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Lorraine Devon Wilke Headshot

Anonymity: Can Freedom Ring Only Behind Fake Names?

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While it may have been lurking long before Anonymous made their splashy entrance or Julian Assange put a face and name to hacktivism, the cult of anonymity has taken a distinctly down-home turn that extends well beyond whistle-blowing and political rebellion right to our very mundane, every-day world. The tentacles emanating from those higher profile endeavors have, in fact, wormed their way into the online experience of the average computer user, many of whom firmly believe the only way to be 'free' enough to say what they want online is from behind a fake name.

Welcome to the gladiator cage of online conversation.

Commenters have been a feisty bunch ever since the internet began, but the scourge of trolling got exponentially worse as more and more sites invited readers to the interactive conversation. Which led to what we have now, where writers around the world are battered on a daily basis by those who feel it's their right to do so, convinced that expressions of opinions, beliefs, and arguments have no obligation of decorum, respect, civility or just plain decent communication. No, nowadays, online discourse is delivered in hot, steaming piles of poo flung wildly across cyberspace to make as much negative impact as possible. And as writers, and other more rational commenters, have either become inured, fought back with verve, or just chosen to ignore the whole trolling mess, hosting sites have looked for ways to encourage discourse without opening the flood gates to further abuse. It hasn't been easy and, frankly, it hasn't been all that successful.

Even here at The Huffington Post, one of the few sites that actually does moderate their comments, there is only so far the line can be drawn. You want debate, discussion, the sharing of opposing ideas, but even as uber-trollers who get threatening and violent are blocked, the larger contingent -- those who just insult, denigrate, sneer, bully, and turn every online experience into a school yard pissing match -- often make it through. No matter what writer, what topic, they're there to slice, dice and throw in the ugly and, I'm convinced, it's compulsive for many.

So when Arianna Huffington announced that, starting in September, users will no longer be able to create anonymous accounts, writers cheered and commenters... well, some commenters did what that contingent of commenter always does: they went ballistic.

I know this because I'd written an article a couple of days ago -- What Trolls Are Doing to Our Politics, Our Culture... Our Brains -- in which I discussed the corrosive effect of the behavior, referencing a Psychology Today article on the impact of persistent verbal and written negativity in triggering brain chemistry that, over time, can disrupt one's ability to conduct rational dialogue. I concluded by mentioning Arianna Huffington's announcement about the cessation of anonymous commenting, and, dear God... all hell broke loose.

Not only did the bulk of comments ignore the illuminating points made by Psychology Today, many proceeded to exemplify the exact trolling characteristics in discussion by attacking me for my "thin skin," my writing ability, my supposed desire to hear only from those who agree with me, on and on. But the lion share of vitriol was extended to the Huffington Post for their decision and me for applauding that choice.

Without a doubt, the 'cult of anonymity' has now taken full form, with dogma in place and banner held high in defiant insistence that any argument against trolling, any demand for greater online accountability, or any attempt to raise the bar on civil discourse are all just attempts to oppress and deny citizens their freedom of speech. Countless commenters, even some in the media, have asserted that insisting on real names is the death knell of true social discourse, a loss of "the richness of online debate," as The Guardian writer, Joanna Geary, put it.

But I have to call nonsense on that. If 'rich online debate' had anonymity as a prerequisite, what were we doing all those years before the ugliness of trolling reached its pervasive level and many more did use their real names? What of the panoply of opinion writers, cultural commenters, political pundits, bloggers, and writers in every corner of the internet who do use their real names to present compelling online subjects for discourse and debate? They're the ones on the front lines, positing discussion points, taking on the hot topics, putting forth their ideas -- often for little more than a desire for 'rich online debate' -- and they have the courage of their open identity. Why not commenters?

Geary, perhaps, bases her argument on the presumption that trolling is a mere blip on the computer screen, so to speak, minimizing the numbers by making the point in her piece, Forcing commenters to use real names isn't the answer, Arianna Huffington, that it's only a "tiny minority of activities included under the umbrella term 'trolling'"... which I find astonishing. I might agree that the particularly aggressive trolls who threaten actual violence are, thankfully, a "tiny minority," but the bulk of behaviors most would ascribe to the genre are, in fact, almost at saturation level. Maybe we need to clarify the definition:

Urban Dictionary, Wikipedia, and Internet Slang and most other sources of contemporary vernacular define the act of trolling as being "deliberately provocative to incite an angry response," or, to cite the Urban Dictionary precisely, "Being a prick on the internet because you can."

