The Importance of Online Anonymity

The topic of people who post under pseudonyms, or as “Anonymous” or “Guest,” online continues to cause widespread debates in certain social circles and online communities.

The Arguments Against Online Anonymity

Cyberbullying is a major issue in a lot of people’s lives, and in some cases can effect people even if they are not active online. The suicide of Phoebe Prince due to online taunting drew attention to the issue a few years ago and similar incidents continue to crop up alarmingly frequently. The statistics around cyberbullying are concerning, with 20% of students worldwide reporting having experienced cyberbullying in their lifetimes. There is even a cyberbullying research center dedicated to compiling data necessary to analyse trends associated with online bullying, which is gaining more and more importance in a world where a strong correlation is beginning to form between teen suicide and cyberbullying.

Recently, a young woman called Anita Sarkeesian undertook an ambitious project to explore and expose gender stereotypes in video games. Somewhat predictably, especially since it was the teenage male dominated gaming community, her endeavor has attracted a maelstorm of online hate.

In a similar instance of anonymity being abused, the Ugandan newspaper, Rolling Stone, published the names, faces, and addresses of homosexuals in order for the community to be alerted to their whereabouts. The Ugandan anti-homosexuality bill [pdf] prohibits and penalises all non-heterosexual acts with imprisonment and, potentially, capital punishment. Of course the social treatment of homosexuals is severe enough for Ugandan homosexuals to live very secretive lives out of fear of retribution.

The information the paper provides defending why homosexuality is bad references anonymous sources, which include an unnamed psychologist, a “top intelligence chief”, “a high-ranking source,” and “a senior regional intelligence officer”. The article mentions that new evidence had come to light yet no credible evidence was actually presented. Instead, readers were bombarded with outlandish conspiracy theories, most notably to do with the July bombings in Kampala which were said to have been conducted by Al-Shabaab-affiliated “bloodthirsty homosexual” terrorists.

In a bizarre break away from deductive reasoning, the writers appear to be arguing that:

1. All gay people are bad

2. The Kampala terrorists are bad

3. Therefore, the terrorists are gay

 The approval and publishing of articles such as this is protected by the same rule which makes it possible for journalists not to have to reveal their anonymous sources in other parts of the world. It makes it very hard to verify and therefore discredit the information presented.

A Western example of the same abuse of this anonymous source citing is the issue of Mike Daisey’s story about visiting Foxconn. It was a massively popular story about the human rights abuses in Apple factories in China, which, in an interesting twist, turned out to be largely falsified. A retraction issued by the radio show This American Life, which was one of many channels which offered a platform to the story, is a great example of good investigative journalism and perhaps a suitable example of the importance of an editor or broadcaster verifying journalistic sources.

The Arguments for Online Anonymity

The arguments in favour of online anonymity far outweigh any arguments I have found against it so far. First of all, without the option at participate online anonymously you are not eliminating cyberbullying. In fact, you are barely scratching the surface in the herculean task of eradicating it. Facebook is one of the leading platforms when it comes to cyberbullying and it prides itself in ensuring that as many of its users as possible are subscribed to Facebook with their real names. Sure, there are ways to navigate this since all you need is a valid email address, but teenagers are often bullied online by their student peers who share their profiles with hundreds of other students at the same school, making anonymity quite difficult to achieve regardless of whether or not they adopt a pseudonym.

Removing anonymity would make important activist movements virtually impossible. The community rallying necessary for the Tahrir Square protests in Egypt would have been easily squashed by government and military intervention. Revolutionary works written under pseudonyms would never have been published, such as the Federalist Papers. The authors, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, wrote in favour of the ratification of the US Constitution under the pseudonym “Publius”.

The astronomer Copernicus initially outlined his seminal work on heliocentric theory in a short, untitled, anonymous manuscript referred to as Commentariolus. This was a decidedly dangerous proposition at the time. Even before the 1543 publication of the final version, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres), rumours about its central thesis had begun to circulate. Martin Luther is quoted as saying in 1539:

People gave ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmanent, and the sun and the moon … This fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred Scripture tells us (Joshua 10:13) that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth.

