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Anonymity and Democracy: Absence as Presence in the Public Sphere


Although anonymity is a central feature of liberal democracies—not only in the secret ballot, but also in campaign funding, publishing political texts, masked protests, and graffiti—it has so far not been conceptually grounded in democratic theory. Rather, it is treated as a self-explanatory concept related to privacy. To overcome this omission, this article develops a complex understanding of anonymity in the context of democratic theory. Drawing upon the diverse literature on anonymity in political participation, it explains anonymity as a highly context-dependent identity performance expressing private sentiments in the public sphere. The contradictory character of its core elements—identity negation and identity creation—results in three sets of contradictory freedoms. Anonymity affords (a) inclusion and exclusion, (b) subversion and submission, and (c) honesty and deception. This contradictory character of anonymity's affordances illustrates the ambiguous role of anonymity in democracy.

Corresponding author
Hans Asenbaum is a PhD Candidate and Visiting Lecturer at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Westminster, 309 Regent Street, London W1B 2HW, United Kingdom (
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I am indebted to Graham Smith for relentless support, advice, and inspiring conversations. For helpful feedback, I would like to thank Matthew Fluck. I am also very grateful to John Dryzek, Selen Ercan, Nicole Curato, Simon Niemeyer, Lucy Parry, and everyone who participated in the seminar at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance, University of Canberra, and to Dorotheé de Nève and her team at the University of Giessen. Moreover, this article has benefitted from inspiring comments of three anonymous reviewers, which I am very grateful for.

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