically appropriate reaction. Burner account accusations get upvotes and public sympathy but they don’t accomplish much else. Actual change requires someone to stick their neck out, whether that might be in a public post or in influential backchannels. There is no substitute for courage.
An anonymous accusation on it's own will not make a difference. But that's not the utility of it. The point is to get the ball rolling: to shift the environment so as to make it easier for people to speak up.
Suppose a prominent figure X has engaged in unethical behavior. Employee A knows about the behaviour, but can't speak up about it without being retaliated against. Persons B and C have each seen some sketchy behaviour by X, but are unsure if it was just a one-off. Person D is a respected figure that would be horrified by X's actions, but are unaware of them.
If A posts an anonymous accusation, B and C can realize that their sketchy observations match up with the account, and lend it credibility, prompting D to investigate the issue independently and confirming that the account is correct, prompting X to be kicked out. None of this would have happened without the anonymous whistleblowing from A.
Whistleblowing on bad behavior is good. I encourage people to do so publicly, but if you are unwilling or unable to do so, doing so anonymously is the second best option.
Can you name examples of this working? Because I've seen a good number of anonymous public accusations on this forum and I don't recall any that led to the outcome you describe. I understand this theory of change but it sure doesn't seem to work that way in real life.
In contrast I know of many cases where backchannel reporting to trusted third parties has led to results. If someone is not willing to speak up publicly, then using whisper networks or official reporting channels has a much better track record compared to making burner accusations on the EA forum. I am somewhat worried about people making an ineffective burner account post and feeling like they've done their job when otherwise they would've mustered up their courage and told the conference organizer.
One concern is that you're calling on people to internalize the costs of bringing serious issues to light -- which many believe is considerable -- while the benefits are socialized. That's not a good incentive structure.
It's fine to call people to acts of supererogatory self-sacrifice, but I don't think we should tell them they should either go down that path or remain entirely silent.
Use of trusted third parties (TTPs) is a possibility but has some significant limitations. I should write a post about TTPs acting under limited non-disclosure agreements at some point. Their use could alleviate some, but not all, of the disadvantages of burners.
In my experience anonymous accounts work fine? Whats important is having the information in public. Whether the account is anonymous or not isn't very predictive of whether effective change occurs. For example Brent was defended by CFAR, but got kicked out once anonymous accounts were posted publicly.
I actually do know the real names of the people who wrote about Brent. It’s one of those “community insiders know who they were but it’s hard to tell from the outside” situations, like the one I described with pre-doxxing Scott Alexander. If the authors had been anonymous for real then I don’t think it would’ve worked anywhere near as well. This approach avoids most of the downsides of actually-unknown-and-unaccountable burner accounts and I do not object to it.
On the subject of sockpuppets, Emile Torres is another notable puppeteer. They were banned at the time, so this was a "ban avoidance" puppet rather than an "illusion of consensus" puppet... but of course, there's no reason they couldn't have multiple puppets at the same time.
I have a job outside EA where reputation is a concern, so as is normal for people in such industries I post mostly anonymously online, and start new accounts periodically to prevent potential information leakage. If the only way to engage with EA discussion online was under my real name I wouldn't do so.
That's probably on the extreme end, but I think lots of people exist somewhere on this spectrum. If that is disallowed or discouraged you get a situation where only "professional EAs" who have merged their real life reputation and their EA reputation would comment in discussions or be listened to. Which seems like a recipe for increased group think and insularity.