The Internet and anonymity: the good, the bad and the (unknown) ugly

Newspapers, blogs, chat forums may or may not require you to “log in” to comment. If you don’t log in, you can comment anonymously. However if you are required to log in, there is for the most part nothing stopping you from registering a pseudonym; gasp, you haven’t used your real name? While Facebook’s policy is to have “real people” as registered users, you could set up a Facebook account under a pseudonym. However this seems to violate their TOS (Terms Of Service) as Facebook has taken a dim view of those who play the MMOG (Massively Multiplayer Online Game) Second Life and has gone about deleting those “avatar accounts”. There even seems to be something of a movement to report “fake Facebook profiles”. So what is it about anonymity that is both appealing and repellent? What are the pros and the cons?

There is a subtle distinction to be made. Anonymous refers to one having no name at all but in many cases; people operate under an alternate name, a pseudonym or a false name. As with the pen name of a writer, a computer hacker handle, the stage name of an actor or a graffiti artist’s tag, the purpose is to mask the identity of the real person but unlike anonymity, associates the work with an individual.

Right off the bat, the biggest criticism of anonymity or pseudonimity would be, “What are you hiding?” Are you doing something evil? Are you a criminal? Are you a member of a drug cartel; are you a child molester; are you trying to stay off the grid in order to commit cyber-crimes? Just how comfortable do we feel with the idea that the other person is unwilling to reveal themselves? Imagine meeting somebody wearing a mask. Do you feel at ease? Are you waiting for the gun to come out and the line, “Stick’em up. Gimme all your valuables”?

And now for the pros. – Are there any pros? Legitimate pros? – Somebody can talk freely without the constraint of being criticized, ostracized or condemned. Uncomfortable with talking about sex? Doing so anonymously make just remove whatever embarrassment you have about it. Worried about revealing your inner self? Those hidden desires? Those foolish neurosises? Confessing from behind a mask, well, in this case a pseudonym, may make it easier.

Using your own name holds you accountable
Facebook and now Google+ have set the policy whereby a person must use their “wallet name” to sign up. Yes, the name you use must be your own name so that your Facebook account is linked back to a real legitimate flesh and blood person. The debate rages on as to why. On the pro side your real name says that you are now responsible for your words and your actions and can be held accountable. On the con side, people say that this is merely a ploy to ensure Facebook can sell our personal information so advertisers are guaranteed they’re dealing with real people. I guess you can’t sell a car to an avatar.

Randi Zuckerberg, the sister of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook’s marketing director reportedly argues that putting an end to anonymity could help curb cyber bullying and harassment on the web. She says that people behave a lot better when they use their real names. (Facebook’s Randi Zuckerberg: Anonymity Online ‘Has To Go Away’; Huffington Post, July 27/2011; by Bianca Bosker)

Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, says anonymity online is dangerous. “In a world of asynchronous threats, it is too dangerous for there not to be some way to identify you.” He puts forward the idea that governments may eventually put an end to anonymity. “We need a [verified] name service for people.” He added in a separate interview, “Privacy is incredibly important. Privacy is not the same thing as anonymity. It’s very important that Google and everyone else respect people’s privacy. People have a right to privacy; it’s natural; it’s normal. It’s the right way to do things.” (Google CEO Says Anonymity Online Is ‘Dangerous’; Huffington Post Oct 10/2010; by Bianca Bosker))

Mr. Schmidt said in a 2009 interview with CNBC, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” [He adds] “If you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines, including Google, do retain this information for some time. And […] we’re all subject, in the US, to the Patriot Act, and it is possible that that information could be made available to the authorities.” (Google CEO On Privacy (VIDEO); Huffington Post, Dec 12/2009; by Bianca Bosker)

Using a fake name protects you
People point out various circumstances where a fake name may not just be a game but a necessity. A political dissident may risk his or her life by using their real name. Some people could be in trouble with their employer. There is the danger of harassment and bullying from those who differ from one’s opinions.

Using a fake name gives you freedom
Are you constrained by your employer, your government or just your life? Writing under a pseudonym allows you to get your ideas out there without worry of being fired, being thrown in jail or being cast out by your community. Talk about taboo subjects like sex which would be frowned upon by your boss? Talk about freedom of choice in a totalitarian regime? Talk about liberal ideas in a conservative community?

my name is me
The tag line of this web site is: Supporting your freedom to choose the name you use on social networks and other online services. Real people voice their opinion as to why they support online identities, that is, pseudonyms. In their page entitled “Who is harmed by a ‘Real Names’ policy?“, they give a short list of possible reasons justifying the use of a pseudonym:
* harassment, both online and offline
* discrimination in employment, provision of services, etc.
* actual physical danger of bullying, hate crime, etc.
* arrest, imprisonment, or execution in some jurisdictions
* economic harm such as job loss, loss of professional reputation, reduction of job opportunity, etc.
* social costs of not being able to interact with friends and colleagues
* possible (temporary) loss of access to their data if their account is suspended or terminated

Trolls
A troll is a person who deliberately posts inflammatory comments for the express purpose of upsetting people. Why would anybody do that? I’m sure an analyst from the Freudian school may conclude that it’s a question of a small penis but whatever the case, a troll hides behind the veil of anonymity or the mask of a pseudonym in order to say anything without any accountability, without any responsibility for the results of their actions. It’s an odd question to ask about just what any of us would do if we had total freedom to do anything we wanted. Would we do something good or do something bad? In a way, anonymity or pseudonimity gives that “total freedom” and it would seem that some people elect to do something bad.

