Here's a category of situations I'm not sure how to think about: Avery, writing under a pseudonym ('Alex'), accuses Pat of something, let's say abuse. A major motivation of Avery's is for people to know to consider this information before in their interactions with Pat. Pat claims that actually it was 'Alex' who was abusive, and gives their side of the story. While it's all pretty hard for outsiders to judge, a bunch of people end up thinking that they would like to take some precautions in how they interact with 'Alex'. Under what circumstances is it ok for Pat, or someone else familiar with the situation, to identify 'Alex' as Avery?

Revealing who is behind a pseudonym is usually considered a kind of doxing, and in the communities I'm part of this is usually considered unacceptable. For example, the EA Forum prohibits it:

We also do not allow doxing—or revealing someone's real name if they prefer anonymity—on the Forum.
And while I can't find anything in the LessWrong docs about it, they recently issued a temporary ban to someone for revealing a pseudonym:
We (the LW moderation team) have given [commenter] a one-week site ban and an indefinite post/topic ban for attempted doxing. We have deleted all comments that revealed real names, and ask that everyone respect the privacy of the people involved.

In general I'm in favor of people being able to participate online under a pseudonym. I think there are better and worse ways to do it, but there are lots of valid reasons why you might need to keep your real life identity separate from some or all of your writing. Doxing breaks this (though in some cases it's already very fragile) and so there should be a pretty strong presumption against it.

On the other hand, there's no guarantee that the person who speaks up first about an issue is in the right. What if Pat is correct that it really was entirely Avery being abusive, and publicly accusing Pat of abuse is yet another form of this mistreatment? If we say that linking 'Alex' back to Avery isn't ok, then the social effects on Avery of posting first are very large. And if we settle on community norms that put a lot of weight on being the first one to go public then we'll see more people using this as an intentional tactic. [1]

Public accusations of mistreatment can be really valuable in protecting others, and telling your story publicly is often heroic. Sometimes people are only willing to do this anonymously, which retains much of the value: I don't think I know anyone who thinks the 2018 accusations against Brent, which led to him being kicked out of the in-person Bay area rationality community, were negative. Even when many people in the community know who the accusers are, if accusers know their real names will be shared publicly instead of quickly scrubbed I suspect they're less likely to come forward and share their stories.

But it seems like it would normally be fine for Pat to post publicly saying "Avery has been talking to my friends making false accusations about me, here's why you shouldn't trust them..." or a third party to post "Avery has been saying false things about Pat, I think it's really unfair, and here's why...". In which case I really don't see how Avery going a step further and pseudonymously making those accusations in writing should restrain Pat or other people.

I think the reason these feel like they're in tension is that my underlying feeling is that real victims should be able to make public accusations that name the offender, and offenders shouldn't be able to retaliate by naming victims. But of course we often don't know whether someone is a real victim, so this isn't something community norms or moderation polices can really use as an input.

There's a bunch of nuanced discussion about a specific recent variant of this on the EA Forum and LessWrong. I don't know what the answer is, and I suspect whichever way you go has significant downsides. But I think maybe the best we can do is something like, a trusted community member or group that isn't close to the dispute [2] evaluates the situation and makes a judgement on the balance of available evidence whether the norms against doxing still apply. But what if the evidence is hard to interepret? What if someone says more evidence is coming but it's not ready yet? How high is the burden of proof? Messy all around, with real consequences to potentially-incorrectly doxed accusers, to potentially-falsely accused people, and in important warnings we never hear because people are worried about being doxed.

[1] I think it also means that for many private disagreements there would be a stronger incentive to go public. If I was in a messy situation with someone and my community used these rules maybe I should quickly tell my side of the story publicly if I think otherwise the other person will tell theirs first under a pseudonym and initiate an asymmetric battle of reputations.

[2] In the specific case that prompted this post it's especially tangled in that one of the two main places where this dispute is playing out is run by people closely tied to the pseudonymous accusers. And so while the forum mods would normally be natural judges I think in this case they're too close to the situation.

