Publicism: Breaking the chains of press censorship and surveillance


The 2017 World Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters without Border (RSF), shows that media freedom is increasingly threatened not only in authoritarian regimes but also in democratic countries. For example, the Netherlands (5th) has dropped three places in this year’s index. New Zealand (13th) has fallen eight. Croatia (74th) has fallen eleven.

Below is a visual overview of the level of press freedom worldwide since 2013. The colour categories are assigned as follows: good (white), fairly good (yellow), problematic (orange), bad (red) and very bad (black).

Graph 1. Color changes in the Index world map since 2013. Adapted from Reporters without Borders (RSF), 2017, Retrieved from

As shown in Graph 1, respect for media freedom has declined over the years. More strikingly, according to RSF (2017), the scale and the nature of the violation against media actors has escalated due to:

  • legislation that allows surveillance on journalists and news organisations
  • anti-media rhetoric and other political pressure
  • financial pressure and loss of funding

This alarming erosion of media freedom urges a revolution to break the chains of press censorship and surveillance.


Concerned and passionate about press freedom, Dutch startup Publicism is developing a platform in which citizens and journalists can store and publish their content without fear of repercussion. Publicism makes use of blockchain technology to allow for a fully decentralized network that is technically impossible to hack, shut down, or censor (Publicism, 2016).

Publicism (2016) explains, “a blockchain is a distributed database. The structure makes it possible to create a digital ledger of transactions, that is shared among a network of computers, without the need for one central server or authority” (p. 3). Blockchain is argued to be an emergent technology which has the capacity to disrupt the traditional business models and even the current “big disrupters”, e.g. banks, Uber, Airbnb, by cutting out the middleman who charges the service fee for coordinating transactions (Tapscott & Tapscott, 2016).

This video explains briefly the motivation of building Publicism and how the technology works.

Blockchain’s most famous application currently is Bitcoin and cryptocurrency. Less known to the public are: self-executing contracts which set and ensure fulfillment of contract terms automatically; the Enigma system (developed by the MIT-team) which encrypts data and allows sharing them without revealing the actual data to any third party nor the computations running it; Zcash which offers transactions while hiding the content of transactions (including the sender, recipient, and value of transaction) (Publicism, 2016).

Publicism is working with some international research teams to integrate these solutions and other technologies, such as the software TOR (The Onion Router), which conceals its users’ IP addresses and their online activities from surveillance and traffic analysis. The desired result is a platform in which journalists can publish their articles, collaborate with each other, and receive fair payment for their work, all in anonymity or safe pseudonymity (Publicism, 2016).

Anonymity is stated to be the prime focus of Publicism since they believe safety for journalists is fundamental to free press (Publicism, 2016). Indeed, anonymity is crucial to protect journalists in countries where governments persecute and imprison journalists for publishing content deemed questionable by the government.

However, one could question to what extent readers trust the content posted by an anonymous author. Would it be possible to hold journalists accountable for what they write when their real identities are hidden? These are practical questions in the specific context of Publicism. The answers could be found when exploring the issue of anonymity in the academic debate. Since anonymity is an issue with broad applications, implications and impact on society, I would limit my discussion to anonymity used by journalists and its impact on digital journalism.


First of all, what is anonymity? And what is pseudonymity?

Professor Nissenbaum (1999) contributes one of the most important understandings of anonymity as “the possibility of acting or participating while remaining out of reach, remaining unreachable”, and emphasizes that “this unreachability is precisely what is at stake in anonymity” (p. 142). This concept of anonymity implies the genuine value of anonymity, the desired effect of remaining unnamed.

Pseudonymity is slightly different from anonymity. Pseudonymity means one writing under a consistent, but disguised, name. Since the purpose of anonymity and pseudonymity is to hide the real identity of authors, I will address both terms as “anonymity” for the rest of this post.

Anonymity, is it good or bad?

It is perhaps oversimplifying the anonymity issue by questioning whether it is good or bad. Instead, one should examine arguments in favor or against anonymity to understand its dilemma.

Scholars have discussed rationales which support the use of (full or partially) anonymity. The list is long but here I just highlight the arguments that I find relevant to the digital journalism context:

1. To avoid persecution and reprisal (Marx, 1999; Jurrat, 2011)
Those who investigate and write about public issues such as corruption, law violations, politics, human rights and other abuses may find it indispensable to represent themselves with pseudonyms.

