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SAGA CORNER

Anonymity and Social Media

Article114.png“Jawaharlal cannot become a dictator. And yet he has all the makings of a dictator in him – vast popularity, a strong will directed to a well-defined purpose, energy, pride, organizational capacity, ability, hardness and with all his love of the crowd, an intolerance of others and a certain contempt of the weak and the inefficient. His fleshes of temper are well known and even when they are controlled, the curling of the lips betrays him.” These are the few lines from an anonymous article bylined Chanakya, published under the heading ‘Rashtrapati’ in 1939 in the Modern Review, edited by Ramananda Chatterjee. It caused a sensation. Nehru eventually owned up and explained he had himself written the article because he did not want a third term as Congress president.

Even when the Web was in its infancy, two decades ago, The New Yorker magazine ran a cartoon with a dog sitting in front of a computer, one paw on the keyboard. The caption read: “”On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” Anonymity has always been an appeal of online life. But its menace has increased manifold as users of social media have taken for granted that the territory was both a free-for-all and a digital disguise, allowing them to revel in their power to address the world while keeping their identities concealed. It is as if people lose all empathy and that the person they attack online is not a human being. People lose all sense of decency and humanity through online communication.  This shows that if that is the major legacy of the Internet then the web has been a bad development for humanity.

What’s important is that one has the freedom to engage in a conversation, not that one has the right to be as unpleasant or rude as possible.  The bottom line is that civility is important in personal relations and on the internet too. At its worst, it gives trolls and cyber bullies licence to pick arguments, threaten and abuse. Anonymity has become the refuge of scoundrels. Because of anonymity the Internet is the biggest showcase of inanity and stupidity. The misinformation, the paranoia, the childish illogic, the endlessly repeated Internet hoaxes, the phony statistics, fake quotations, the doctored-up examples from history: all go under the cover of anonymity. Deceit and fakery have destroyed the fabric of Internet culture.  Anonymous commentators definitely write more scathingly and righteously and angrily. Anonymity has made comment streams on websites havens for a level of crudity, bigotry, meanness and plain nastiness that shocks the Internet public.

Votaries of the anonymity on the web argue that even voting is anonymous. It’s the basis of democracy. The often repeated allegation that anonymity encourages vileness from some (not all) people is not correct. There are also thoughtful and perceptive anonymous comments – so it is not the anonymity alone that leads to vileness in comments. Anonymity rather gives you the means to express your true viewpoint, free of any pressure. Anonymous comments more accurately reflect the true opinions and insights of the commentator. People have varied opinions on lots of things. You might have some views on one subject, but quite different from your bosses. We don’t live in a fair world, and if those bosses see your point of view on the Internet, odds are you’ll lose your job, or worse. There are sensitive subjects like abortion, gay marriage, political leaning and so on. Moreover, some people on the Internet don’t understand the concept of sarcasm.

I have never posted any comments online anonymously.  I believe this defeats their purpose: namely, to stir up debate on important issues of our day, and solicit the views of others—who may disagree. What has perhaps stunned me the most are the negative and vile comments on Indian news sites. To eliminate or censor comments, however, does not seem to be the answer either. I agree that personal attacks should be eliminated.  However, here is a catch. Too many prominent Web sites censor political views, and exclude those that are not “”politically correct,”” which is absurd.

The New Yorker has quoted the psychologists Marco Yzer and Brian Southwell putting, “new communication technologies do not fundamentally alter the theoretical bounds of human interaction; such interaction continues to be governed by basic human tendencies.” Whether online, on the phone, by telegraph, or in person, we are governed by the same basic principles. The medium may change, but people do not. The question instead is whether the outliers, the trolls and the flamers, will hold outside influence—and the answer seems to be that, even protected by the shade of anonymity, a dog will often make himself known with a stray, accidental bark. Then, hopefully, he will be treated accordingly. Few news organisations, including The Times, have someone review every comment before it goes online, to weed out personal attacks and bigoted comments. Some sites and prominent bloggers, like Andrew Sullivan, simply do not allow comments.

Most news sites do not have the resources to do routine policing. Many sites allow readers to flag objectionable comments for removal, and make some effort to block comments from people who have repeatedly violated the site’s standards. If commentators were asked to provide their real names for display online, some would no doubt give false identities, and verifying them would be too labor-intensive to be realistic. But news sites executives say that merely making the demand for a name and an e-mail address would weed out much of the most offensive commentary. Several industry executives have cited a more fundamental force working in favour of identifying commentators. Through blogging and social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, millions of people have grown accustomed to posting their opinions – to say nothing of personal details – with their names attached, for all to see. Adapting the Facebook model, some news sites allow readers to post a picture along with a comment, another step away from anonymity.

