The Precious Necessity of Online Anonymity
The ability to stay anonymous online is a vital protection for free speech, a positive good for information-sharing, and often just plain fun.
The tired and relentlessly stupid idea of banning online anonymity is once again peeping over the parapet to check if it could be given one more consideration.
This time, it might get its shot. Sen. Ron Johnson, Republican chair of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, recently criticized the controversial Section 230 regulation but said “one solution may be to end user anonymity on social media platforms. Social media companies need to know who their customers are so bad actors can be held accountable.”
Censorious actors on both sides of the political divide are sensing a perfect opportunity to claim another scalp in what has been a sensational year for their cause. Trump’s Twitter ban and the mass deletion of accounts just wasn’t enough, and so more speech-limiting targets must be hit. In their eyes, social media anonymity is a scourge they have long dreamed of crushing.
And it’s no wonder why. Anonymity is a vital, positive tool for the sustenance of freedom of speech. Like the Corinthian helmet of ancient Greece, it masks identity but affords just enough space for the eyes, allowing citizens to safely observe those set above them. It liberates many social media users, so that they are able to think and speak according to conscience, reveal information that powerful governments and corporations would rather not see the light of day, and float new ideas to novel problems with protection from reputational destruction.
There are countless examples of anonymous speakers countering disinformation or government falsehoods, and the coronavirus pandemic has revealed just how valuable they can be. In February 2020—when the West was busy ignoring the threats of the virus, and the World Health Organization was gearing up to announce that the real risk was stigma, not a lung-flooding disease—Caijing magazine published an anonymous piece lambasting the Communist Party for hiding the truth about human-to-human transmission. Also that month, a coronavirus whistleblower in China died, just weeks after warning about the virus, an act which led to his arrest. Dr. Li Wenliang warned “a healthy society should not have just one voice.”
The array of voices available to us will surely suffer if Senator Johnson’s suggestion is taken up. Our society will be unhealthier because of it.
Pseudonymous writing has been a critical feature of culture and communication for centuries, but this has always required a certain degree of trust in an editor or publisher, and comes with the risk of your identity being exposed. But with anonymous social media, everything is in your hands. To what extent you reveal information about your identity is up to you. If we lose anonymity online, we will be robbed of access to the voices who fear the risk of identification that comes with contacting editors or another whistleblower.
One of the main arguments for removing anonymity online is the claim that it leads to trolling. Racism, threats, heated comments, and nastiness are all magnified—it is alleged—by the protection afforded by facelessness. It’s an enticing argument because instinctively it seems to be true. Anonymity lets people speak without their thoughts being associated with their faces, which might be appealing if you have a tendency to think especially risible or aggressive things. But unfortunately for those who make this “just-so” argument, the facts don’t support their assumption.
Vox’s Coral Project has demolished the claims made by this camp, finding that not only would removing anonymity fail to reduce online misbehavior, but that it could have the entirely opposite effect. The report anticipated a worsening of discrimination and harassment from requiring real names online. Revealing identities makes people more liable to abuse, even if they are not professing anything particularly controversial. And in terms of positive conduct online, a Michigan State University paper found that people are more sensitive to group norms when it is harder for others to identify them.
In my own experience, some of the nastiest trolling and agenda-driven, misleading garbage I’ve received on Twitter and other such wonderful social media platforms has been flung from the slingshots of blue-checked, big-follower accounts. The problem is not with the oversaturation of anonymous profiles, but limited kindness and a conscious effort to publicly misunderstand online opponents.
Elsewhere, Disqus found that anonymous users posted the most high-quality comments. This small discovery reflects a much broader positive of widespread anonymity: the community-fermenting benefits of not knowing who you are speaking to. Attractiveness, status, background, and other categories by which people are judged are instantly discarded; all that matters to other users in your shared bubble of discussion is how you might contribute and engage with others.
This can create absurdly niche and internal memetic cycles of interaction, but who cares? We all need spaces where we belong, where we are listened to and treated with respect, and anonymous communities help foster that reality. Identities are hidden in these little worlds, but there is more honesty in their words than those delivered by the self-aggrandizing public poster, desperately trying to say what they want while anxiously attempting to keep up with the ever-changing rules of permissible speech.
I’ll be completely frank, part of my keenness to defend anonymous online social media accounts is because they often provide me with lavish servings of entertainment. Yes, there are the positives of anonymity I’ve already listed: freedom for whistleblowers, liberation for the public-sector workers otherwise trapped in an NDA-signed crisis, and the opportunity to form niche communities. But while all of this is terribly important, I have to admit that, for me, it is probably all secondary to the fact that I want to continue to enjoy watching people called “Bronze Age Pervert” be faced with questions such as, “have you tried rhubarb crumble? It is a powerful meal.” This has its value too, if only in hilarity.
But sometimes that is good enough. Who should be granted the ability to determine whether or not you can anonymously ponder the power found in baking a hardy, pink perennial? That, too, is a tyranny that should be resisted. Esoteric humor is more readily produced in the delicate microcosm of facelessness.
So keep anonymity, for the communities it develops, the truth it reveals, and the silly little jokes that give us joy. The effect of its loss cannot be quantified; we’ll never know how much information we might miss if it is taken from us. I don’t want to take that risk.
Charlie Peters writes from the UK.