Professional and citizen journalists in repressed countries are most vulnerable to surveillance, persecution and violence. Within six months from February to August 2015, four Bangladeshi bloggers were brutally murdered following their criticism on religious extremism (CPJ, 2015).

Such killing and other kinds of harassment could be prevented if the authors’ real identities are hidden. Thus, Endalkachew Chala, a leading blogger in Ethiopia, remarked “encryption is a lifeblood for freedom of expression” (cited in CPJ, 2015, p. 9). Chala’s reflection supports the importance of a platform like Publicism in which encryption is the core and and makes it resistant to malicious actors.

2. To contract for privacy (Froomkin 1999)
This is perhaps the most prominent justification for namelessness in the digital age. Powerful digital conglomerates such as Google, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft are collecting our data and online activities at just about every turn of our lives through various techniques (Tapscott & Tapscott, 2016). Sometimes they even require real identifications that may undermine users’ privacy and the autonomy of the individuals.

Laurie Penny, a contributing editor of the New Statesman magazine, was banned from Facebook for using a pseudonym (Khomami, 2015)

Laurie Penny’s tweet in response to Facebook kick-off

Most people, including journalists, lack the knowledge and skills to keep their personal information private in the computerized world. Even remaining unnamed or using pseudonyms is no longer sufficient because small bits of information about us can be used to trace back to our identities, and the dimensions of our identities are endless (Nissenbaum, 1999).

This is perhaps why a platform like Publicism is necessary to shield the identity of journalists from all the tracking and surveillance systems.

3. Traditional expectation (Marx, 1999; Weicher, 1999)
Anonymity has been traditionally used in journalism for such a long time that it has become a traditional expectation in this profession (Schleyer, 1978).

Famous examples of pseudonymous and anonymous published opinions can be found among distinguished political leaders such as Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay, John Dickinson, and many others (Schleyer, 1978).

The influence of new found America’s political leaders may have contributed to the establishment of anonymity as a way to encourage press freedom as guaranteed by the First Amendment in the US Constitution (Weicher 1999).

4. To enhance the quality of speech and debate (Froomkin,1999)
An anonymous writing would give no hint of the writer’s background, i.e. age, sex, race, and nationality; thus, relieving the writer of prejudice and stereotyping, and also encouraging discussions that solely concentrate on the merits of the content (Froomkin, 1999).

Anonymity also facilitates the participation in public discourse of those who might have otherwise been subject to hostile and biased comments, and that in turn improves the quality of the debate by having more diverse perspectives.

Anonymity vs Trust and Accountability

Having mentioned why anonymity is used and is necessary in digital journalism, we should not neglect its potential negative implications and consequences. The most popular and relevant rationales are: anonymity could be misused as cloak for underlying self-interest (Froomkin, 1999); it undermines the credibility of an article and the accountability in journalism (Marx, 1999; Weicher 2006)

While anonymity encourages audience to focus on the content rather than the writer’s background and motivation, it may also allow writers to bring propaganda into public discussion and make it difficult for readers to perceive the bias or self interest underlying a writing (Froomkin, 1999).

This potential effect, however, could be prevented by a productive and impartial vetting system. Unfortunately, Publicism does not mention the review process in any of their publications. In my email exchange with the Publicism team, they said that they are in the final stage of finishing their prototype. Therefore, we could expect to learn more about their review regulations and process in the near future.

On the other hand, a similar project called DNN (Decentralize News Network) explained in great detail about their community-based review system because “the review process is one of the most important aspects of the platform” (Singh & Taylor, 2017, p. 31). They even make sure that reviewers are unaware of each other’s identity in order to prevent reviewer collusion (Singh & Taylor, 2017). The DNN’s review process is argued to help eliminate blatantly false or biased coverage, and therefore guarantee the credibility of articles being published.

A genuine anonymity implies both the positive value in protecting journalists as well as the risk inherent in allowing individuals to write without any traceability.

Genuine anonymity by journalists is, as of this writing, not technically possible on traditional print media, online newspapers and magazines, social networks, and blogging. It is also not ethically encouraged for the sake of accountability and credibility of journalism. According to Marshall McLuhan, “the medium is the message”. Such an encrypted platform like Publicism would sends a message that “genuine anonymity should be allowed and supported for sake of press freedom”.


