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26 June 2020

Why is the New York Times threatening to reveal blogger Scott Alexander’s true identity?

There is no obvious justification for naming the writer and psychiatrist but we shouldn’t rush to judgement without all the facts.   

By Jasper jackson

The old adage about online anonymity goes: “On the internet no one knows if you’re a dog.” It hasn’t stood the test of time, not least because it has proved possible, and often easy, to work out not just the species, but the full identity of someone who tries to hide online. 

That is what has happened to “Scott Alexander” the author of the much-loved blog Slate Star Codex, which became a nexus for the rationalist community and others who seek to apply reason to debates about situations, ideas and moral quandaries.

Scott Alexander are the real first and middle names of the author, a psychiatrist based in California, who had kept his full identity secret. However, as he revealed in a post this week, a New York Times tech reporter decided to write about his blog and the community around it, and intended to publish Scott Alexander’s full name. In response, Alexander decided to close down Slate Star Codex, claiming that revealing his identity would undermine his ability to treat his patients, and expose him to death threats, something he said he had already received in small numbers.

The response on Twitter, where many of the blog’s readers often dwell, has been one of outrage. Luminaries such as Steven Pinker described it as a “tragedy on the blogosphere”. Others such as software inventor and investor Paul Graham talked of cancelling their NYT subscriptions. The title’s “threat” has been widely described as “doxxing”, a term more commonly used for posting online the personal details of an individual behind a social media account than publishing someone’s name in a newspaper story.

The NYT has so far been tight-lipped on the matter, saying only in a statement that: “We do not comment on what we may or may not publish in the future. But when we report on newsworthy or influential figures, our goal is always to give readers all the accurate and relevant information we can.”

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By most industry standards, the NYT’s rules on the use of anonymous sources are pretty stringent, especially after they were tightened in 2016. The essence is that anonymous sourcing should be used as “a last resort, for situations in which The Times could not otherwise publish information it considers newsworthy and reliable”. The tightening involved a signoff process from senior editors dependent on how important the anonymous sourcing was to the story, in response to complaints that such sources were being used too frequently. Alexander says the reporter told him it was policy to name those involved in a story, and others contacted by the reporter have said that he told them his editor wouldn’t publish the story without the blogger’s true identity. 

That policy on anonymity is in many ways a good one. Anonymous sourcing is overused, often protecting paid spokespeople who want to spin without repercussions, or those who want to make allegations without having to substantiate them. Yet those rules are primarily aimed at anonymous people commenting on stories about something other than themselves, not the central subject of a story. 

At first glance the most obvious parallel in the UK is with NightJack, the Orwell Prize-winning anonymous police blogger who was exposed by the Times in 2009. The blog was, as lawyer David Allen Green described it for the New Statesman in 2012 an “unflinchingly personal account of front-line police work”. 

But there are key differences. Alexander isn’t a whistleblower revealing important information about his profession. The writing he produces could be done without the job (psychiatrist) he is concerned about undermining (a profession that frowns upon its practitioners revealing much about their work, anonymous or not). 

It subsequently transpired that the Times had discovered NightJack’s identity via some rudimentary hacking. There is no suggestion that the NYT has committed any crime in discovering Alexander’s real name, and indeed Alexander has admitted that it isn’t hard to identify him. It took me about 30 minutes, and for many it won’t take more than five. 

It’s also worth pointing out that Slate Star Codex is not uncontroversial. Its fans describe it as a place for people to disagree with each other reasonably, a space to think about and discuss big topics. But reason can lead down some dark rabbit holes, and prioritising it over pretty much everything else inevitably means that some of what is published offends various communities. That is even more so in the case of those commenting on the site’s posts. 

But none of the above means the NYT has any imperative to reveal Alexander’s identity. So why would it? 

One theory is that the publication is simply imposing its rules without much thought to the consequences. Alexander has been deemed not to meet the threshold for anonymous sourcing, and thus a piece about his blog must reveal his identity. The NYT does invest a lot of importance in its procedures and processes, and like any large organisation it can sometimes apply them in ways that ride roughshod over the views of those it deals with. 

There is another possibility, of course, one that many of Slate Star Codex’s most ardent defenders seem to have discounted based entirely on Alexander’s say-so. The NYT could believe that the real identity of the author is too integral to the story it wants to run to leave out, and that the story is important enough to justify the potential damage it might do to him. Alexander has said that he doesn’t believe this to be the case, and there is no indication otherwise from those who the reporter spoke to for the story. But we frankly won’t know until it is published, or indeed dropped entirely.

Those jumping to Alexander’s defence appear to be doing so based on their long-standing relationship with his work and him. They presumably trust him because they know him, either his real identity or simply through his work. That’s not a luxury the rest of us have. 

At this point in time, with the information we have, it is difficult to see how Scott Alexander’s full name is so integral to the NYT’s story that it justifies the damage it might do to him. But before we make that call, it might be a good idea to have more than his word to go on.

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