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The Value of Anonymity

Anand Purohit

Anand Purohit

Anand Purohit

The rise of the internet has fundamentally reshaped the landscape of free speech and civic discourse. It enables the rapid dissemination of information (as well as misinformation). It allows people to exchange ideas (and hateful vitriol) while sitting thousands of miles away from each other. Its social media algorithms filter our news sources, directing us towards certain media organs and away from others, thus shaping our very understanding of reality. These social media feeds, moreover, have been used to directly manipulate human emotion, with certain companies performing experiments on unwitting users—these experiments demonstrated that, by manipulating the order and content of social media feeds, companies can spread happiness or depression like a plague. All of these impacts are no doubt groundbreaking. However, the most interesting impact of the internet has been its ability to grant anonymity.

These days nearly anyone can create a false persona online, masquerading as another person (real or fictional). They can say things with relative impunity, because no one knows who they really are. In this environment of anonymity, many have suggested laws, mandating that consumers only use their real identity online—in other words, there should be ways of tracing online statements and posts back to their real writers. Why the backlash against anonymity? Well, when people don’t have to face the real-world social consequences of their statements, they unsurprisingly tend to say horrible or unreliable things. Just look at so-called “Gamergate” wherein a woman was viciously attacked by a swarm of anonymous online “trolls”. Or the flood of conspiracy theories that poured through our newsfeeds during the last election cycle, when people accused Hillary Clinton of running a child-sex ring in a D.C. pizza shop, leading a gunman to walk into the store and investigate (I was only 20 minutes away from the pizza place when the gunman walked in, by the way). Of course, no such sex-ring existed but people nonetheless displayed no reservation in spreading the unsubstantiated conspiracy theory. This careless dissemination of false information can, in part, be attributed to anonymity, as it prevents people from being held accountable for their outlandish claims.

Despite these negative consequences, however, I think there is value in anonymity. Yes, it enables some people to say really horrible things. But perhaps there is value in this. Consider the fact that people have (at least) two selves: the public self and the private self. The public self acts in accordance with the express expectations of society; he asks politely how you are doing, though he really does not care at all; he holds the door open for people, though he secretly wonders why they can’t just open it themselves; he profusely denounces racism, though he privately grows suspicious when certain minorities drive through his suburban, gated community. The private self acts according to his own true beliefs, and only comes out when society isn’t looking. The private self is you slouched in your underwear on a couch littered with crumbs, shoveling ice cream into your mouth while yelling “BULLSHIT! YOU’RE LYING!” at your TV as the news anchor makes his report. Anonymity, facilitated by the internet, has allowed the private self to act in the public sphere.

Free from the judgement of society, people say what is really on their mind—sometimes this includes despicably racist or homophobic or sexist things which make me vomit in my mouth. But the point is, anonymity allows us to glimpse into the American public’s private self. This is crucially important, because there is one vitally critical place where the private self always comes out; a place where nobody is allowed to see what you’re doing; a place where privacy is legally mandated; a place whose privacy is enshrined in every city’s laws and constitutions—the voting booth.

When voting, Americans act as their private selves, voting for whoever they truly support, because no one can see who they’re voting for and thus, they are free from the judgement of society. This distinction between the public and private selves largely explains why so many pollsters were incorrect regarding the recent presidential election. While the polls overwhelmingly projected Hillary Clinton to become the next president, it was actually Donald Trump who seized the seat of power. As Pew explains, this is because many people were not willing to publicly admit they were voting for Trump; to avoid stigmatization, they told pollsters they were voting for Hillary Clinton. However, on Election Day, acting as their private selves free from judgement, they voted for Trump. Had we paid more attention to the private self (as embodied by messages on anonymous media boards), we may have more accurately projected voter preferences. More broadly, by better understanding the American private self, we can more accurately project American private behavior.

If we ban anonymity, we abolish this window into the American private self. This muddies our perception of the public opinion, and leads us to believe we are much better than we really we are. It lead us to think we are the polite, door-holding, racism-denouncing public mask, when some of us are undoubtedly different in the privacy of our homes. Perhaps, if we fostered more anonymity and paid attention to the views expressed, we wouldn’t be so surprised when the country commits “shocking” actions. Undoubtedly, anonymity contributes to vitriol and abuse, but there is value in examining this abuse in order to glimpse how the private self is thinking (i.e. is the abuse racialized? Is it targeted towards certain demographics? Is it perpetrated by users within a certain geographic region? Does it regularly make references to particular grievances? Does it arise from a certain kind of situation—that is, are their certain situations to which the private self reacts more strongly?). All of these questions must be answered if we are to better understand the American public.

Nov 10, 2017

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