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.