Saturday, October 29, 2011


Is anonymous debate useful?
We are in the final few days of a hotly contested election here in beautiful, downtown, Laurel, MD.  It certainly has been one of the most contentious campaigns that I can remember during my 30+ years of living here.  Three people are running hard for Mayor and the "at-large" council seat is also locked in a tense struggle.
I like elections.  I enjoy the debate.  Elections cause me to think about issues.  Elections are healthy for a community.  But I've been watching a growing anonymity trend that's very troubling for me.

Both of our hometown news organizations, the venerable Laurel Leader and the upstart Laurel Patch are cranking out news, opinions and in a novel twist for a Laurel election, dozens of anonymous online comments. 

Go to the bottom of any article, especially in the Laurel Patch and you will see a handful of people strenuously debating.  Some of the comments are a bit over the top to say the least.
Some commenters are using -- what appears -- to be their real name.  And others are commenting behind a screen name.  Of course, there is no way to know for sure that commenters are offering their real names.  A commenter could easily use any name, even the name of a candidate.  Who could really know the truth?

Yesterday's mail also delivered to me a four page article anonymously attacking the Sarich campaign.  It looks like the authors spent a lot of money mailing the piece to every registered voter in Laurel.  This is a considerable investment in time and money for over 10,000 voters in the city.  Unfortunately, these authors chose to only identify themselves as "17 Laurel Taxpayers."

And finally, a neighbor told me last night that she was called by an anonymous phone pollster.  She was asked who she planned to vote for in the Mayoral race. The caller did not provide any affiliation.

I've written about anonymous comments in the past.  While I allow them here, I believe that anonymous articles, comments and polls are not very useful.  I think anonymity diminishes credibility.  It also tends to encourage people to be more rash, untruthful or hurtful in their comments.  However, we have a tradition of anonymous political speech in this country.  In some cases, anonymously speaking truth to power is useful for the good order of society.

So what do you think?  Opinions about candidates aside, does anonymity help or hurt political debate?

Please respond below.   Feel free to respond with your real name or anonymously.  Please be temperate.   


Glen a/o Beth Audet said...

One is forced wonder: what is at the heart of anonymity? Is it fear of reprisal? Is it a lack of conviction? Perhaps a lingering doubt about purported facts? Or is it something more sinister?

Everyone is entitled to have, and express, their opinion, but anonymity, whatever its motivation, lends to a lack of credibility.

Rick Nakroshis said...

I find as much value in anonymous political speech as I do in anonymous tips on the third horse in the fifth race.

Someone has a very good reason for trying to influence me, and it doesn't always have my best interests at heart.

Brian Coyle said...

Anonymity may be necessary when consequences of reprisal are real and significant, but otherwise it only makes me question the credibility and motivation of the source. I think the anonymous mailer about Sarich was inappropriate, particularly because the authors did not provide clear context for James Hester's quote. This is getting close to character defamation. The 17 individuals that produced the mailer may have legitimate criticisms against Sarich (and I admit that I don't understand the full history that would generate such negativity) but their delivery was shameful. Perhaps upon reflection they will choose to identify themselves, and apologize for their mean spirited tone. I hope so. Don't let your anger contaminate the community.
I am not writing in defense of Sarich, I support Moe for re-election, but that has no bearing on my opinion that politics needs to be more civil and that anonymity should only be used for protection where necessary, not to hide.

Brian Coyle

Anonymous said...

If someone has something to say and is not ashamed of it and it is the truth then they should be willing to stand by it publicly. The only time that I can think of anonymity being necessary or prudent is if one lived in a dictatorship where freedom of opinion was prohibited."

I received the offending mailer also and tore it up once I realized how mean-spirited it was and the fact that there was no one taking responsibility for it.

- Bonnie Oskvarek

Dana Schwartz said...

Obviously the "17" don't want the rest of the 99.9% of us to know who they are, hiding their sizable monetary contribution to the Moe campaign and providing no documentation for their vicious allegations.

At the same time an appointed member of the Moe administration makes accusations against Mr Sarich in a forum (the last Laurel Leader before the elections) where he has no opportunity for equivalent rebuttal.

I agree, what a dirty campaign this has become! I hope it all backfires on them.

Bob Bain said...

I also received the mailer and phone call. Neither changed my mind on who I was supporting. The phone call did not sound like any I had received from the Moe or Cunningham campaigns up to this point, and sounded a bit fishy. They reminded me of the anonymous fliers made in support of the O'Malley campaign just before he was elecetd Mayor in Baltiomre, a move which decimated the campaigns of both his rivals. Makes me wonder is all.
And I can understand the anonimity desired for the authors of the flier, based on what I have read of the alleged cases of voter intimidation for those who have spoken out. And, although each item was accompanied bt a citation for individual research, I just wish this stuff would stop and we could go back to the small town atmosphere of my youth in Laurel. (and, no, I am not among the "17")
By the way, the "appointed member of the Moe administration', as a citizen of Laurel, she has every right to voice her concerns, just as another did in support of Mr. Sarich with out allowing Mr. Moe and the Board of Trade an equal "opportunity for equivalent rebuttal".

CarolD said...

Rick, I fully understand why the 17 did not identify themselves. They are most likely local, small business owners who fear a Sarich Administration and the retaliation that would be certain.

In my 50 years in Laurel there has never been behavior like there is in this election. There has never been such a negative campain thrust upon the voters. It makes no sense. I don't understand why. It is so unnecessary. I hope this does not become the standard for future elections.

