How do you behave when no one’s watching you? All of us would be able to recall a classroom scene from our childhood. While the teacher would be busy writing something on the board, someone would throw a paper plane at the board. The livid teacher would turn back and ask who did that and the class would remain silent. Similarly, in a crowded auditorium, sometimes someone shouts a sarcastic remark and the people on stage have no idea who disturbed the peace.
Reasons for being anonymous
That is more or less how anonymity works on social media. The most common type of anonymity involves the use of a pseudonym, a fake photo or the lack of one, and nothing specific in the bio. The opposite of this is when someone uses their actual first name and last name, provides their designation and company name, and mentions their interests. In such cases, anyone can Google that combination to identify that real person on, say, LinkedIn.
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Security researchers define anonymity as being ‘unidentifiable within a set of subjects’. But identity is not that linear. Some may use only the first name and nothing else – they are still anonymous. Some may use pseudonyms and mask their identity but leave traces of identifiable information through their content. Identity is also tied to behavioral patterns that may emerge from what is shared over a period of time. The deeper question is this: why do people want to be anonymous on social media?
The most famous reason for anonymity is to be able to speak the truth against vindictive governments. But no matter how someone tries, governments these days, with enormous resources, may be able to trace the person.
Another reason for seeking anonymity is a keenness to participate in online conversations without being judged for past experiences (victim of harassment, for instance) or for choosing non-heteronormative identities or for documenting deeply personal experiences that could be subject to sweeping judgments by others.
Yet another common reason for seeking online anonymity is to not let the views be tagged to the real person being spoken about, in the offline world.
And this is where the problem begins. When the anonymity-seeker knows that their real-world self (at home, workplace, neighborhood, immediate social setting) will not get impacted, they seem less inhibited and bolder about what they share and how they frame such opinions. This is the online equivalent of ‘How would you behave when you know no one is watching you?’ When such views are being shared by people who mask their identity, and particularly when these views are about others who have not chosen to be anonymous online, there is a conversational imbalance that harks back to the crowded room setting I had referred to earlier.
We can argue that ideally, we only look at the opinion of the anonymous handles; that the person’s decision to remain anonymous should have no bearing on the conversation. And it’s true that not all anonymous handles tend to be abusive or hold extreme views. But it is equally true that the most angry, abusive, abrasive, and obfuscatory conversations/replies seem to come from anonymous handles.
Also read | Attribution over anonymity is the challenge in cyber space
And more importantly, even if someone gets to know the identity of the person who is being vile or abusive, they have absolutely no way of using that information in any meaningful manner beyond simply judging that person. They can perhaps tag the person’s employer or family members (if available/traceable). Even then, the tagged entities may decide to not do anything about it, and simply leave the opinion as it is, for it is that person’s ‘freedom of expression’.
Encouragement by platforms
All of the above examples refer to anonymity by choice. But what happens when platforms actively encourage participants to remain anonymous? The platforms know who the real person is (as part of sign up), but they hide any identifiable information when allowing such people to participate in online conversations.
Consider a platform like Glassdoor where anonymous reviews are the norm. Glassdoor mentions in its community guidelines that “to safeguard privacy, we do not allow you to identify yourself or include any contact information (about yourself or others) in your posts”. Similarly, another online community, Fishbowl, thrives on anonymity. The platform says, “Your posts can be made privately using only your Company name or Professional title if you choose, but your presence on Fishbowl is public.” Then there’s Reddit, a platform famous for anonymity. Steve Huffman, Reddit’s co-founder, said, “When people detach from their real-world identities, they can be more authentic, more true to themselves”.
Sharing fake news
The issue is not only about abuse or extreme opinions here but also of misinformation and disinformation. These are already massive problems. And anonymity, either by choice or enforced by platforms, gives the power to a person to evade judgment by public opinion. Only a legal mandate can hold them accountable for spreading lies, should the need arise.
In simpler terms, if a person who chooses to be anonymous on Twitter shares some fake information about you that affects your reputation in varying degrees, your only option is to go to the police and then get the platform to take action. The platform itself won’t be able to verify if you are right or the anonymous handle is right, and won’t take a stand unless it is legally forced to. Since the other person is anonymous, you cannot use a less tedious approach, such as appealing to their employer, family or friends, to make them accountable for the disinformation.
Given the tendency of people to behave in undesirable ways when their real-world reputation is not affected by what they say online, the proliferation of both pseudonymous social media handles and platforms that encourage pseudonymous profiles may amplify already existing issues around online disinformation and fake news.
In an online confrontation, it’s almost as though one side has their eyes covered by a cloth and their hands tied to the back, while the other side has a bazooka in hand. You cannot rationally or emotionally appeal to a pseudonymous online entity. You cannot shame them into backtracking their disinformation. You need to convince someone else (either in a social media platform company or in a law enforcement agency) to take action.
Karthik Srinivasan is a communications professional