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I think there are a few corner cases which it is worthwhile to consider:

  • A whistleblower providing objective evidence of wrongdoing. Here, the accused should just respond to the evidence, not the messenger. 
  • A case relying entirely on the testimonial of the accuser. Here, the credibility of the accuse depend entirely on the reliability of the accuser. The accuser has every right to confidentially talk to trusted third parties about their accusations. But once the accusations are made public to be judged either by a court of law or the court of public opinion, the public also deserves to know from whom the accusations come and judge their reliability as a witness. 

Of course, in the real world, it is often a mix of the two. Just about any evidence a source might hand to an investigator could be faked, or even just taken out of context, so the investigator has to trust their source to some degree.

I am sure that the US would have loved to have wikileaks reveal their source for the collateral murder video just to make sure that that person actually had a security clearance, they would not want wikileaks being taken for a hike by some enemy psyop with video editing software. In that case, revealing the source would be silly.

On the other hand, in a they said / they said situation, things differ. If X is anonymously accused by someone who can only provide their own testimony, I think that we should not update from that more than infinitesimally. If the anonymous accuser convinced an investigator who will provide their own name, that is a bit better, but still not much, because we would not only have to trust that the investigator is truthful, but also that his character judgement is sound.

TL;DR: provide evidence, testify on record or shut up (in public).

It seems to me that someone being accused publicly has a right to name their accuser publicly, if they are aware of said accuser’s identity. Third parties may or may not (and usually, I would say, do not) have this right—but the accused person does.


Why do you think that third parties shouldn't name an accuser? If an accusation is being handled in the court of public opinion, presumably it is because the public has an interest in the truth of the matter, and therefor I would think that any member of the public who has relevant evidence ought to be able to present it. If the accusation depends on the credibility of the accuser, then the identity of the accuser seems like relevant evidence. If anything, I'd think the accused should be particularly hesitant to name the accuser, at least as a strategic matter, for fear of appearing retaliatory. Third parties, not being under that constraint, might be in a better position to name the accuser.

This is a good question, thank you for asking it.

There are several considerations here.

First, the matter of retaliation against an accuser. Making an accusation anonymously/pseudonymously is typically done because one fears retaliation from the accused party and/or their allies. It is generally much less of a concern that some unrelated third parties, not allied with the accused, will retaliate against the accuser for the accusation—they rarely have an interest in doing so. (This is especially true in community situations like this, as opposed to “whistleblower” situations in industry, where consequences like “nobody will hire you if you’re known as a whistleblower” are quite plausible; such dynamics are simply less applicable in cases like the one we’re discussing here.)

But this being the case, the danger to the accuser obviously comes primarily from the accused and allies knowing the accuser’s identity. Even if the accuser doesn’t publicly reveal the accuser’s identity, they can still engage in basically all the same sorts of retaliation! Indeed, it seems entirely plausible that the danger to the accuser decreases if their identity is made public, because many or even most plausible sorts of retaliatory tactics benefit from being done “in the shadows”, so to speak—through whisper networks and so on—and being commonly known to have been the accuser in such a case, can easily protect someone from many such retaliations, relative to the case where the accuser’s identity is known to the accused (and, by extension, to the accused’s allies), but not to the public.

Thus means that the scenario where a third party plausibly has an obligation not to publicize the accuser’s identity is one where their identity is known to said third party (who is not an ally of the accused, and has no incentive to directly inform the accused, but acts only in accordance with their ethical views), but not known to the accused & allies.

Note that the question thus becomes not whether the accused has a right to publicly reveal the identity of their accuser, but whether the accused has a right to know the identity of their accuser. The answer to this question may very well be “yes”, but such things ought not be decided unilaterally by arbitrary third parties merely because they happen to be in possession of the relevant information.

(As a side note, the above logic dispenses with the worry that “the accused should be particularly hesitant to name the accuser, at least as a strategic matter, for fear of appearing retaliatory”.)

Second and relatedly, there is the question of public interest in the truth of the matter. Now, public interest is a perfect legitimate concept and an important concern, but it is nonetheless very easy for anyone to claim that basically any kind of thing is supposedly in the public interest. And this stuff about “the court of public opinion” is all very well as a sort of metaphor, but taking it too literally leads to absurdity. In particular, there’s no real way to evaluate positions like “any member of the public who has relevant evidence ought to be able to present it”, because—well, in an actual court you’d consult the actual law, you’d weigh the public benefit of relevant evidence coming to light against various other legal and ethical concerns (privacy, contractual obligations, etc.)… in the court of public opinion, how do you do any of that, and who would be doing it?

