Does online anonymity have a place on the internet?
Can we facilitate online anonymity’s “white hat” use-cases without making it a den full of trolls and haters?
I posted a few days ago about some vicious anonymous online bullying — with decidedly anti-Semitic overtones — that I experienced on Reddit, including on its notorious hate-bating /r/drama subreddit.
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Reddit has a serious problem with cyberabuse. While I’ve posted about its merits, I’m sick of being a punching bag for…
Sign the Petition
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Sadly, this wasn’t the first time that I experienced anti-Semitic cyber-bullying.
When I wrapped up an online news site that I used to run in Ireland, an anonymous cybertroll — posting from an IP address that, disconcertingly, resolved to my university campus — charged that the “chief Jew” (that would be me) had wound up the site in a “hissy fit” (on the second part the troll wasn’t entirely wrong).
The experience at the time rattled me.
Who was this anonymous internet stranger who knew that I was Jewish, evidently disliked that fact, and was prepared to deface a Wikipedia page to communicate that to the world?
Outside of my small circle of friends, relatively few knew that I was one of the few Jewish students on campus. Might I be rubbing shoulders with online hater while out for drinks during the weekend? I found the whole experience profoundly unnerving.
Almost ten years later and it seems as if the online world is still as toxic and nasty in its anonymous corners.
I may have a different surname now and live in a different part of the world, but I still receive hate from anonymous internet users calling me a “Sperg” (a nickname for Asperger’s popular on Reddit hate forums), a “f***king j***ss”, and charging that I should take my “big beak” off their corner of the internet.
But here’s the thing.
While I happen to be an ardent enemy of things like cyberstalking, online abuse, and gaslighting — and I would suggest that most straight-thinking people are) — I’m also a supporter, broadly speaking, of some use-cases for online anonymity.
While most could agree that trolls, gaslighting “moderators”, and other abusers are entities that the online world would be better off without, a large part of me still thinks that online anonymity isn’t something that should be locked away from internet users in its entirety.
Some reasons for that belief:
- Fake online identities — sockpuppets — can be used to infiltrate and monitor for defamation, bullying, and general nastiness in online hate communities. One of my previous freelance writing clients was a startup whose technology helped the law enforcement and intelligence communities to monitor the cesspools of hatred that foment on the dark web.
How to create a fake online identity
And what you should do to avoid interacting with one
- I support — and will continue to support — Amazon’s decision to allow indie authors to use pen names on KDP, thereby enabling vulnerable individuals with stories to tell (including, ironically, of abuse) to have their works see the light of day in a way that doesn’t compromise their personal safety.
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There are other use-cases for mostly-anonymous internet forums such as Reddit:
- Mental health and health: those suffering from mental health concerns and eating disorders may wish to join online peer groups.
- Victims of abuse — precisely the kind that cyberbullying creates! — may wish to discuss their experience in peer communities without running the risk that their bullies, or others, will follow them there and continue the abuse.
- Whistleblowers often have a legitimate need to share information anonymously. While some do so directly to journalists, others blow the lid on corporate malfeasance through leaking the information over the internet. One doesn’t have to think very hard to conjure up examples of this.
The Internet User’s Guide To Anonymous Whistleblowing
Basic steps to share information with journalists and other parties without divulging one’s identity
Call the above “white hat” uses for online anonymity.
But it doesn’t get around the fact that any community that offers a platform on which users can be anonymous risks becoming a lightning rod for online haters, trolls, and others intent on exploiting that same anonymity to perpetrate cyberabuse.
Which leads me to wonder:
Can We Provide A Safe Online Community That Only Enables ‘White Hat’ Anonymity?
I believe that a significant challenge facing the social media companies of tomorrow will be finding a way to create online communities that will allow internet users to remain anonymous without providing them with impunity to torment others in the process.
I suggest that victims of cyberbullying should ban together in order to lobby for tougher legislation that targets cyberbullying and petition platforms — including those yet to start — to operate mechanisms that will allow online anonymity while sufficiently protecting from its likely abuses.
I would suggest, as a credible model for how this could work in practice, the manner in which Amazon allows authors to create pen name accounts.
Social media platforms could allow contributors to post anonymously or under a pseudonym, but require an account verification process which requires that the user verify their true identity with site administrations.
They could do this by requiring that signups:
- Submit government documentation for review
- Submit utility bills to support the documentation
In other words, it is my belief that in an ideal world, anybody that wishes to join an online forum — or even post here on Medium — should be required to submit comprehensive documentation that would make it almost impossible for internal investigators not to determine their identity.
This system needn’t be as impossibly difficult to operate as it might at first glance seem:
- Submitted user data could be processed automatically by AI in a way that verifies the poster’s identity without providing human administrators with any clue as to who he or she is.
That is to say: unless that user engages in abusive behavior and has an internal investigation opened against him (or her), the information will remain under digital lock and key. If they abuse the system and/or are found to be harassing other users: the digital lock and key is lifted to the eyes of trained investigators.
Such a system would:
- Provide grounds for abusive users to face charges for criminality for falsifying official documentation. In many jurisdictions this represents a prosecutable offence. This would create a powerful deterrent that would turn trolls away at the door.
- Require users to put down digital breadcrumbs that would help to ascertain their real identity in the case of an investigation into harassment.
- Facilitate safe anonymous internet use without prejudicing the welfare of others whom they encounter online.
These days, social media represents a powerful force in all of our lives.
Because just as anonymity can support constructive use-cases, it can also be a massively detrimental force that wreaks enormous harm upon its victims.
Social media platforms that fail to properly tackle online hate — and I include Reddit in that bracket, at least at the time I’m writing this — deserve to be held to account. Their failure to stamp out hate communities such as /r/drama — which continues to facilitate organized attacks upon the victims of cybercrime — is nothing short of odious.
Should they fail to do so, the social media network entrepreneurs of tomorrow have an interesting challenge on their hands that I suggest would be a worthy undertaking:
How to facilitate anonymity’s constructive uses without enabling it to be the pervasive force for harm that it can be.
As my last post about Reddit cyberbullying was very rapidly targeted by hordes of abusive anonymous commenters (sent from /r/drama), I’m going to proactively disable comments on this piece. While there’s an argument in favor of showing online abuse to the world, I believe I’ve shown enough of it here recently. Apologies to anybody who had non-abusive thoughts to offer.