Anonymity and Democracy: Absence as Presence in the Public Sphere
by Hans Asenbaum, University of Westminster
Although anonymity is a central feature of liberal democracies, as evident in the secret ballot, democratic theory is surprisingly quiet about anonymity. When mentioned at all, it is treated as a self-explanatory concept related to privacy. In this article, I develop a complex understanding of anonymity rooted in democratic theory. The article brings together insights from empirical work on various forms of anonymous participation like voting, campaign funding, publishing political pamphlets, online discussions, masked protests, and graffiti. Drawing upon these examples, I explain anonymity as a highly context-dependent identity performance expressing private sentiments in the public sphere. Rather than solely associating anonymity with privacy, it needs to be understood as a public performative act.
This reconfiguration of public and private through anonymity also points to its inherently contradictory character. Anonymity’s core elements—identity negation and identity creation—contribute to three sets of contradictory freedoms. Anonymity affords inclusion and exclusion, subversion and submission, and honesty and deception. Finally, the article discusses the importance of the context, in which anonymous participation takes place and shows how power structures influence the effects of anonymity. The contradictory character of anonymity’s affordances illustrates the ambiguous role of anonymity in democracy.