The Problem of Online Anonymity
I wrote this post back in March, Andrew Sullivan linked to it, and a lot of people read and commented on what I’d written. Most of the comments argued against a straw man version of my argument, in which I was some sort of totalitarian internet policeman who wanted to enforce an end to anonymous or pseudonymous internet usage.
The issue has come back with a vengeance in the past thirty-six hours, as a particularly influential and unpleasant anonymous Redditor named Violentacrez — who is perhaps now most famous for running several Subreddits devoted to pictures of unsuspecting young women, taken without their knowledge or consent — was unmasked as mild-mannered Michael Brutsch.
With that in mind, I thought I’d revisit the post I wrote on online anonymity and the ways in which it is generally abused:
In principle, I don’t have any problem at all with people who write anonymously or pseudonymously. But in practice I find it incredibly troubling.
It’s clear that, for some, this is really the only way to express oneself or to publish critical points of view. There are bloggers who have a credible fear of persecution based on identity, religious belief, or political opinion. For them, the ability to publish anonymously is incredibly important. And it’s important for us too, as we wouldn’t be able to hear their voices otherwise. That’s why I allow anonymous comments and questions on my blog.
But when people write anonymously or pseudonymously online, they must recognize that they face a real challenge.
In our daily lives, we filter the things we say for all sorts of reasons: We don’t want to hurt someone else’s feelings; we don’t want people to think badly of us; we feel, deep down, that some words are out of bounds. But online, we seem to feel sometimes like we don’t need to do that filtering … especially if no one knows who we are.
There’s something freeing, to be sure, about being able to say anything you want. You can engage in unfounded name-calling, or intentionally hurt someone’s feelings, or just generally behave like a twelve year old. And no one will know it’s you.
And that’s why I don’t read many blogs that are written by people who prefer to remain anonymous or who write under pseudonyms when there isn’t really any reason for them to do so. In fact, I don’t think there are any blogs I read on a daily basis whose authors are anonymous. The anonymous or pseudonymous blogs are often just filled with cruelty, name-calling, and bad arguments. Indeed, there are a great many people who choose to write under an assumed name because they want to harass or offend others. These people would never say these things to someone else’s face because they know and fear the consequences; instead, they hide behind their anonymity to do it (hoping, I guess, that their IP address is somehow being hidden, though it generally is not). This is cowardice, plain and simple.
It’s also why I write under my own name. First of all, it’s a privilege to be free to publish my opinions and arguments with my name on them. But also, it’s helpful to me to keep in mind that my name is going to be attached to the things that I put online for others to read. This often leads me to spend more time on my posts or comments rather than simply dashing them off and moving on to the next thing. It’s why I try to write out arguments rather than simply quoting someone and writing “LOL” or “This is stupid.” And, finally, it’s why I try to get to know the people who repeatedly take the time to comment on my blog in thoughtful ways, even if they do so anonymously. Occasionally, these people choose to remain anonymous, but most of the time we continue our conversations on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+ (where they write under their own names).
There’s certainly something important about the option of anonymity so you’ll never read an argument entirely against it from me. But it can also be a weapon and the people who use it to bully others are threatening to silence those who require anonymity in order to speak at all by encouraging the rest of us to generally ignore anonymous or pseudonymous authors.
“As moderators, we feel that this type of behavior is completely intolerable,” [Reddit moderators] wrote. “We volunteer our time on Reddit to make it a better place for the users, and should not be harassed and threatened for that. We should all be afraid of the threat of having our personal information investigated and spread around the internet if someone disagrees with you.”
The idea that someone is free to post whatever noxious things he might like online is pretty straightforward (though, for me, creepy photos of unsuspecting women is questionable at best). But that it’s impermissible for someone to find out his identity and make it public seems patently ridiculous.
As Amanda Marcotte nicely pointed out:
If women have to be in your porn whether they like it or not, it seems only fair that your name should be out in public, whether you like it or not. For everyone who feels bad for violentacrez and worries about how humiliated he’ll be if people find out, I beg you to start extending that sympathy instead to the women who have pervy pictures of them being traded online without their consent.
It continues to fascinate me that so many people think free speech means consequence-free speech, that somehow having the right to speak without government interference has morphed into the notion that no one can call you out for being a jerk.
You want to insult people or bully them or post pictures of unsuspecting women online … I suppose you get to go right ahead and do it. Anonymity, as I’ve argued above, certainly helps … since most people who do this sort of thing don’t want their friends and family to know what they’re doing online and they feel much more free to be awful to other people when they think no one can figure out it’s them. But when their secret identities are discovered and made public, it’s a bit hard to shout “Free Speech!” because, after all, the people who’ve exposed them are simply exercising their right to write whatever it is they’d like to write.
In short, if you want to be a famous anonymous troll, go right ahead; the danger is that your fame for being absolutely awful to people might encourage someone to take a closer look at who you really are.