Committee to protect journalists (2015). Annual Report 2015. Retrieved from

Froomkin, A. M. (1999). Legal Issues in Anonymity and Pseudonymity, The Information Society, 15(2), 113-127, doi: 10.1080/019722499128574

Jurrat, N. (2011). Mapping Digital Media: Citizen Journalism and the Internet. Retrieved from

Khomami, N. (2015, June 24). Journalist Laurie Penny banned from Facebook for using pseudonym. The Guardian. Retrieved from

Marx, G. T. (1999). What’s in a Name? Some Reflections on the Sociology of Anonymity. The Information Society, 15(2), 99-112. doi: 10.1080/019722499128565

McLuhan, M. (1964). The Medium is the Message. In M. G. Durham & D.M Kellner, Media and Cultural Studies: Keywords (pp. 107 – 117). Blackwell Publishing Ltd

Nissenbaum. H (1999). The Meaning of Anonymity in an Information Age. The Information Society, 15(2), 141-144. doi: 10.1080/019722499128592

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Schleyer, R. J. (1978). Right to anonymity in jeopardy: An analysis of the history of debate surrounding governmental subpoenas of the press. (Thesis). Available from Theses, Dissertations, Professional Papers. Paper 5224.

Singh, S., & Taylor, D. (2017). Decentralized News Network White paper. Retrieved from

Tapscott, D., & Tapscott, A. (2016). Blockchain revolution, New York, Penguin Random House LLC

Weicher, M. (2006). [Name withheld]: Anonymity and its implications. Proceedings of the Association for Information Science and Technology, 43(1), 1-11. doi: 0.1002/meet.1450430189

Review “Conceptualising forums and blogs as public sphere” by Thomas Poell (2009)

Here is my short summary and reflection on Poell, T. (2009). Conceptualizing forums and blogs as public spheres. In Digital Material: Tracing New Media in Everyday Life and Technology, edited by van den Boomen, M., Lammes, S., Lehmann, A.-S., Raessens, J., Schäfer, M. T. 239-251. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press. Written on 23 March 2017.

The article analyses online discussions on forums and blogs, in the aftermath of the assassination of the controversial Dutch film director Theo van Gogh by the young Dutch Moroccan Mohammed B. to evaluate whether and how the public sphere and the multiple alternative or counter-public spheres theories can be used to assess the contribution of forums and blogs to public debate. In this essay, I will summarize the core arguments of the article and compare them with other research findings and scholars’ arguments to explain the role of blogs and forums in constituting public sphere or multiple public spheres.

In the first three days after the assassination, research was done on 4 Internet forums: Pim Fortuyn Forum, Indymedia, FOK!forum!, and Marokko Community, which cover different areas of the cultural and political landscape. Poell’s analysis (2009) shows that the blog posts and forum discussions were dominated by emotional or offensive posts and far from critical debate. Many of the forum comments were irrelevant from the main threads and very few participants made comments from multi-perspectives. However, discussions on any means of communication are not always critical and courteous. An analysis of political party discussion lists in the Netherlands conducted by Hagemann (cited in Dahlgren 2005) showed that even public debate between politicians was typically lack of supporting arguments. Nevertheless, there are several reasons why harsh language seems to be common on the Internet. First, people can make comment with relatively anonymity; for example, forum participants can make contributions under a nickname. The online anonymity certainly helps to foster discussion where everyone is relatively equal regardless of their social or economical status. However, it also means that they are not accountable for their speech. Second, people find it easier to antagonize distant abstract targets.

Even though there were a few critical rational arguments made on Indymedia and Marokko Community, they still do not meet the ideal of rational-critical discourse, which is one of the criteria of the public sphere. However, they indicate that this ideal discourse is possible on the Internet under specific conditions, for example employing strict forum management to facilitate open, honest, and respectful discussions (Poell 2009). A comparative study of local online participation in Estonia and Norway, conducted by Reinsalu & Winsvold (2008), also shows that moderation in discussion forums impact on the level of participation.