And an argument can easily be made that it’s also in the public interest to have norms against doxxing, which would be unacceptably subverted if third parties publicly revealed the identities of anonymous/pseudonymous accusers. (See what I mean about the ease of making such claims?) Who is weighing this public interest against the other? Of course we can argue for our preferred community norms, on ethical grounds and so on, but bringing “public interest” into it is unlikely to be productive.

Third, the question of the accuser’s credibility. Well, this seems to me like a red herring. In most of these sorts of cases that have taken place in the “rationalist” community and thereabouts, the accused have been people whose names I just barely recognize, and the accusers (when their names have come out) have been people I’ve never heard of. I suspect that it’s like that for most third parties to these disputes. So if I learn that “Alice” in this particular dispute is really one Jane Doe, age 25, currently residing in Springfield, NY, but I have never so much as heard of this person, much less have the slightest opinion of her credibility or lack thereof, then what does it do for me, to know her identity? Well, you might say, but who cares about my (Said’s) opinion anyway? Alice’s credibility matters to various community leaders, though, doesn’t it? But I’m sure that they already know her identity. They don’t need any third party to reveal it.

Quite frankly, in most of these sorts of cases, the update and inference that I’ve made has gone in the other direction. I started out knowing nothing about the accusers, and ended up judging them to be… less than impeccably credible, shall we say. (The accused even more so, often enough! But the accusers, too.) So for that reason, sure, I’d like to know the accuser’s identity. But this is precisely the sort of scenario where it’s the accused who not not only may, but should, reveal the accuser’s identity to the public.

The bottom line is this: the scenario where there is a real case to be made for hiding the accuser’s identity from the public is the one where the accused is not aware of it. If the accused knows who the accuser is, they may reveal it, and probably should do so. If the accused does not know who the accuser is, it is generally improper for a third party to unilaterally reveal this information. (Of course, in such a case, it may be proper to largely discount the accusations.)


A real court would apply complex rules of evidence, which sometimes involve balancing but often are more categorical. But yes, it's a different notion of public interest than whatever one rando thinks is public interest.

I agree that there is a significant difference between cases where the accused knows the identity of the accuser and cases where they do not, and we should split our analysis.

In cases where the accused does not know the identity of the accuser, I think the accusations would necessarily be so vague that I wouldn't update much on them, and I would hope other rationalists and EAs wouldn't either, but clearly there is a significant contingent of people in these communities who do not share my epistemic scruples. Given that, I don't know, seems a mess. But your rule that only the accused should share the identity of the accuser seems too absolute - surely accusers are sometimes in the wrong, and sometimes malicious, and in that case having their identities publicly known seems good. Yes that will result in some amount of social punishment, and if the accusations were false and malicious, then I think that is good.

The case where the accused does know the identity of the accuser is where my above logic about the accused appearing retaliatory would suggest it is better for a third party to name the accuser.

In cases where the accused does not know the identity of the accuser, I think the accusations would necessarily be so vague that I wouldn’t update much on them, and I would hope other rationalists and EAs wouldn’t either, but clearly there is a significant contingent of people in these communities who do not share my epistemic scruples. Given that, I don’t know, seems a mess.


But your rule that only the accused should share the identity of the accuser seems too absolute—surely accusers are sometimes in the wrong, and sometimes malicious, and in that case having their identities publicly known seems good.

To clarify, this is what I said in my top-level comment (bolding added):

It seems to me that someone being accused publicly has a right to name their accuser publicly, if they are aware of said accuser’s identity. Third parties may or may not (and usually, I would say, do not) have this right—but the accused person does.

I stand by this view. Exceptions are possible, although I take no position at this time on what sorts of cases might be exceptional in this sense (or, to put it another way, I am not prepared to say what the real rule is); that would require considerably more thought. Pending such, the rule of “only accusers should reveal this” seems like a prudent default.

