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In a pair of articles for the New York Times, Michael Luo delves into the role that anonymous donors are playing in the 2010 elections. Oddly, given his subject matter, he doesn't address the ways in which anonymity conditions what we are willing to say and how we say it.

Anyone who has glanced at a comment thread in the last ten years knows that anonymity and vitriol are intimately linked. Anonymous speakers are insulated from the consequences of their words, and that disconnect inevitably leads to harsher speech. Things we wouldn't say to a stranger on the street are happily tossed around in chat rooms and on forums.

That occurs because anonymity means less accountability: speech by unknown speakers can't rebound to their detriment, though it can damage both the target and the means through which that message was conveyed. That, in turn, incentivizes nastier messages conveyed through disposable conduits. In internet lingo, a flame war started by someone with an anonymous or misleading handle can damage its target, and the reputation of the forum as a whole long before it hurts the author.

These habits have their analogues in our politics. The astonishing growth and success (h/t CRP) of right-wing outside groups this cycle is about damaging Democrats through what are ultimately expendable conduits. Speaking through the ads aired by these organizations, GOP donors are able to elide not one, but two questions: who are you, and what does this ad mean if your guy wins?

Anonymity is the guarantor of security in both cases. It ensures the first question goes unanswered, and prevents the press from doing much more than guesswork when it comes to the second. When a harsh ad debuts, the donor needn't worry about reporters asking them whether they endorse the content. Any politician who benefits from the ad has enough room to distance himself from its content, during the campaign and afterward.

In short, the GOP filibuster of the DISCLOSE Act didn't just enable unlimited spending by anonymous donors. These groups–if they or their equivalents persist after election day–will slowly lead us down the path toward politics-as-flame-war.

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