That about covers it.

So the question remains: why should anyone be at the mercy of someone "being a prick on the internet because they can"? They shouldn't. That's the point. And while Geary goes on to say that dissociative anonymity does does make it "easier for us to be meaner than we might be in person," she dismisses the notion that putting names to comments would dissuade that meanness, instead, pointing out the more noble causes for anonymity:

Most importantly, what these organisations [other online sites], and the Guardian, recognise is that by ending anonymity the Huffington Post is going to lose something very important. Providing an alias allows readers to post personal experiences that they otherwise would not be able to for fear of personal or career repercussions. In some cases, it allows them to post without fear for their lives.

There are so many important world events that have relied on people being able to transmit information using pseudonyms - Egypt, the Arab spring and protests in Turkey and Brazil, to name just a few. Without the facility for commenters to use pseudonyms, the Guardian would never be able to have such rich and insightful discussions on emotive topics such as abortion, adoption and depression.

Certainly, we can all agree with elements of that argument. Commenters have made the point, and some who've written privately concur, that anonymity is important to them for fear of backlash from employers or family members. Some say they live in small-minded towns where candid and contrary opinions are not appreciated. And, yes, on a global scale, political settings in certain countries make identifying oneself dangerous. Those are valid points, particularly when talking about war-torn regions. But when it comes to a demand for anonymity in most western countries, in most typical situations, we're not talking about someone using a screen name for reasons of safety, or to thoughtfully, respectfully express a political opinion or discuss a controversial news item; we're talking about someone using a screen name to attack someone else for being "the stupidest f**k on the internet," to tell another commenter she's fat and ugly; to eviscerate a writer for being an idiot who can't write, often in relentless, repetitive, stalkerish onslaughts. Those for whom anonymity is truly about safety or "personal or work repercussions" are, I would guess, a minority.

But even with those caveats and conditions, when did the notion of speaking with decorum, civility and intellect become such an impossible task? When was it decided that the only way to be 'honest' or express 'freedom of speech' was by hiding behind a screen name to spew insults? Why isn't it possible to assert a dissenting view, offer perspective on a controversial topic, even share personal anecdotes in ways that are not overly revealing, purposely incendiary, or violently oppositional? It IS possible. Many people do it every day.

But it does take courage to be honest, candid and identified. And every writer who gets online to analyze, debate, criticize, discuss, or even satirize a political or cultural story does so with the courage of their convictions -- and their name -- knowing that, by doing so, they're making themselves vulnerable to the slings and arrows of those sneering behind computers who did not do the work of researching and writing the story being ripped apart. It also takes courage for respectful, intelligent commenters to jump into the fray to express their own civil opinions, because they, too, become vulnerable to those slings and arrows. The only ones not being courageous? Those hiding behind anonymity to attack other people under the guise of "freedom of speech."

A last thought: after the Huffington Post announcement was made, there was a loud holler from many declaring they would no longer read or comment, ever, and that the Huffington Post was going to lose readers, turn into Fox News, become an oppressive party-parroting venue for like-minded robots, etc. Which, oddly, reminded me of when the cigarette ban went into effect in California. Restaurant owners hollered that it would kill their businesses, they'd lose customers, their bottom lines would tank and so on, but subsequent studies proved that not only did the ban not destroy their businesses, in many cases those businesses improved, as non-smokers who'd been staying away now came in to enjoy the smoke-free environment.

I predict the same will happen here and anywhere else where troll-controls are ratcheting up. Instead of killing business, it will bring back those who've stayed away, unwilling to put up with online ugliness; in fact, several people I've heard from have made that exact point. I do hope those who honestly feel they can't reveal themselves for career or family reasons will find a way to stay involved and perhaps, change a few minds in the process. Certainly those writing from truly dangerous territories will have to be considered. But while I have no delusions that some 'grandfathered' folks will continue to be anonymously ugly simply "because they can," this action by HuffPost, as well as the moderation policies on Facebook and other sites, are good efforts towards raising the bar. Tweaks will surely be needed, but it's a start. Most meaningful online discourse does not require anonymity to be rich, candid and inspiring, but it does require a willingness to develop smart, respectful, effective communication skills. That used to be a societal norm; it ought to be again. I hope, like the cigarette ban, we get to the point where we can't even remember what it was like when trollers ran the show, just as it seems strange to remember when the table next to us could smoke-out our dinner without consideration.

Image from Wiki Commons


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