Burnt Sienna Santa is making a list and dissidents will be punished
November 4, 2018 7:32 AM   Subscribe

How dangerous is it to criticize a political regime using your real name?

I can't shake the idea that there's a massive list being kept of anyone who makes a harsh critique of the administration in a public arena like Twitter, and thus that it's not wise to criticize with your real name attached. Do you think this is true?
posted by pseudostrabismus to Law & Government (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Which political regime / administration are we talking about here?
posted by Too-Ticky at 7:35 AM on November 4, 2018 [2 favorites]

If your name happens to be Khashoggi or similar, it can be very dangerous indeed. (NB: This comment is not intended to be frivolous.)
posted by aqsakal at 7:35 AM on November 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

Location is North America.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 7:42 AM on November 4, 2018

This depends on who you are. Although political speech is protected under the First Amendment for now, I do not trust the increasingly fascist administration to protect my rights as a non-white first-generation American (by birthright, fuckers). If you're a straight white man with access to good lawyers, you're in better shape. Still, why take chances, especially when political pseudonyms have such a long tradition in the States.
posted by basalganglia at 7:59 AM on November 4, 2018 [7 favorites]

I think it's quite possible that some lists are being kept, or that it's possible to generate such lists. I say this because the sheer number of people who have FBI files for relatively small and routine kinds of activism seems to be pretty large, as far as I can tell based on my activist past.

However if you're thinking "ZOMG what will happen to everyone I know who has criticized [your government] under their real names", I think it's useful to reflect on several things:

1. That's a lot of people. The amount of state power that would be needed to do anything to all those people would still be very, very great, and inevitably it would sweep up, eg, the children of major CEOs. It would be inconvenient to administer.

2. So I'd honestly expect that the lists that get used would be lists of people who are active, not just on social media. And even there, that's a lot. "Let's do something to everyone who volunteered with an immigrant assistance organization" is still a problem, and you have to get all the state governors to agree to co-operate, etc etc.

3. It also doesn't make sense. You can have a chilling effect just from taking away a few high profile people; you don't need to lumber yourself up with everyone who ever went to a DSA meeting.

4. I think we're probably looking at more of a corrupt-PRI/Putin's Russia situation than a Hitler situation in the US - violence against some activists rather than systematic violence. Again, this is a large and diffusely administered country. Systematically dealing with a very large number of people would be really difficult given the way things run here.

5. Even a McCarthyite "you criticized Trump, now you are unemployable" system would be too unwieldy, not because a social credit system is impossible but because social media is so ubiquitous that you'd punch a hole in your economy.

My particular take-away would be: Don't use real names if you don't have to, because why borrow trouble? If you already have, don't worry about it too much, because either you're a serious activist whose other activities raise your profile or you're going to be lost in the noise.

I'm not saying that it is literally impossible to target large numbers of people for political consequences based on their social media - obviously China manages. But China has devoted the last seventy years, more or less, to building a system where individuals are dealt with in this way, and Chinese communism was built on top of a long-standing, generally very effective bureaucratic system to boot. (I mean, there's a lot more to China than the social credit system, just as there's a lot more to the US than the prison system and racist terror; I'm not trying to run China down so much as to say that it's possible to build this system and make it work.)

If the day comes where a social media list is used to hunt down and punish miscellaneous amateurs who do nothing but criticize Trump online, we will all be up to our necks in so much other shit that it won't matter, and not having used your real name won't protect you.
posted by Frowner at 8:02 AM on November 4, 2018 [23 favorites]

If there's a list, it's a really long list, and it seems unlikely that they're going to be able to target all of us. It also seems to me that this is a moment that calls for political courage, and maybe that's a risk we need to take, especially if you're not intensely targeted for other reasons. If you're not trans or a non-white immigrant or otherwise in the direct line of fire for this administration (assuming you're in the US), then I think it's worth considering that other people are on a list whether they speak out or not, and maybe we shouldn't take advantage of the opportunity to stay quiet and safe, since that's an opportunity that comes from unearned privilege. If you are a member of a group that is otherwise targeted, then I think the calculus changes a little bit.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:07 AM on November 4, 2018 [5 favorites]

If you're singled out by right-wing trolls for harassment, it could actually get dangerous. But that isn't state-sponsored.

If you live in Canada (note: North America != USA), the only thing likely to get you into legal trouble is uttering threats, particular kinds of hate speech, and posts that make CSIS think you're going to go to Syria and join up with ISIL. I don't know enough about Mexican law to comment on that possibility.

I can actually see a benefit to criticizing under your real name, if it is well-thought-out and not just a rant: your acquaintances' respect for you-as-you will lend credibility in their eyes to your political criticism.

Also, Khashoggi did his criticizing from North America.
posted by heatherlogan at 8:20 AM on November 4, 2018 [3 favorites]

For the most part, I don't think it's true.

I don't think that we're headed toward a future in which people are arrested for criticizing Trump on Twitter. Although Trump clearly desires to be an autocrat, and he's being enabled by a party that is clearly corrupt and seeking to implement a one-party state, it would be such a massive technical, logistical, and economic impossibility that it's just not going to happen even if Trump is crowned puppet king for life.

The real danger is people digging through your social media because you've come to their attention for some other reason. It's hard to predict what the future looks like, though. As of right now, I imagine that most of what you say is protected speech; you cannot be arrested for it. It would take a big shift to make political speech illegal.