A work of speculative natural history and philosophy called Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation was published anonymously in England in 1844.

Erewhon: or, Over the Range is a novel published anonymously by Samuel Butler in 1872, which even today stirs scientists and philosophers to seriously debate the possibility of technology developing a kind of consciousness, self-awareness, and organic interaction, potentially exceeding the interactions of human beings.

Anonymity plays an important role in giving authors and thinkers the confidence and freedom to disseminate ideas that are considered revolutionary at the time. It’s ideas such as these which have shaped our society and today’s ways of thinking, from political theory to scientific methodology. Without the cloak of anonymity to fall back on many of these astronomers, scientists, and philosophers would have run the risk of being persecuted for spreading dangerous and contrarian ideas.

In modern society, anonymity should not be devalued. It gives people the ability to seek out and engage with online communities to do with sexual abuse, minority issues, harassment etc. It allows you to ask technical questions that you might not want to admit to not knowing. Citizens are capable of reporting illegal activities without fear of intimidation from the criminals or social ostracisation from peers. such anonymous hotlines for crime prevention also extend to suicide victims and people from abusive families. Without this anonymity the people involved could be subjected to public ridicule, censure, physical injury, loss of employment or status, or even legal action. Not being allowed to participate in these communities anonymously, or being at risk of having your identity revealed, would be like having the government tell you you’re not allowed to clear your browser history or disable cookies. You start to tiptoe around the possibility of a totalitarian regime.

Even Britain’s potential new libel law could be a step in the wrong direction. The UK House of Commons is currently set to debate a new law which will give plaintiffs who can show they have suffered serious harm to their reputations the ability to request that service providers reveal the identities of anonymous online posters guilty of posting libelous or defamatory speech. That’s all fair and well, but how do you strictly define “defamatory” language? Does calling someone a noob online count? What about the Xbox Live community, which is rife with juvenile slander? How do you define hate speech? The whole debate enters very murky linguistic and legal waters.

The long-standing precedents for anonymity in publishing are important for any journalist wishing to report on things such as the Syrian civil war, Rwandan genocide, or even sensitive political issues such as the Truth & Reconciliation Commission implemented in South Africa after the abolition of Apartheid. That a handful of people, such as the journalist who fabricated the Apple story, abuse this right is unfortunate, but it makes little sense to revoke the right to anonymity from all reporters as a result of this. Much more good has come from allowing journalists this right than harm has been done.

GayUganda is a blog run by an anonymous blogger in Uganda who fights for the rights of the LGBTI community. Without the right to blog anonymously they would no doubt face social and political persecution by the Ugandan government, which would also result in an important channel to other countries regarding these human rights abuses being shut off.

As for trolling in forums, not all anonymous posting is bad. We get stupid people commenting with their real names on news articles, and we get decent people commenting anonymously. The bottom two posts were side-by-side regarding the Ugandan anti-homosexuality bill.

The role of herd immunity is worth considering in this instance. Yes, by allowing anonymity the levels of idiocy and bullying online are at elevated levels, and this can in a handful of instances result in physical harm and emotional suffering to the people involved. However, the majority of the cases in which anonymity is used are so important and positive that it makes it dangerous and counter-intuitive to assume that all anonymity is bad. The good outweighs the bad, making the bad an unavoidable necessity for the good of the whole.

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  1. #1 by Daz on June 28, 2012 - 00:57

    The role of herd immunity is worth considering in this instance. Yes, by allowing anonymity the levels of idiocy and bullying online are at elevated levels

    This is anecdotal, but when the nasty really starts flying, I haven’t ever spotted any real difference in numbers between those who bully anonymously and those who use real names. I wonder if the whole ‘anonymity provides cover’ thing might be something of a myth.

    To return your compliment: great blog. I’ve added you to my follows.

  2. #2 by Reggie on September 2, 2012 - 10:26

    What about semi-anonymity? There are those folks, like myself, who wish to be hidden from prying eyes of coworkers, employers, and the like while cultivating a “known” identity online. Not that my online identity is well known, but I treat it with the same care I do my real life identity.

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