The case where the accused does know the identity of the accuser is where my above logic about the accused appearing retaliatory would suggest it is better for a third party to name the accuser.

I think that I have sufficiently addressed this in the grandparent; I don’t have much to add beyond that.

If Brent had done this in response to the MittensCautious allegations would you have seen that as "just exercising his basic right to name his accusers publicly" or more like "unwarranted retaliation intended to increase the costs of sharing true and important information about him"?

Definitely “just exercising his basic right to name his accusers publicly”.

I would say that the norm should be:

— If someone is building pure online persona, it isn’t appropriate to dox them because of their online activities. There essentially is no added value for society in doing this. The person is using pseudonym to freely communicate their views and opinions while protecting their day-to-day life.

— Once anyone starts to bring real physical life into the conversation (such as your example) they are becoming a fair game. It’s them who linked their online presence to real life, they doxxed themselves.

I would say, if you want to stay anonymous, you should show at least some effort in trying to protect your identity.

My guess is how much the person has brought real life into their pseudonymous identity is pretty grey? For example, if someone pseudonymously mentions living in New Haven, have they now lost protection against doxing because most people don't live in New Haven?

But perhaps that doesn't come up in any of the cases I'm worried about here, because by the time you start making detailed accusations like this you will have narrowed the range of people you might be down to one or a handful.

Making any accusation whatsoever regarding a real, physical, human being, with a known identity, means that they are bringing 'real physical life into the conversation'. Or at least that's how I read the parent.

In which case they can't credibly expect to be protected from getting counter-accused by someone else. 

So pseudonymous accounts can accuse each other, pseudonymously,  all day long, with an expectation of privacy. But the moment they link a real world identity means that the counter-party(s) can do so too.

I don’t think it’s much grey. It’s not the question of whether you are doing perfect job protecting your identity, but are you even trying?

I think a substantial part of the issue here is the asymmetry created when one party is public, and one party is not.

Suppose a user is posting under their real name, John Doe, and another user is posted under a pseudonym, Azure_Pearls_172.  An accusation by Azure against John can have real-world implications; an accusation by John against Azure is limited by the reach of the pseudonym.  Azure can change their pseudonym, and leave the accusations behind; John cannot.

Doxxing can make a situation more symmetrical in this case.  Whether or not it is merited is a complicated topic, particularly as the norms around doxxing exist for a reason.

Suppose a user assaults other users, and switches pseudonyms whenever identified to keep finding new targets - I doubt anybody would argue that doxxing a predatory member of this sort is a bad thing, in and of itself.  Contrariwise, suppose a user gets annoyed with another user, and then doxxes them and accuses them in bad faith of assault.  We don't want that.

I think mixed-anonymity is basically a terrible way to run things, owing to the asymmetries involved, and in general communities should have norms that either reflect no anonymity (everybody uses their real names), or total anonymity (nobody uses their real names, and also nobody ever meets anybody else in person).  If you're mixing the cases, you're creating the potential for abuses.

If you disagree that anonymous users should never meet in person, well - if you're willing to meet in person, why are you choosing to be anonymous?  Is anonymity a conscious and deliberate decision, such that doxxing would actually be a violation (in which case, why are you doxxing yourself?), or is it just a default option?  And if you're meeting another anonymous user - well, what is their reason for choosing to be anonymous?

Mind, I've met other pseudonymous users of various communities, so I can't 100% claim to be consistent with this.  But I only do so when my choice of anonymity is more "default" than "deliberate choice" - there are some pseudonyms I use which I certainly wouldn't meet somebody under the auspices of, because they are deliberate choices, chosen to minimize exposure.

(Granted, I haven't used them in a while, and at this point most of the opinions I shared under them are basically widely accepted today, and those that aren't are at least socially acceptable - so, eh, it would probably be fine at this point.)

I agree that the situations you're describing are complex, but they're not the situation I'm trying to talk about here. I'm talking about a case where someone starts posting under a pseudonym to make accusations.

