Anonymity on the internet is the cloak of the coward


OPINION:Online debate appears lively and stimulating. But dialogue between masks always lacks the courage of conviction

This column is for you bigmouth86 and you @jadedcynic and the ubiquitous Lookatmeimsoclever and not forgetting

There has been a lot of talk about you lot – anonymous commentators – lately and a lot of it has been emotionally confused and unbalanced.

Playing into the hands of both online trolls and old media protectionists, the debate quickly descends into whether you are “for” or “against” new technology.

Let me be clear: you are not Satan’s children, and you don’t deserve to be silenced. Rather, you deserve – in the main – to be ignored.

I say that conscious of the fact that about half of all commentators on the Irish Times website are anonymous (according to my own surveying this week), and conscious also there may be legitimate reasons to use a pseudonym (mainly for the likes of bloggers in Syria).

It’s also true that anonymity afflicts old media – from the use of unidentifiable texts on talk radio shows, to quoting unnamed and sometimes highly dubious sources, especially in “celebrity” stories.

But anonymity is a particular phenomenon in the online space, and one which new media evangelists have a blind spot about. What’s even more surprising is how, each time this subject is raised in an online discussion, “real people” view their anonymous counterparts as equals, when the reverse plainly does not apply.

By their very nature, the anonymous free-ride on the goodwill of others – because it’s the others who make a debate real or authentic.

Much of the discussion around anonymity on the web focuses on psychological studies which show how people behave less ethically when their identities are hidden. But the value of citing this research is questionable. It’s unlikely any troll will see the error of his ways if he learns of the harm being done to his soul.

Far better, then, to focus on arguments from political science, which could be summarised as follows:

* Anonymity is a plea for exceptionalism; it’s an abuse of hard-fought political freedoms. The Easter Proclamation does not bear the name Pearsemeister1916, and were it to have been anonymous the declaration would have had little effect. But what would Pearse make of Irish citizens today wilfully surrendering their freedom of speech?

Lack of transparency and lack of accountability go hand in hand. Or as the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer put it: “Anonymity is the refuge for all literary and journalistic rascality . . . The freedom of the press should be thus far restricted; so that when a man publicly proclaims through the far-sounding trumpet of the newspaper, he should be answerable for it, at any rate with his honour, if he has any; and if he has none, let his name neutralise the effect of his words.”

* Anonymous opinion is fundamentally dishonest; you can’t divorce ideas from the person behind them. In the fantasy world of hacktivism, there is a notion you can have “ideas without origin”. Supporters of the campaign group Anonymous have used this phrase, not realising it puts them philosophically in the Dark Ages.

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, 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?”

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