In addition to the emotional and irreverent posts that characterize these forums, Poell (2009) found that only a small number of forum members engaged in the discussions. Furthermore, the discussions investigated in the article were ‘homogenous regarding ideology’ and ‘far from inclusive’ (Poell 2009, p. 242) FOK!forum! and Marokko Community even made xenophobic and racist statements. The discussions justified some scholars’ warnings that the Internet generates fragmentation, facilitates group polarization, which may lead to isolated groups of extreme views and ignorance (Papacharissi 2002, Caiani & Parenti 2011, Sunstein 2009). One of the conditions of public sphere is ideal-role taking in which contrary or conflicting positions respectfully listen to and challenge each other (Habermas cited in Dahlberg 2001). The fragmented discourse on the Internet, therefore, undermines public sphere rather than reinforcing it.

However, this is not to say that forum discussions do not have positive impact on public debate. According to Papacharissi (2002), online discussions expand participants’ horizons by challenging contrary viewpoints and cultural stereotypes. A comparative study conducted be Tsaliki (cited in Dahlgren 2005) shows a positive result of public deliberation on forums in Greece, the Netherlands, and Britain.

For all the findings above, it is concluded that Internet forums seem to be not an expansion of the Habermasian public sphere. Poell (2009) arrived at a similar conclusion regard to web blogs and argued that blogs also seem unlikely to be ideal platforms for the development of multiple public spheres but individual expression.

Furthermore, most blogs are very focused; individual’s blogs cannot cover large items of news like the mainstream media and each might choose different niche. Another problem with blogosphere is that not all voices are equally heard. One needs certain technical skills and time commitment to set up and maintain a blog. Yet, there is no guarantee that their blogs will have large readership. They needs to have established reputation in the real world or get trackback links from already prominent bloggers (O’Baoill 2004). Therefore, it is argued that blogosphere tends to benefit a group of elite bloggers who might already in power (Farrel and Drezne 2008; Shirky 2009; Hindman 2008).

On the other hand, forums seem to facilitate the expression of different group interests and opinions better, but the facts that none of the investigated forums had influence on the larger debate in the mass media and that the debate on these forums were dominated by hateful messages led to the conclusion that forums also fail to meet the criteria of multiple alternative public spheres. Consequently, rather than holding on to these concepts, which inevitably leads us to dismiss the vast majority of online communication, we should do further research on how online discussions transforms society and political process.

A normative condition of public sphere which Poell (2009) neglected to mention is the autonomy of blogs and forums from state and economic power. Most forums and blogs were operating independently from political parties and corporates. Even the producers of Geentijl, which is a blog partly owned by the newspaper De Telegraaf, do not consider themselves as mass media and are not influenced by the authority of the Netherlands Press Council (Pleijter, Hermans, & Vergeer, p. 244). We can thus conclude that these blogs and forums were not corrupted by economic or political influence. An argument worth to explore, however, is that as any means of communication, online public debate will essentially become corrupted by commercialism (Papacharissi 2002).

Poell (2009) found no evidence of the ability of forum and blogs to transform public debate into joint actions or lasting social change in the context of Theo Van Gogh’s assassination. However, it would be precipitate if we conclude that these platforms have little social and political impact. In fact, they are particularly significant to the public sphere in totalitarian nations. In the once-military-rule-country, Burmese bloggers played the key role in revealing the bloody crackdown of Burma government on the peaceful protests in 2007 (Drash 2007). Their posts were shared by bloggers around the world and were one of the main sources for international mass media coverage while foreign journalists had limited access to Burma. They also stirred public discourse by questioning military dictatorship (Ko 2007). These blog entries generated huge discussion and usually received many comments, which were up to over 100 at once. The analysis of Burmese blogging on the crackdown shows that the online tools offer opportunities to participate in political debate for people whose freedom of speech is suppressed in the offline environments.

Considering the ability to generate public debate of blogs and forums, the possibility of resolving political problems as well as their limited reflexivity, the dominance of certain individuals and groups, the risk of group polarization, we thus conclude that forums and blogs may partly constitute public sphere or multiple public sphere. However, to fully understand the role of blogs and forums in public debate, we need to make comparative study of online discussions in contrary context, for instance in democratic and suppressive countries. Does the fact that there are a variety of options for political participation and public debate in face-to-face environments in democratic countries lead to the low level of public deliberation on the Internet? Do people in democratic countries turn to free-press mass media and their long-established public arenas more than online arenas?


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