The many problems of online anonymity

Contact Counsellor

The many problems of online anonymity

  • Pseudonymous social media handles and platforms that encourage them amplify issues around fake news.

Defining anonymity

  • The most common type of anonymity involves the use of a pseudonym, a fake photo or the lack of one, and nothing specific in the bio.
  • The opposite of this is when someone uses their actual first name and last name, provides their designation and company name, and mentions their interests.
  • In such cases, anyone can Google that combination to identify that real person on, say, LinkedIn.
  • Security researchers define anonymity as being ‘unidentifiable within a set of subjects’.
  • But identity is not that linear.
  • Some may use only the first name and nothing else – they are still anonymous.
  • Some may use pseudonyms and mask their identity but leave traces of identifiable information through their content.
  • Identity is also tied to behavioral patterns that may emerge from what is shared over a period of time.

Reasons for being anonymous

  • The most famous reason for anonymity is to be able to speak the truth against vindictive governments.
  • But no matter how someone tries, governments these days, with enormous resources, may be able to trace the person.
  • Another reason for seeking anonymity is a keenness to participate in online conversations without being judged for past experiences (victim of harassment, for instance) or for choosing non-heteronormative identities or for documenting deeply personal experiences that could be subject to sweeping judgments by others.
  • Yet another common reason for seeking online anonymity is to not let the views be tagged to the real person being spoken about, in the offline world.
  • And this is where the problem begins.
  • When the anonymity-seeker knows that their real-world self (at home, workplace, neighborhood, immediate social setting) will not get impacted, they seem less inhibited and bolder about what they share and how they frame such opinions.
  • This is the online equivalent of ‘How would you behave when you know no one is watching you?’
  • When such views are being shared by people who mask their identity, and particularly when these views are about others who have not chosen to be anonymous online, there is a conversational imbalance.

Encouragement by platforms

  • All of the above examples refer to anonymity by choice.
  • But what happens when platforms actively encourage participants to remain anonymous?
  • The platforms know who the real person is (as part of sign up), but they hide any identifiable information when allowing such people to participate in online conversations.

Issue of fake news

  • The issue is not only about abuse or extreme opinions here but also of misinformation and disinformation.
  • Anonymity, either by choice or enforced by platforms, gives the power to a person to evade judgment by public opinion.
  • Only a legal mandate can hold them accountable for spreading lies, should the need arise.
  • In simpler terms, if a person who chooses to be anonymous on Twitter shares some fake information about you that affects your reputation in varying degrees, your only option is to go to the police and then get the platform to take action.
  • The platform itself won’t be able to verify if you are right or the anonymous handle is right, and won’t take a stand unless it is legally forced to.
  • Since the other person is anonymous, you cannot use a less tedious approach, such as appealing to their employer, family or friends, to make them accountable for the disinformation.
  • Given the tendency of people to behave in undesirable ways when their real-world reputation is not affected by what they say online, the proliferation of both pseudonymous social media handles and platforms that encourage pseudonymous profiles may amplify already existing issues around online disinformation and fake news.

Way forward

  • Technology firms should invest in technology to find fake news and identify it for users through algorithms and crowdsourcing.
  • Funding efforts to enhance news literacy should be a high priority for governments.
  • Encourage independent, professional journalism.
  • Making IT rules more strict to deal with miscreants online.