Free speech has its limits. Let the warning go out to all those who engage in such attacks, that “”truth”” will not be a defence. Incidentally, it’s a pity they didn’t have these laws in place. 250 years ago in France, when Voltaire used false names to publish nasty “”whistle-blowing”” attacks against Rousseau, viciously exposing the fact that Rousseau had abandoned his children in orphanages.  Rousseau pointed out that the author of these pseudonymous attacks was a coward, but it would have been good to put Voltaire in jail too for what he did. We’ve seen how unfettered anonymity quickly breaks down into digital anarchy on other sites, and vowed to approach things differently at our current online news and information offering. Some news sites executives are extremely pleased with the result, finding that taking a hard stance against trolls and fifth columnists goes a long way toward preserving civility and, ultimately, the value of the site for their readers.

Online behavior, the mere isolation behind the screen, leads to a host of problems that are not really related to usage of one’s real name or an anonymous one – this comes from being alone behind the screen, not unlike that of being a sole driver in a car in traffic. The isolation and anonymity is there, and the anger, rudeness and aggression are there as well.  The widespread phenomenon known as cyber bullying is prevalent among teens regardless of whether the real name is used or not. Internet use today is a large, unchecked playing field where people are not taught how to behave civilly. Various circles are trying to figure out what creates this behaviour.

In the early days of the Internet, anonymity ruled in chat rooms and message boards. The interest in an anonymous web has never disappeared. But it has become less popular amidst the growth of Facebook. The early days of the Internet resulted in a largely negative connotation towards anonymity, but that is shifting as anonymity is coming back into fashion. The recent revelations about NSA monitoring of phone and Internet activity only increase concerns about privacy, Web companies like Airbnb are using real identity on the Web to make sure users are safe when they travel to strangers’ homes. The Facebook verification is a key part of establishing trust for such sharing economy companies. Travelers can see that a user is a normal person, not, say, a psychopath. Airbnb has also gone beyond Facebook to add another layer of identity verification, wherein people have to upload a photo of their driver’s license or passport to be verified. The information age is really the age of disinformation. We all know that, of course. Not only is public discourse marred — or perhaps defined, which is even more unfortunate — by various propaganda campaigns waged by one party against the other.

Not only is the public trust betrayed by those in public office and those who report on it, but disinformation has leached into our personal lives. If you’ve ever read a review of a hotel or restaurant that proved to be entirely false, then you’re a victim of the disinformation age. If you’ve ever left a negative comment because of some slight, or trashed a book without reading it because you’d heard something about the author or the topic that didn’t appeal to you, then you’re just like so many people who use modern technology to disseminate age-old vitriol. It’s a start. So-called trolls who use comments sections to espouse negative views or to threaten or foment discord will always find ways to keep fanning the flames of disinformation. Will traffic drop to the sites that require a person behind the comment? Who knows? And if traffic is strong as a result of anonymous comments, which by their anonymity play to the cowardly worst in human nature – that tendency to be cruel without being discovered – then if traffic drops when anonymity is banished then the site is attracting a better class of visitor, even if there are fewer of them.

The Internet is for building relationships, not for belittling others or for dropping insults behind a false screen name. In the conversation that’s supposed to occur in an online community, anonymity breeds contempt. The Huffington post, the thriving US news site has recently denied anonymous comments. In the post, announcing this decision, it said, “it’s the tension between anonymity and accountability that is at the heart of a recent decision the Huffington Post has made to move away from anonymous accounts on its commenting platform. From its earliest days, The Huffington Post prioritised investing in its community. We wanted to create a positive environment for people to have a real conversation with each other. We pre-moderated all comments, developed state-of-the-art moderation technology, and hired a platoon of human moderators – a 40-person-strong team to supplement the technology and ensure a civil environment.

“But one glance at our comment section or the comment sections of other sites demonstrates what we’re all up against. Trolls have grown more vicious, more aggressive, and more ingenious. As a result, comment sections can degenerate into some of the darkest places on the Internet. At HuffPost, we publish nearly 9 million comments a month, but we’ve reached the point where roughly three-quarters of our incoming comments never see the light of day, either because they are flat-out spam or because they contain unpublishable levels of vitriol. And rather than participating in threads and promoting the best comments, our moderators are stuck policing the trolls with diminishing success. “It’s simple and painless to decry online toxicity; it’s harder and more important to do something about it. We at The Huffington Post have chosen to take an affirmative step by verifying the identities of new commenter accounts. We won’t eliminate every last note of negativity and nastiness on the site, but we believe this change will offer the guarantee of a gut check.

“Our hope is that this decision will lead to more of the robust conversations that we love having on HuffPost.” Newspapers in their web sites are also turning toward regulated comments. Of the largest 137 U.S. newspapers — those with daily circulation above 50,000 — nearly 49% ban anonymous commenting, according to Arthur Santana, assistant communications professor at the University of Houston. Nearly 42% allow anonymity, while 9% do not have comments at all. No one doubts that there is a legitimate value in letting people express opinions that may get them in trouble at work, or may even offend their neighbours, without having to give their names, said William Grueskin, Dean of Academic Affairs at Columbia’s journalism school. “But a lot of comment boards turn into the equivalent of a barroom brawl,” he said. “People who might have something useful to say are less willing to participate in boards where the tomatoes are being thrown.”

(The writer is a senior journalist and had a long innings with The Hindustan Times. Views expressed are personal.) 

By TIS Staffer
the authorBy TIS Staffer

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