Anonymity on the internet is the cloak of the coward
David Hume convincingly argued that ideas are grounded in our physical nature – our sensations and prejudices. Research in social psychology shows Hume to have been on the correct path, suggesting that any attempt to divorce opinion from its human origins is essentially fraudulent.
* Anonymity debases public debate; by being anonymous you forfeit your right to be taken seriously. John Rawls, the foremost political philosopher of the last half-century, wrote about what types of arguments were legitimate in the public sphere. To satisfy the condition of “public reason”, he says, people have to justify their political positions with reference to “public values” and “public standards”, something that implies openness and accountability, as well as “civility”.
A conclusion you can draw is that only opinions that people are willing to defend publicly should be taken seriously.
On a more moralistic note, the philosopher Michael Sandel has argued that if you are unwilling to do something in public it’s an indicator that it’s probably unjust. But if you accept anonymity is a problem the question remains: what can you do about it? Three things spring to mind:
1. Develop ways of discriminating against it. Online debate is generally self-policed but this could be bolstered in time by technology which helps to authenticate people’s identities. (Calling entrepreneurial tech heads: this could be monetised for other applications.) Anonymity on the web can be seen as a market failure, and many a good online discussion has been ruined by trolls. Is it just me who yearns for better debate, not just more debate?
2. Publicly condemn it. You’ll be called a humourless Luddite – and probably a lot worse – but right is on your side. Along with the “like” function on Facebook, an invention of Orwellian proportions, the spread of anonymity on the internet has dehumanised public debate.
In schools, at home, in the media and in society at large, the message can’t be driven home hard enough: the loudest voice is normally the dumbest and the most popular usually the crassest, while anonymity tends to be the cloak of a coward.
3. Challenge the anonymous to explain why they’re hiding themselves. I’ve yet to hear a good excuse, other than “I don’t want my boss to realise I spend my day social networking”, which isn’t exactly the most honourable motivation.
But, hey, @webwarrior101, celtic_timewaster and email@example.com, I don’t want to be too hard on you. Many’s the completely identifiable commentator that warrants being ignored too.
The last word should go to Socrates, whose solution for trolling 2,500 years ago still applies. When asked why he wasn’t upset by all the people who badmouthed him, the sage replied: “If a donkey had kicked me, should I have taken him to court?”