Cyberbullying and harassment
Look at any comment section and sooner or later you will run across some pretty rough remarks. The comments can be personal attacks on somebody including profanities and even death threats. While anonymity provides us with total freedom to say anything we want, the question is raised as to why any of us would spew such venom. Are our lives so bad that we have to take it out on everybody else?

This reminds me of one argument I heard put forward about everybody carrying a gun in the wild west. What are you going to say and how polite are you going to be if you know the next guy can shoot you dead? When writing an anonymous comment, you can damn well say any @#$%^&* thing you want, you bastard. Now go screw yourself!

Deindividuation
This curious word used by psychologists refers to what happens when social norms are withdrawn because identities are concealed. The classic experiment demonstrating this phenomenon (Diener, Fraser, Beaman, and Kelem: 1976) involved setting out a bowl of candy for children at Halloween. Children came individually or in groups and some were questioned about their parents, where they lived, etc. while others were just left alone. The adult would first tell them to take one piece of candy then get up saying she had to do something in the kitchen leaving them alone with the bowl of candy. Those who were not questioned, who were “anonymous” showed a greater tendency to take more than one piece of candy. In fact, some took the entire bowl.

The point was that when we are anonymous, we no longer have any of the constraints we would normally feel with other people: no morality, no decency, no rules at all. At that point, it is merely our own moral compass which guides us as to whether we do something or not.

Is this everybody?
I quote Violet Blue from the web site my.nameis.me: In my experience, it is a misnomer to believe that people only use pseudonyms or handles if they are behaving with malfeasance. I have witnessed the opposite. I believe that it is the abuse of the few – stalkers, harassers and trolls – that has poisoned the image of the majority of pseudonym users: everyday people that simply want to create a necessary separation in their lives.

Second Life
I add this as a curiosity. An acquaintance who plays Second Life told me that new options in the game allow a user to upload their profile into Facebook. Why would Facebook accept this? Apparently because the user account has already been verified by Linden Labs, the company running the game. If you have to get yourself verified when you sign up for Second Life, Facebook is considering that it knows you are a real person.

I don’t know if this is true or not but if it does turn out to be true, I return to Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google. “Privacy is incredibly important. Privacy is not the same thing as anonymity. It’s very important that Google and everyone else respect people’s privacy. People have a right to privacy; it’s natural; it’s normal. It’s the right way to do things.”

But, but, but Mr. Schmidt also reminded us, “We’re all subject, in the US, to the Patriot Act, and it is possible that that information could be made available to the authorities.” Okay, that’s America. What if you’re a dissident and the country was China? Somehow I don’t think the government would be invoking the Patriot Act. I bet a Patriot Act isn’t even necessary in a totalitarian regime.

Final Word
I’m certain that I’m not going to have the final word on this one. Whoever makes the decision one way or another at Google or Facebook is going to be the one deciding whether our “wallet name” ends up being the only name we can use on-line. Then again, like the non de plume of an author, maybe the correct answer will be a combination of ideas: you register under your own name then are permitted to use any on-line pseudonym you want.

With great power comes great responsibility.
– Voltaire, FDR or Uncle Ben from Spiderman. Your choice

I can see the arguments for using your real name as a means of making people responsible for their actions, making them “own their words” and stopping cyberbullying and online harassment. On the other hand, I can see some valuable points for anonymity and pseudonimity offering a certain freedom to an individual who is somehow under some sort of constraint which prevents them from speaking freely. Is there a right answer? I’m not sure there is a right answer per se because at the end of the day, this is going to be more a question of what policies the big players like Facebook and Google will put in place, the policies we will all have to abide by whether we like it or not.

I would however remind everyone including Facebook and Google that in my humble experience, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to what appears to be a thorny issue. There are always different perspectives; there are always exceptions to the rule.

When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem begins to resemble a nail.
-Abraham Maslow (1908-1970); American professor of psychology

The CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt, quite rightly makes the distinction between anonymity and privacy. And privacy should be respected. However, if governments have and will always have the power to ask Google or Facebook for their information, we have to admit right up front that none of us can truly be anonymous. Maybe Mr. Schmidt was right when he said, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

References

Wikipedia: Anonymity
Anonymity typically refers to the state of an individual’s personal identity, or personally identifiable information, being publicly unknown.

Wikipedia: Pseudonym
This would include the stage name of an actor, the nom de plume of a writer, a gamer identification, or a computer hacker handle.

