In his dialogue ‘The Republic‘, the Classical Greek philosopher Plato tells us the story of the ‘Ring of Gyges‘, a magical artifact that granted its owner the power to become invisible. Gyges is thus able to seduce the queen, murder the king, and take over the kingdom. Plato uses this story to argue the point that no man would be just if he had the opportunity of doing injustice with impunity. Everybody would act unjustly if they could get away with crime without being punished. Following this line of reasoning Plato wonders if the law is nothing else than a convenient agreement not to do injustice to others if others will not do injustice to you, but were people able to get away doing injustice without fear of punishment, they would certainly not enter into such an agreement.
No doubt Plato’s got a point here. The effect that feeling invisible, or at least hidden by a veil of anonymity, has on most people is usually anything but benign. Today, thanks to the Internet is very easy to become “invisible” when engaging with others and that compounded with the realization of not being accountable, turns some people into offensive and libeling characters to extremes they would never dream of acting out if they were in a face-to-face situation. You don’t need to search much around to find such characters, most likely they will find you, even if you are the most peaceful person making the most innocent comment. If you can be addressed then you are a potential target for them. A quick look through the comments section of any YouTube video for example, will reveal a collection of the most offending, libelous and tasteless insults imaginable. And this is happening in just about any video, even in the commenting sections of videos with topics like love, peace, etc. or videos that are clearly targeted to children exclusively.
You can read many of the complaints over at the YouTube Forum, where for example one parent was denouncing how his child was confronted with the most vile language within the posted comments, when watching a YouTube video about how to play Lego, would you believe it?. Nonetheless someone had to point out that this was just the logical consequence of implementing true freedom of speech on the Internet, to which another parent challenged that “logic” by saying “please spare me the lecture that the Internet wasn’t meant for kids as it certainly was not created for the purpose of propagating such non-sense which is simply used of offend and shock others. Who should win the innocent kids or the person seeking to victimize others with words of hatred? God-forbid if the kiddie movie has an African-American character as there would likely be several posts that contain the word “N#gger” scattered throughout the comments. I am not ready to have that conversation with a 7-year old.”
The sad fact is that these kind of trolls have permeated the Internet community and are everywhere, ignoring the rules, insulting everyone who doesn’t agree with them, even encouraging violence. It’s the rule of the mob, with lies, libel and unsubstantiated rumours being spread around without any restrictions. The medical profession has a name for this type of behaviour, the Online Disinhibition Effect that refers to a loosening or complete abandonment of any social restrictions and inhibitions during interactions with others on the Internet that would otherwise be present in normal face-to-face interaction. There is no particular type of person drawn to this kind of trolling. Many of them have families and live at home. They can pretend to be just normal people and you wouldn’t know the difference, they could be a shop attendant or a co-worker from the office.
In Ireland, blogger and political consultant Leo Traynor has recently written about the trolling, bullying and harassment he and his family were subjected to. Mr. Traynor was targeted on Twitter, Facebook, by email and on his blog, with antisemitic and hate messages for three years, before receiving packages that included death threats directed to his wife and child. Mr. Traynor contacted the police but to no avail. In the end, with the help of an “IT genius” he was able to track down the troll’s IP address and location, only to discover that it was the son of a friend. When confronted, the 17 year old confessed, saying, “It was like a game thing”, a “game” that almost destroyed Mr. Traynor’s life through anxiety and fear.
Trolls can be just the annoying occasional type or they may have further degenerated into what psychologists call a state of “deindividuation“, when decreased self-evaluation and decreased evaluation apprehension cause anti-normative and uninhibited behavior. Deindividuation usually happens when social norms are withdrawn because identities are concealed. A classic deindividuation experiment concerned American children at Halloween. Trick-or-treaters were invited to take sweets left in the hall of a house on a table on which there was also a sum of money. When children arrived singly, and not wearing masks, only 8% of them stole any of the money. When they were in larger groups, with their identities concealed by fancy dress, that number rose to 80%. The combination of a faceless crowd and personal anonymity provoked individuals into breaking rules that under “normal” circumstances they would not have considered.
Arthur Schoepenhauer wrote well on the subject 160 years ago: “Anonymity is the refuge for all literary and journalistic rascality. It is a practice which must be completely stopped. Every article, even in a newspaper, should be accompanied by the name of its author; and the editor should be made strictly responsible for the accuracy of the signature. 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 neutralize the effect of his words. And since even the most insignificant person is known in his own circle, the result of such a measure would be to put an end to two-thirds of the newspaper lies, and to restrain the audacity of many a poisonous tongue.”
On the other hand, anonymity can be a valuable and legitimate tool for individuals to expresses an opinion that could present a personal risk to the writer because of social loads and dependencies such as family, job, political position, etc. that usually take preference over any form of free speech. However, as Tim Adams points out, although the argument that it’s necessary to give an anonymous voice to such people as the opponents of oppressive regimes may seem like a worthwhile argument, the amount of good that is done by such people is greatly outweighed by the harm done by trolls, flamers, haters, nutcases and outright criminals who are also protected and enabled by anonymity.
Wikipedia constitutes a good example of the good anonymity can do for the spreading of information and off-center ideas. A large percentage of its content is written by anonymous contributors, people who choose not to reveal their identity when writing about a all kinds of topics imaginable. But Wikipedia also suffers a lot from vandalism, something that would not happen if editors were forced to register with their real names and by requiring regular users to register before they can edit anything, instead of using an IP address as a way of trying to identify trolls and vandals as they do now.
The solution in my opinion passes by allowing people to be anonymous, but at the same time making them accountable. It’s understandable that some people would wish to remain anonymous towards the general public, but everybody needs to be traceable and accountable to some sort of higher authority, because we are talking about serious offences here. Who monitors those higher authorities remains an open question.