Threats against City employees, Laurel Police Officers, and even voting citizens have occurred. I know Mrs. Mills and can only imagine how difficult it was for her to write her letter. The employees needed her letter to remind them how appreciated they are and should not be subjected to election rhetoric threats. The FOP letter describing Mr. Sarich's threats against them is unprecedented. Mr. Peter Lewnes (real name, very real person. He has not been shy in his Patch posts.) had to call the Police. He posted Mr. Sarich's Mother's address thinking it was Mr. Sarich's,for which he apologized within hours, then received a personal visit from Mr. Sarich and a campaign worker and was threatened. Mr. Sarich follows with a support letter to hundreds if not more, signed by his mother, with her home address included. Where's the foul?

Mr. Sarich has not obeyed local zoning or election laws until forced, illegally used the City Seal, completely ignored the rules of the City Employee Yard Sale, videotaped the Mall without the owner's permission,and yes again, threatened City employees.

I received the questionable mailer as well. Except for the one satirical section, everything else written is true as I know from my own observations of Mr. Sarich and the internet research I have done. The Ethics Commission statement at the end is taken word for word from the
Ethics Commission minutes. There's no slander here. It's all truth.

People who are not Sarich supporters are rightfully fearful and therefore, must make their comments anonymously. It is unfortunate, but it is an atmosphere created by Mr. Sarich himself.

I do not want to debate Mr. Schwartz knowing he is a Sarich supporter and campaign worker. But, I question his own letter to the editor attacking the City's election equipment which has been successfully used elsewhere in Maryland. It appears his letter is to set the basis for appeal when Mr. Sarich loses this election. He and Mrs. Mills stated their identity and I appreciate that.

I praise Mayor Moe for staying above the fray and campaigning in his own open, out front, positive style. I predict he will be reelected. I only hope is that Mr. Sarich comes in third to eliminate his contesting this election on any grounds.

Rick Wilson said...

Thanks to you all for your thoughtful comments. I think we can disagree without being disagreeable. No matter who we personally support in the campaign, we should be able to engage in a respectful discussion about the issues and about the people who seek these, difficult, time-consuming and often thankless elected positions. I am thankful that we have community members willing to endure the campaign gauntlet to serve us. It ain't much fun.

Rick Wilson said...

KAL over at the Kalibrations Blog reminds everyone that "Voting is the Best Way to Register Your Opinion". See

Bill Allen said...

I'll speak in favor of Anonymity in general and in the case of this election in particular for several reasons.
First, as a few folks (such as CarolD) have already mentioned, this election has brought out some behavior that certainly gives the appearance of voter intimidation, threats, and promises of future vindictive behavior.
but let's set aside the direct threats for a moment, and consider the bigger picture: anonymity really does allow you to get the most out of free speech, since it allows you to say anything without fear of reprisal or consequence. and sure, actions without consequences lead to messy, ugly, messed up situations, but it also leads to a deeper truth. The Anonymous posters on these internet debates might be lying, but they are doing so with sincerity, expressing their true emotions and opinions no matter how ugly or petty. With anonymity, the internal censor we all have (we call it 'being civilized' or 'common courtesy') shuts down, and we present a 'warts and all' image that shows how we really feel. The fact that so many Anonymous posts are nothing but hate, negativity, and bigotry isn't just a bad reflection on the poster, but on humanity in general: the small handful who revel in anonymity are publicly displaying the character flaws of all of us in a very uncouth manner, and this might be part of the reason why so many folks are afraid of Anonymity and tend to mock or sneer at it. "When the water is clean, you see the bottom; when the water is dirty, you see yourself."

Then again, It could be that the dislike of anonymity is simply an excuse to dislike a view or opinion we do not agree with: take Dana Schwartz's comment, for example: she criticizes one group of anti-Sarichites because they are anonymous, then criticizes the city employee who honestly expressed her opinion and gave her real name...Ms. Schwartz didn't even bother to say that Ms. Mills should be commended for at least being honest as to her identity.

It really should not matter who says something; what should matter is what has been said. to dismiss an argument because the person who made it was anonymous is narrow minded and ignorant. it is passing judgement based solely on the superficial, without really considering the statement on its own merits. Back in the days of discrimination, Women and minorities wrote under assumed names (the "Nom de Plume") because intolerance said women could not write as well as men, bigotry said that minorities were 'inferior' to whites, and could not be seen as equals. If you want to hate waht some anonymous troll posts on the internet, judge the comment based on the substance, and don't casually dismiss an Anonymous poster as a 'coward' or a 'fraud'.

Anonymous said...

Anyone else get a phony survey for moe? 5 questions posing as an independent group followed up by a paragraph about how great (lol!) our mayor is?

Anonymous said...

If someone is making an unverifiable claim of fact anonymously (or to foment a witch hunt of some sort) then it seems foolhardy to take that person seriously. If all they are sharing is an idea, however, it will just have to stand or fall on its own legs. Personally, I just don't like all the attention (positive as it is) that I get from my constant stream of brilliant ideas and considered opinions. I'm just a very private person.

Anonymous said...

so we see what anonymous lies get us in Laurel

hope whoever sent it is proud of it and mans up to take responsibility, after all their boy "won" even though we all lost

Karen said...

I agree w/Rick that Twitter's breaking news feed capacity is a really great way to keep up on things. And Kudos to Josh for the early respone.