New World Notes – May 23/2011
Facebook Reportedly Deleting Many Second Life Avatar Profiles by Wagner James Au
Facebook is reportedly deleting numerous profiles of Second Life avatars on the social network.

my name is me
“My Name Is Me” is about having the freedom to be yourself online. We want people to be able to identify themselves as they wish, rather than being forced to choose names by social networking websites and other online service providers.

Websites such as Facebook and Google+ ask you to use a name that conforms to a certain standard. Though their policies vary, what they would like you to use is the name that appears on the ID in your wallet, your employer’s records, or on the letters your bank sends you. They don’t understand that many people go by other names, for a wide variety of reasons.

Huffington Post – July 27/2011
Facebook’s Randi Zuckerberg: Anonymity Online ‘Has To Go Away’ by Bianca Bosker
Randi Zuckerberg, Facebook’s marketing director, has a fix for cyberbullying: stop people from doing anything online without their names attached.

“I think anonymity on the Internet has to go away,” she said during a panel discussion on social media hosted Tuesday evening by Marie Claire magazine. “People behave a lot better when they have their real names down. … I think people hide behind anonymity and they feel like they can say whatever they want behind closed doors.”

Huffington Post – Oct 10/2010
Google CEO Says Anonymity Online Is ‘Dangerous’ by Bianca Bosker
Speaking on a panel at the event, Schmidt argued that anonymity on the Internet is dangerous. “In a world of asynchronous threats, it is too dangerous for there not to be some way to identify you,” he said.Schmidt took the stance that governments may eventually put an end to anonymity. “We need a [verified] name service for people,” he said. “Governments will demand it.”

He expanded on his thoughts in a separate interview.”Privacy is incredibly important,” he said, adding, “Privacy is not the same thing as anonymity. It’s very important that Google and everyone else respects people’s privacy. People have a right to privacy; it’s natural; it’s normal. It’s the right way to do things.”

Huffington Post – Dec 7/2009
Google CEO On Privacy by Bianca Bosker
CNBC’s Mario Bartiromo asked CEO Schmidt in her December 3, 2009 interview: “People are treating Google like their most trusted friend. Should they?” Schmidt tells Baritoromo: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” [He adds] “If you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines, including Google, do retain this information for some time. And […] we’re all subject, in the US, to the Patriot Act, and it is possible that that information could be made available to the authorities.”

Wikipedia: Troll (Internet)
In Internet slang, a troll is someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as an online discussion forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion. The noun troll may refer to the provocative message itself, as in: “That was an excellent troll you posted”. While the word troll and its associated verb trolling are associated with Internet discourse, media attention in recent years has made such labels subjective, with trolling describing intentionally provocative actions outside of an online context. For example, mass media uses troll to describe “a person who defaces Internet tribute sites with the aim of causing grief to families.”

Wikimedia: What is a troll?
Trolling is not necessarily the same as vandalism (although vandalism may be used to troll). A vandal may just enjoy defacing a webpage, insulting random users, or spreading some personal views in an inappropriate way. A troll deliberately exploits tendencies of human nature or of an online community to upset people.

Wikipedia: Deindividuation
Theories of deindividuation propose that it is a psychological state of decreased self-evaluation causing antinormative and disinhibited behavior. Deindividuation theory seeks to provide an explanation for a variety of antinormative collective behavior, such as violent crowds, lynch mobs, etc. Deindividuation theory has also been applied to genocide and been posited as an explanation for antinormative behavior online and in computer-mediated communications.

Encyclo Online Encyclopedia: deindividuation
‘Deindividuation’ is a state of lowered self-awareness, a temporary loss of personal identity resulting from becoming part of a group, such as an army or a mob, but it can also occur in situations wherein people feel anonymous. It can have very destructive effects, sometimes making people more likel…

Guardian – July 24/2011
How the internet created an age of rage by Tim Adams
The worldwide web has made critics of us all. But with commenters able to hide behind a cloak of anonymity, the blog and chatroom have become forums for hatred and bile.

TechnoBuffalo – Aug 7/2011
Do You Use Your Real Name Online? by Adriana Lee
Anonymity on the web has been called both a blessing and a curse. Online alter-egos allow people an unprecedented freedom to communicate their deepest hopes or explore alternate activities or pastimes without risk to their real lives or reputations. It can also empower our worst human proclivities, setting loose trolls, scams and, in some cases, serious criminal activity.

ZDNet – Aug 2/2011
Facebook: “Anonymity on the Internet has to go away” by Emil Protalinski
Facebook’s marketing director Randi Zuckerberg wants to put an end to online anonymity, forcing Internet citizens to use their real names at all times.

ZDNet – Mar 15/2011
4chan founder to Facebook CEO: you’re doing it wrong by Emil Protalinski
4chan founder Christopher Poole does not agree with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg when it comes to anonymity and online identity.

Click HERE to read more from William Belle

Article viewed at: Oye! Times at www.oyetimes.com

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*


Confirm you are not a spammer! *