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Who has the right to be anonymous?

The Twitter storm over the account Libs of TikTok exposes the fault lines in anonymity.

By Emily Tamkin

WASHINGTON — On Tuesday (19 April) the Washington Post journalist Taylor Lorenz published an article that confirmed the name of the woman behind the Twitter account Libs of TikTok. I say “confirmed” not to undermine Lorenz’s reporting, but because the woman, Chaya Raichik, appears to have registered the domain name under her own full name.  

Libs of TikTok, for those who are unfamiliar with or perhaps smartly less online than some, is an account with more than half a million followers that mockingly posts clips of liberals and LGBTQ+ people, as well as memes and tweets attacking transgender people. As Lorenz’s piece notes, “Her anti-trans tweets went especially viral. She called on her followers to contact schools that were allowing ‘boys in the girls bathrooms’. She also purported that adults who teach children about LGBTQ+ identities are ‘abusive,’ that being gender-nonconforming or an ally to the LGBTQ+ community is a ‘mental illness,’ and referred to schools as ‘government run indoctrination camps’ for the LGBTQ+ community. Raichik’s posts have made it onto Fox News, a station into which Raichik herself has (anonymously) called into in the past.”

The response to the piece, from some circles on the right and parts of the internet, was outrage. Why was Lorenz revealing the identity of a random, private person? There was a similar response in February, when the BuzzFeed News reporter Katie Notopoulos published the names of the NFT collection Bored Ape Yacht Club’s founders. Why, some wondered, were these reporters “doxing” people who wanted to stay private? 

For one thing: “doxing” is the act of revealing previously private identifying information about someone. This could include their personal phone number, or even home address. Technically, the publication of someone’s name could fall under this definition. However, investigating who is behind a politically influential account or a potentially lucrative business is also known as “reporting”.

This raises the question: who constitutes a public figure? Or, to put it another way: who gets to remain a private figure? Who has the right to anonymity? 

The founders of the Bored Ape Yacht Club and the woman behind Libs of TikTok might have preferred their names to not be reported, but any one of them would have a difficult time making the case that they are simply trying to exist as private figures. Rather, they are trying to exist as private figures who also have public personae with influence in their respective realms. That Raichik is wielding her influence on a social media app does not mean she is not wielding influence. As Notopoulos noted in her piece: “How do you hold them accountable if you don’t know who they are?”

This is not a blanket argument against anonymity. A worker who speaks out against an abusive boss, a woman who is trying to speak out against sexual harassment or assault, a political dissident living under an oppressive regime: these are all clear cases in which there would be good reason to allow a person to maintain anonymity for their own protection. Or, as the journalist Jack Crosbie put it to me: anonymity makes sense when it’s used to correct power imbalances — not to exacerbate them.

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Which side is which is not always so clear. After all, there are situations in which it’s not entirely clear who is on what side of the power differential. And there are plenty of right-wing activists and media pundits who argue — and perhaps even believe — that accounts such as Libs of TikTok are operating in oppressive political systems, and therefore require anonymity. I would reject that argument for an account as influential as Libs of TikTok, but what of a smaller account? And where do we draw the line as to the number of followers or platform size?

All this is to say that there are legitimate questions around anonymity, and to whom it should be afforded. But while we’re settling them, a good rule of thumb is this: if you’re going to harass people, have the courage to do it under your own name.  

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