Online Anonymity Is Not Only for Trolls and Political Dissidents
David Plotz: People have a misguided belief in it, but, in general, the fact that anonymity is increasingly hard to get—Facebook doesn't permit it, most commenting on a lot of sites doesn't permit it—there's a loss when you don't have anonymity.
Emily Bazelon: Oh god, I am so not with you on this one. There is a loss if you're, like, a political dissident in Syria. If you are in this country, almost all of the time, there is a net gain for not having anonymous comments. We so err on the side of 'Oh, free speech, everywhere, everywhere, let people defame each other and not have any accountability for it.' And I think in free societies, that is generally a big mistake. And yes, you can make small exceptions for people who truly feel at risk, like victims of domestic violence are an example, but most of the time it is much healthier discourse when people have to own up to what they are saying.
- Slate's Political Gabfest, Oct. 25, 2013
During last week's episode of Slate's Political Gabfest, a weekly podcast I normally adore, senior editor Emily Bazelon mocked the concept of online anonymity. Our society would be better off if everyone was forced to put their name to their words, she said, generalizing that online anonymous users are poisoning civil discourse with their largely vile and defamatory comments. She deemed only one class of user legitimately deserving of anonymity: "people who directly fear violence."
In this view of the Internet, everyone else's anonymity is worth sacrificing to silence the trolls.
It's easy to understand why some in the press have this perspective. If you work in online media, the bulk of your interactions involve news stories, which seem to draw the ugliest forms of discourse. If you're a public figure, you're faced with haters on Twitter who are obsessed with enumerating all the ways you suck. They're even worse in the comments on YouTube. A website, such as Slate, certainly has the right to determine the culture of its online community, and I don't have a position whether such sites, across the spectrum, should or should not allow anonymous comments, or even allow comments at all. I do, however, dispute this narrow vision of the Internet.
So, I spent the weekend brainstorming and jotting down all the kinds of people who would lose out if anonymity no longer existed in any form on the Internet.
Anonymity is important to:
- the people who run some of the funniest parody Twitter accounts, such as @FeministHulk (SMASH THE PATRIARCHY!) or @BPGlobalPr during the Deepwater Horizon aftermath. San Francisco would not be better off if we knew who was behind @KarltheFog, the most charming personification of a major city's climate phenomenon.
- the young LGBTQ youth seeking advice online about coming out to their parents.
- the marijuana grower who needs to ask questions on an online message board about lamps and fertilizer or complying with state law, without publicly admitting to committing a federal offense.
- the medical patient seeking advice from other patients in coping with a chronic disease, whether it's alopecia, irritable bowel syndrome, cancer or a sexually transmitted infection.
- the online dater, who wants to meet new people but only reveal her identities after she's determined that potential dates are not creeps.
- the business that wants no-pulled-punches feedback from its customers.
- the World of Warcraft player, or any other MMOG gamer, who only wants to engage with other players in character.
- artists. Anonymity is integral to the work of The Yes Men, Banksy and Keizer.
- the low-income neighborhood resident who wants to comment on an article about gang violence in her community, without incurring retribution in the form of spray paint and broken windows.
- the boyfriend who doesn’t want his girlfriend to know he’s posing questions on a forum about how to pick out a wedding ring and propose. On the other end: Anonymity is important to anyone seeking advice about divorce attorneys online.
- the youth from an orthodox religion who secretly posts reviews on hip hop albums or R-rated movies.
- the young, pregnant woman who is seeking out advice on reproductive health services.
- the person seeking mental health support from an online community. There's a reason that support groups so often end their names with “Anonymous.”
- the job seeker, in pursuit of cover letter and resume advice in a business blogger's comments, who doesn't want his current employer to know he is looking for work.
- many people's sexual lives, whether they're discussing online erotica or arranging kink meet-ups.
- Political Gabfest listeners. Each week, the hosts encourage listeners to post comments. Of the 262 largely positive customer reviews on iTunes, only a handful see value in using their real names.
Anonymity is important to anyone who doesn't want every facet of their online life tied to a Google search of their name. It is important to anyone who is repulsed by the idea of an unrelenting data broker logging everything she has ever said, or shown interest in, in a permanent marketing profile. And more.
Bazelon describes anonymous comments as "generally a big mistake" for free societies. I disagree and point to Common Sense by Thomas Paine, originally published under the anonymous byline, “an Englishman.” (Perhaps that could be Gabfest's next Audible recommendation.)
To suggest anonymity should be forbidden because of troll-noise is just as bad as suggesting a ban on protesting because the only demonstrators you have ever encountered are from the Westboro Baptist Church—the trolls of the picket world. People who say otherwise need to widen their experience and understanding of the online world. The online spaces we know and love would be doomed without anonymity, even if the security of that anonymity is far from absolute or impenetrable. The ability to explore other identities, to communicate incognito, to seek out communities and advice without revealing your identity is not only a net positive, but crucial to preserving a free and open Internet.