The Implosion of Nikki Haley’s Social Media Crusade


Presidential candidate Nikki Haley did free speech a great service this week by making a nutty call for social media to be bleached clean of anonymity.

“Every person on social media should be verified, by their name. That’s, first of all, it’s a national security threat,” Haley said Tuesday on Fox News, because it can spread misinformation. Banning anonymous accounts would get “rid of the Russian bots, the Iranian bots and the Chinese bots,” she continued. On the Ruthless podcast that day, Haley reiterated her pitch: “They need to verify every single person on their outlet, and I want it by name.”

Haley earned immediate broadsides from two of her Republican opponents. Vivek Ramaswamy waved the free speech flag as he denounced her proposal as censorship. Ron DeSantis reminded her that the Federalist Papers were written anonymously. Journalists and activists unloaded with more of the same, including Glenn Greenwald, Charlie Kirk and Dana Loesch.

By Wednesday, Haley had softened her harsh proposal, saying, “I don’t mind anonymous American people having free speech; what I don’t like is anonymous Russians and Chinese and Iranians having free speech.”

Haley’s proposal crumpled under the most gentle scrutiny. In order to prove that you’re an American worthy of anonymous speech under her regime, wouldn’t you have to … identify yourself, thereby losing your anonymity? And that’s for starters. Would such a government-mandated scheme be legal? Probably not. Is the plague of anonymous misinformation somehow unique to the internet, requiring special rules for it? No. How practical would it be to identify every social media account by name? Not very. And if we said to hell with practicality and deployed the Haley plan, what would we lose?

Haley’s education must have forgone not only law but history. The right to anonymous speech goes back to the founding of our country when anonymous pamphleteers made their case for independence. Although not an absolute right, anonymity is bound tightly to the freedom of the press and has proven invaluable to the citizenry, especially the disenfranchised. Haley’s scheme would easily violate certain legal rights to privacy established by the courts (although it should be said that nothing bars private social media outlets, acting on their own, from instituting policies that require users to accurately identify themselves).

Setting aside all that, how would it work? Haley’s demand that social media companies verify usernames poses several questions. Would this be on the honor system? If so, then it would be useless as it would be easy to give a fake name or, as bars can already tell you, a fake ID. Would it be linked to driver’s licenses or passports? If so, you’d have to verify 1) that the driver’s license or passport is valid but also 2) that it was submitted by its owner. That would prove costly and time-consuming for both users and social media outlets and maybe even bankrupt them. If the site survived, would they turn their backs on international users, who might be too expensive to verify? Does Haley expect social media sites to use facial ID or other biometric data, like fingerprints, which pose monumental privacy problems?

There is no shortage of articles and books denouncing internet misinformation like QAnon and lesser sources for sowing confusion, causing damage and driving people nuts, so there’s no need to replicate those findings here. But nobody should pretend that anonymously generated misinformation is unique to the internet. It is a quandary that predates the web by centuries, perhaps millennia.

Anonymous accusations of witchcraft powered the Salem trials of the 1600s. Governments across the world have long depended on the power of anonymity to spread propaganda against their foes. The Soviets and the Russians have long poisoned the truth with their misinformation and disinformation. During the AIDS crisis, the Soviets anonymously planted a conspiracy theory that the virus had been engineered by U.S. Army researchers. The so-called Hitler diaries were packed with misinformation and written in the Fuhrer’s name by an anonymous writer. At the low and base end, there’s bathroom graffiti and word of mouth, often in the form of urban legends.

One primary reason misinformation exists, besides the fact that it can be persuasive where information isn’t, is that there is a demand for it. People want to believe in fantastic conspiracies like the Pizzagate hoax or that the Procter and Gamble corporate logo is a satanic image. At one point, the demand for entertaining misinformation was so great in America that the supermarket checkout lanes were filled with tabloids — the Weekly World News, the Star, the Globe, the National Examiner and the National Enquirer. Many of these publications have folded as the web has grown to sate the appetite for misinformation, especially the juiciest kind.

If it’s a given that anonymous misinformation spreads more quickly and widely on the internet than it did in the pre-internet era, it’s also true that correctives can be marshaled more quickly and dispersed more widely in that environment. This is no panacea, of course, but it counters Haley’s implied position that we are somehow helpless to counter anonymous misinformation unless we zipper hundreds of million mouths.

As a 2016 RAND Corp. paper on Russian misinformation noted, you can’t fight a firehose of falsehood with a squirt gun of truth. Misinformation has less of a chance of taking root in a culture if its people have been primed first with correct information, and correct information can’t surface and triumph without a lively debate. Misinformation — anonymous or otherwise — must be anticipated and confronted directly, the RANDites preach. Where people can’t be convinced that misinformation is misinformation, the paper’s authors argue it’s worth the effort to communicate how the misinformation machine works to reduce susceptibility next time.

If the Haley ID plan succeeded, what would we lose? Anonymity lends both courage and a measure of safety to speakers who might otherwise fear retaliation from those who are ruffled by raw speech. It protects you personally from getting fired by a boss or doxxed by an angry mob. It promotes the airing of controversial, unpopular speech and promotes debate that might otherwise be suppressed. And it encourages whistleblowing.

Instead of campaigning against anonymous speech, Haley should bow to her rivals Ramaswamy and DeSantis and endorse it.


This piece relied on Jeff Kosseff’s 2022 book The United States of Anonymous: How the First Amendment Shaped Online Speech. Send your anonymous speech to No new email alert subscriptions are being honored at this time. My Twitter feed and my Bluesky account crave their anonymity but must concede they are authored by me. My RSS feed believes in neither anonymous nor non-anonymous speech.

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