There’s no Hiding Place in the Debate on Anonymity
There’s a lot of opinion and conjecture out there at the moment concerning anonymity online and it’s right that the topic should be on the agenda for debate. After all, many are blaming anonymity for some of the more unpalatable aspects of activity on the web.
Take bullying for instance. With social media available to everyone with an internet connection these days, the scope for bullying is vast. Ask.fm has come under fire recently because of a high profile suicide case and since the site is based on anonymous interaction between users, it’s only natural that campaign groups and the authorities should target this particular feature.
In the case of Ask.fm it’s difficult to suggest that anonymity plays no part in creating a culture of bullying online. But is it the only contributor?
An age-old problem
You would have to answer in the negative. The fact is that bullying was a problem long before anonymous online social platforms. Bullying has gone on face-to-face ever since humans discovered the power of language – and probably even before that.
The fact that a lot of young people experience problems with bullying on social media platforms like Facebook makes for unpleasant reading, but it does point out the fact that anonymity is not the only issue at hand (since Facebook accounts are held in users’ real names).
Separating the online from the offline
There’s a delicate social issue at play here. Trolling and bullying are quite common in the comments sections of online newspapers and other websites and they are rife on Twitter and other social platforms that do offer anonymity. Critics suggest that internet users can better separate their online personas from their private feelings when the features that identify the two are removed i.e. pictures, names etc.
The psychology of the situation here is not dissimilar that of aggressive driving. Road users act more aggressively when they drive than when they walk around among other pedestrians. Why should that be the case? One school of thought is that road users feel as though they can’t be seen when they are in a car. Another holds that road users don’t see other humans out there on the road with them – they see other cars.
This is a very interesting proposition. When applied to online behaviour, you could suggest that trolls and bullies feel as though they can’t be seen. You could also suggest that they dehumanise their targets and that allows them to behave the way they do.
Context and punishment
There are a couple of other factors to consider here and they are very important to the debate. One is context. Without the support of social signals like body language, inflection and so on, comments online can be taken out of context very easily which certainly clouds the issue and often makes bullies out of people who have no intention to cause harm.
The other is punishment. Vastly diminish the likelihood of punishment for bad behaviour and it seems natural that people will stoop lower in terms of their conduct. There’s evidence of this throughout human history and although it’s no defence for things like death threats and bullying online, you can’t just sidestep the issue – you can’t assume that everyone with an internet connection shares the same moral spectrum and you can’t assume that people can readily achieve immunity to such subtle psychological games without instruction.
Anonymity further separates internet users from punishment and adds to problems with context. So what do we do?
Some have suggested that anonymity be removed from the equation altogether. Is that really the route we ought to take? Since face-to-face bullying happens all the time in the real world and with a similarly negative impact, would that constitute an arbitrary response to the issue, especially given that most internet users behave perfectly well online?
Why stay anonymous?
It’s worth remembering at this point why people prefer a little anonymity or pseudonymity online. For a start, nobody wants a written record of everything they’ve ever said or done that is clearly attributable to them. Why should they in an environment that doesn’t make allowances for context?
You could argue that anonymity is an important tool for debate and that without it the internet would become a sterile environment. A lot of good comes from lively debate, so this might represent a backward step.
It all comes down to education
There’s little doubt that governments and societies are always on the back foot with relation to the internet, which often feels like a social experiment that is out of control. Not fully understanding the power of the internet, we generally have to set boundaries after the event and this inevitably gives policy-making a retrogressive aspect. As in so many situations, the answer probably lies in education.
That shouldn’t read as a get-out clause or an empty statement. With the right people involved – those who understand the internet and are skilled in the field of psychology – better education can be achieved.
If we can educate young people on ethics with specific reference to online behaviour then we might get somewhere, but it’s not only the younger generations that could benefit from instruction in this area.
The fact is that online behaviour is quite likely to reflect the deeper cultural state of a given society and until we can engender a more open, equal, empathetic and sensitive cultural attitude in the UK, we won’t necessarily see an improvement in the behaviour of a toxic minority online. In any case, we can expect the debate to continue over the coming weeks.