And these situations are different again from someone posting under their real name but referring to sources who agreed to be sources on the condition of anonymity

Yes, but I'm not sure in an important way? What do you see as the relevant differences between a case where Avery as 'Alex' writes a post about Pat, and an otherwise similar case where Avery acts as a source for a third party writing about Pat who agrees to use 'Alex' for them?

In the latter case it is the 3rd party driving the article, airing the accusations in a public forum, and deciding how they are framed, rather than Avery.

If, without the 3rd party, Avery would have written an essentially identical article then the differences aren’t relevant. But in the more likely case where Avery is properly a “source” for an article for which the 3rd party is counterfactually responsible, then the 3rd party also bears more responsibility for the effect of the article on Pat’s reputation etc. Fortunately, the 3rd party, not being anonymous, can be practically judged for their choices in writing the article, in the final accounting.

Some conditions for when I think it's appropriate for an anonymous source to make a critical post about a named someone on the forum:

  • Is the accused a public person or do they run an organization in the EA or rationality ecosystem?
  • Or: Is the type of harm the person is accused of something that the community benefits from knowing?
  • Did someone who is non-anonymous and trusted in the community talk to the anonymous accuser and verify claims and (to some degree*) stake their reputation for them?

*I think there should be a role of "investigative reporter:" someone verifies that the anonymous person is not obviously unreliable. I don't think the investigative reporter is 100% on the hook for anything that will turn out to be false or misleading, but they are on the hook for things like doing a poor job at verifying claims or making sure there aren't any red flags about a person. 

(It's possible for anonymous voices to make claims without the help of an "investigative reporter;" however, in that case, I think the appropriate community reaction should be to give little-to-no credence to such accusations. After all, they could be made by someone who already has had their reputation justifiably tarnished.)

On de-anonymizing someone (and preventing an unfair first-mover advantage): 

  • In situations where the accused parties are famous and have lots of influence, we can view anonymity protection as evening the playing field rather than conferring an unfair advantage. (After all, famous and influential people already have a lot of advantages on their side – think of Sam Altman in the conflict with the OpenAI board.)
  • If some whistleblower displays a pattern/history of making false accusations, that implies potential for future harm, so it seems potentially appropriate to warn others about them (but you'd still want to be cautious, take your time to evaluate evidence carefully, and not fall prey to a smear campaign by the accused parties – see DARVO).
  • If there's no pattern/history of false accusations, but the claims by a whistleblower turn out to be misleading in more ways than one would normally expect in the heat of things (but not egregiously so), then the situation is going to be unsatisfying, but personally I'd err on the side of protecting anonymity. (I think this case is strongest the more the accused parties are more powerful/influential than the accusers.) I'd definitely protect anonymity if the accusations continue to seem plausible but are impossible to prove/there remains lots of uncertainty.
  • I think de-anonymization, if it makes sense under some circumstances, should only be done after careful investigation, and never "in the heat of the movement." In conflicts that are fought publicly, it's very common for different sides to gain momentum temporarily but then lose it again, depending on who had the last word. 

Reasons for anonymity:

  • preventing retaliation (in case the accused is guilty, but doesn't know who is the accuser)
  • preventing bad reputation ("a magnet for trouble") of the victim
  • simply respecting the person's desire to remain anonymous, for whatever reason

Reasons against anonymity:

  • discouraging false accusations

Note that there are three possible outcomes to investigation: the accused is clearly guilty, the accused is clearly innocent, or we do not have enough data to determine either way. Note that the justice system is binary, and its "not guilty" verdict conflates the latter two options.

I am saying this because there seems to be an obvious answer: publish the accuser's name if the accused was clearly innocent. Which I approve of... but the problem is that the justice system often conflates "innocent" with "has a good lawyer and the other side cannot provide enough evidence". So in some legal situations, it is logically coherent to declare the accused not guilty and keep the accuser anonymous.

there seems to be an obvious answer: publish the accuser's name if the accused was clearly innocent.

What if, after all the evidence comes out, 'Alex' and Pat clearly both acted very badly, of approximately equivalent magnitude? In that case, Pat is not innocent, so your rule would say no revealing 'Alex's real name, but then Avery still clearly got serious benefit (the negative information is much more weakly tied to their real life identity) from posting first.