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Anonymity and democracy: Absence as presence in the public sphere

Hans Asenbaum, University of Westminster

Tue 28 February 2017

11:00am - 12:00pm

The Dryzek Room, Building 22, University of Canberra


While anonymity is central to liberal democracies, it has so far not been conceptually grounded in democratic theory and is often simply equated to privacy. To overcome this omission, a complex understanding of anonymity in the context of communicative democracy is developed. Anonymity is investigated in the literature on different modes of political participation: voting, campaign funding, textual discussions, and masked protesting. Through the observation of anonymity in these various participatory modes, anonymity is defined as highly context dependent identity performance based on the negation of certain aspects of the public coherent persona. The core of anonymity is thus constituted by two contradictory elements: identity creation through identity negation. This core contradiction results in three sets of both democratic and anti-democratic freedoms afforded by anonymity: (1) inclusion and exclusion, (2) subversion and submission, (3) honesty and deception. Contrary to its common interpretation, anonymity does not connote privacy, which constitutes a space separates from the public sphere. The three sets of contradictory freedoms of anonymity are all freedoms of expression and thus inherently communicative. Anonymity is thus situated at the interface between privacy and publicity; it enables absence as presence in the public sphere.

About the speaker

Hans Asenbaum started his PhD and teaching as external lecturer at the University of Vienna. Since 2013 he is involved in online teaching at the University of Hagen (Germany). Today he pursues his PhD project about the role of social identities and the potential of anonymity for democratic innovations on the internet at the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster with the Politics and International Relations Studentship.

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