But that doesn't mean there's no risk. What if you want a government job - or any job? Right now, in the current present day, there are people who are afraid to discuss their lives or their opinions under their real name because it could already affect them. Right-wing hate mobs are an issue. Another is the tyrannical control that our bosses can have over our lives, in terms of their ability to hire and fire on a whim based on anything but a few protected classes. (Oh, and protected classes as well as long as they can come up with a pretext.)

There is value to using your real name, so I wouldn't use the words "wise" or "unwise" about this kind of thing. You can believe there's some risk, but also that you should use your name because it lends more weight to what you say, for example. It can also normalize your opinions: If the only people criticizing the administration are hiding who they are, then it begins to look like it's only internet radicals, rather than a very common and normal sentiment.

Self-preservation isn't the only value, I guess is what I'm saying.

(I'm assuming US because of the openly fascist turn our administration is taking, which is rightfully freaking a lot of people out... the logistical problem would be the same wherever, though.)
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 8:35 AM on November 4, 2018 [7 favorites]

On another note (also I apologize for drifting into assuming the US - I started out thinking of Canada and Mexico and then drifted into my own anxieites): I find these questions helpful to ask myself when contemplating scary political scenarios, even though sometimes the answer is "ooh, this could actually happen":

1. Who would want to do this and why? What powers do they have? Who opposes them and what powers do they have? Different parts of government, different states, different corporations, etc all have different interests and conflict between them sometimes scuppers things.

2. What technology exists or is coming on line to do this? How will it talk to other in-use technology? Never, ever underestimate the slowing power of legacy software.

3. Where will funding come from for this program? How many people will need to be hired? What skills will those people need? How many of them are available to hire?

4. How big will this program be and how will it be made uniform over a large area with different regional/city/local governments? A far-flung country with scattered large cities is much, much harder to manage than a small country with one major city that is the national and financial capital.

5. What conflicts will enforcing this program cause? For instance, Trump was angling to stop Chinese students from coming to the US....but a major part of university revenue is from Chinese students and it would be a huge blow to wealthy university presidents, the Ivy League, etc, and so there was a lot of sub rosa pushback on that one.

6. What are similar programs? Where have they been implemented? What conditions were in place? How did they work?

So low-effort programs that use processes already in place and impact a defined population are far more likely than complex programs that require a lot of staff, need new bureaucracies and target a large diffuse population. Which of course is why it's important to stop even low-level shit, because it puts the first tier of building blocks in place for worse.
posted by Frowner at 9:20 AM on November 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

I study dissent in an authoritarian regime. If you were asking me about my fieldsite, I'd say:
- Signing a petition in such a way doesn't actual happen because it wouldn't make any difference and someone requesting signatures would face severe repercussions
- Most people wouldn't sign anything because it is part of a variety of things that one could be blackmailed about later and because they know that nothing will change
- Those that would sign something are already known to the regime

But in less authoritarian regimes near my fieldsite, I'd suggest that you don't know what things are going to look like in the near future, so be careful. For example, in Turkey, people signed some petitions that felt safe 5-10 years ago but it is now being held against them.

However, in the politest way possible, as someone who spends most of my day thinking about people that have no civil liberties and are punished severely for any dissent, things sort of suck in the US right now, but it is not authoritarian. Folks that live in *real* authoritarian states get a little offended when people compare Trump to their leaders. In the US we have elections that are flawed, but not completely fake. Media is under pressure, but there is a free press. People are under threat, but aren't being murdered on the regular.
posted by k8t at 11:22 AM on November 4, 2018 [7 favorites]

In the US or Western Europe? I think if it gets that far you'll have bigger problems.

In the many autocratic regimes in the world today? Somewhere between mildly and very dangerous. There is a reason women, poor young men and students are at the forefront of so many dissident movements: they usually have nothing so they have less to lose.
posted by fshgrl at 11:25 AM on November 4, 2018

I don't think you have to worry about a government and a massive list for reasons mentioned above. But keeping your real name off the radar is good sense, supposing you need a job but you've posted political remarks that might alienate a potential employer who Googled you.
posted by zadcat at 1:32 PM on November 4, 2018

k8t, I think it's less that people in the US think we're in a current authoritarian regime so much as we're afraid that's going to happen, particularly if Trump is re-elected in 2020. Like your example contrasting Turkey of 5-10 years ago with Turkey today. As you point out, actions that feel safe today may be very unsafe in future, especially for people who are already marginalized in some way.
posted by basalganglia at 1:56 PM on November 4, 2018 [4 favorites]

My Twitter account is pretty dissident-y and is under my real name. I haven't noticed any repercussions as yet, unless it's affecting my job hunt prospects, but there's always the future. I'll say that since Trump I've been wondering if it would be better to start a more anonymous account, so I'm not completely off the fence about the possible problems.
posted by rhizome at 4:34 PM on November 4, 2018

I was about to make the point about Turkey that k8t did, and I don't think basalganglia's fears are unfounded that things in the US could go the way of Turkey. Nor the UK, given the nation's imminent departure from the EU and its fondness for online surveillance.

I know Turkish citizens who can't risk returning to their home country because they've tweeted things that could get them arrested at the border.

However, turn the situation on its head and ask how safe it is to start dissenting anonymously, assuming you actually have the technical ability to do that. It seems more dangerous, to me, to act as if you're already living in an authoritarian regime, than to take actions knowing they could draw negative attention to you if authoritarianism takes hold.
posted by tel3path at 6:02 AM on November 5, 2018

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