Mar 4, 2010

On Public Figures, Online Presences, and Privacy Choices

When I started working as a journalist about seven years ago I entered the field with little thought about protecting my identity and privacy. There were two aims that motivated me - getting published and getting paid - and the thought that my writing might piss off people did not enter into my thinking.

I also did not consider that some of these angry people might be unstable or violent.

I wear an additional hat these days, which is that of an academic researcher and teacher. Folks in academia often choose to work from within the safe confines of a university setting, and while I used to wonder why so few academics engage in more public forums, these days I better understand this sort of decision.

What kind of people willingly subject themselves to the personal attacks and vitriolic idiocy that sometimes accompanies work outside the university?

Take for example the case of University of Toledo professors Dr. David Black and Dr. Oleg Smirnov, whose academic reputations were attacked by city unions via public billboards and in print before the professors fought back and successfully forced the unions to remove the defamatory signs. Hired by the city to perform revenue projections, the professors were subjected to an onslaught of politically motivated and baseless attacks before deciding to hire lawyers to end the harassment and libel.

As a semi-public figure I have found myself on the receiving end of all sorts of harassment and threats by lunatics who happened to disagree with something I have written as a journalist or as a blogger. Neo-Nazis, union goons, and political zealots are just the tip of the metaphorical iceberg of angry idiots who think that I am some sort of enemy because my views on a given topic might disagree with theirs - even on a topic as innocuous as Franke sinks - and who will engage in cyber-terror and real-world harassment to silence you.

At times I have toyed with returning to a completely private life. By shutting down this blog, erasing public Internet profiles, and changing my telephone number I could in a matter of months eliminate the threat of running into the rare-but-real deadly stalker types who occasionally take their anger to the level of murder. This may have been the case with the nutjob who was arrested yesterday after threatening to murder the family of Dr. Drew Pinsky.

Even participating on local message boards and blogs can be a source of harassment to people like me who have the audacity (or naïveté) to write under their own names. On one local board several anonymous members posted all sorts of vile nonsense simply because my take on a single issue happened to disagree with theirs. One poster threatened to publish my private information that he dug up, while another accused me of brainwashing my university students because one of them happened to stick up for me in an off-topic accusation that I am some sort of Marxist educator who is poisoning the minds of the youth of America.

Mind you: I am a pro-Second Amendment, low taxes type of person, sort of a blend between a fiscal conservative and social moderate. God forbid I should happen to be a public person who posts political sentiments farther to the political left.

So to those of you contemplating a more public persona or an online presence using your real name: there are plenty of loons and thugs who will harass and torment you. Some of these contemptible people will also cross over to the real world and harass you in your home, at your place of employment, or even dupe government agencies into investigating you.

Be forewarned.


juda@israel said...

* all sorts of harassment and threats*- yes and i am sure you knew you gonna have it from the very beginning. i was semi-public figure working as model, then i moved to israel and after few publications in local magazines i started to get black mails and other bullshit like this that i was not ready for. but you do much more important thing- you express tolerant, smart, intelligent opinion about situation in the world, so such things dont have to prevent you from writing)))

Mad Jack said...

Yeah Mike, what she said.

From Dr. Drew: Dr. Drew also says Pearson believes Dr. Drew has placed a tracking device in his genitals.

Any number of pithy comments come to mind, but I will assert my self-control and save your some suffering. Tell me, are the mental midgets from SB on your case again?

I was enjoying a writer's block until I read your post, then I became inspired (see the link here).

historymike said...


Thanks for the kind words - when I am down about the latest round of virtual or real world abuse, it always helps to balance the insanity with thoughtful comments. Thank you.

historymike said...


No, the SB loons are behaving (at least this week). I have been spending less time on that site simply because any disagreements with some of that site's posters turn into situations that border on the problematic. For some reason that particular site has been attracting some unstable people from all sides of the political spectrum.

Today's post had more to do with a pair of emails that I will not dignify by responding to in public. Nothing particularly criminal or insane, but they caught me on a day when I was already bummed.

Anonymous said...

This is why I don't use my real name or any identifying info on the local sites. Scary to think that someone with too much time on his/her hands could track you down and stalk you!

Its unfortunate, because I'm sure there are people who I'd enjoy meeting. But its just not worth the risk!

Charlie said...

Dr. Brooks.

Don't change a thing you have many more supporters than nut jobs who frequent your blog.

As someone who is currently affected by a death threat, I have recently questioned the amount of personal information I and others have readily available on the web. While my identity is not as open as yours on your site, anyone that is half savvy can find me.

I refuse to completely change the way I do things, and what I write about, but it has caused me to question privacy issues and what we are giving up to live in such an open society.

historymike said...


Thanks for the advice and reminder, and sorry to hear about your own dealings with the mentally unstable types for whom an Internet blog post or op-ed article is an invitation to violence.

Charlie said...

Actually I wish I had written something that inspired someone that much. This is more of a lunatic who thinks I was having relations with his wife. Completely unfounded. One woman is always more than enough.