Recently, the New York Times published an anonymous op-ed piece about a top official within the Trump government working to negate the more rash portions of the president’s agenda in order to preserve the administration. It discussed the need for Americans to “break free of the tribalism trap” and put the country on the right track through unity and acceptance.
This piece is a rare example of anonymity being utilized to spread an important, positive message. Anonymity is a powerful mode of expression, but over time it has mutated from a protective shield into a sharp-edged sword. Rather than concealing identity in order to allow people to speak out, it has now become a way for people to engage in vitriolic attacks on one another with impunity.
The shift in the nature of anonymity is linked to the rise of technology. Prior to the Internet, anonymous sources were often publishing their thoughts and feelings in their own communities. Benjamin Franklin, who frequently used newspapers to author anonymous editorials, typically commented on Pennsylvanian society and politics. However, the internet has destroyed this link between anonymity and community.
Rather than restricting anonymity to a small geographic region, the internet has released it to the entire world. A person can now speak on anything from Indian oil policies to the British welfare system. While our globalist information network unites us in knowledge, it has also led to a diminished sense of responsibility.
When we aren’t directly connected to an issue, we have no motivation to be well-informed on the subject or provide an unbiased viewpoint. Instead, we can simply speak our minds without the fear that we will impact our communities or someone we love. After all, no one knows who we are and we’re commenting on something taking place halfway around the globe.
Another drawback of Internet anonymity is its tendency to dehumanize others. Online, debates and comments can become far nastier than in-person dialogue. According to Art Markman, a psychology professor at the University of Texas, the aggression found on the Internet is a product of the ability to disconnect from other humans and view them as nothing more than a screen name.
For an example of this, look no further than the comment section of any online paper posting articles about politics or photos of female celebrities. You’ll see how easily people can divide themselves from others speaking about different ideas such as the conception of women as people rather than sexual objects.
Another dangerous aspect of anonymity is the ability to operate without repercussions. The malleability and shifting motivations of the group known as Anonymous, a loose collection of digital hackers, shows how anonymity shields people from taking responsibility for their actions.
In 2011, the group hacked the child pornography site Lolita City and released the IP addresses of dozens of members, allowing law enforcement agencies to apprehend these criminals. While no one disagrees with putting pedophiles in jail, the activities of Anonymous have, in this case as well as others, frequently exposed the personal information of innocent civilians and negatively impacted companies as they see fit. For example, the group hacked the CIA website in 2012 and revealed an enormous amount of sensitive information, including social security numbers and addresses.
At MSU, we can see more of the dual nature of anonymity. In the spring, anonymous posters seeking to promote diversity and acceptance of different cultures and walks of life are put up around campus. These posters carry slogans like “Native American students, you belong here.” Despite this sunny portrayal, MSU also has a dark side when it comes to anonymity.
According to a study published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior entitled “College student cyberbullying on social networking sites,” 19 percent of MSU students experienced cyberbullying and 46 percent of students have witnessed cyberbullying on social networking sites. Of that nearly half of MSU students, 61 percent did nothing to intervene in the mostly anonymous bullying.
When anonymity is involved, people let out an uglier side of themselves. Accountability for oneself and others flies out the window, dehumanization and objectification skyrocket and simple cruelty prevails over civility. I can’t argue that anonymity should be torn away in every situation. I recognize the positive aspects of safety and privacy, particularly in the online world and when dealing with potentially volatile situations. However, society’s lackadaisical, indiscriminate attitude toward anonymity must end.
We have to recognize the pitfalls of technology-driven anonymity and work to police its darker aspects. As Internet users, we should come together to create an environment that is safe and free for all instead of one populated by anonymous trolls.