The debate about online anonymity has been around since the first computer to computer message – in fact the entire structure of the internet was originally built (or not, depending on opinion) around how users and devices would be identified and credited. But that is for more qualified people to debate. My interest is the current discussion on how media outlets, forums, and social media are dealing with the, what are presumable positives for online anonymity, vs an insistence from many for ‘identity reality’.
My take – there can be no true anonymity, nor is there true identity. The nature of the web and social media allows for someone to essentially create a completely different persona, as in the ‘Gay Girl in Damascus Blog‘ (via BBC News), and if we are on Linkdin, Facebook, Twitter or any other social media platform, even the most truthful will ‘pad the bio’ – it will be the best photo, the achievements vs mistakes. This, of course, happens when companies, and individuals, hire a public relations or more commonly now, a social media company to handle their online persona as a brand – recognizing the transition in how people relate to advertising, customer service: loyalty has radically altered.
Mathew Ingram has a correct position in his article “Anonymity has real value, both in comments and elsewhere”
But as online media veteran Dan Gillmor pointed out in a piece for The Guardian on the “Amina” affair, the fact that someone can pretend to be a gay blogger in the Middle East without being discovered also means that real lesbians and other persecuted people in Damascus or anywhere else can also post their thoughts online, and that can be a very powerful force for democracy and human rights. Should anonymity (or what is actually pseudonymity) only be allowed for those who can prove that they really are political dissidents? And if so, who would do the proving? Says Gillmor:
Agreed: but it is not evident in Sri Lanka (which is a major 1st world IT outsource provider), Burma (or Myanmar), Russia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore – all which have the connections to create anon accounts, but somehow have failed to connect with ‘mainstream’ social media while the Arab Spring does? – so, it is correct for Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen, but not for Syria – or others? (and I say mainstream social media with tongue in cheek). The value in being anonymous is allowing for suppressed voices to be heard while protecting the individual, the disadvantage is ensuring the information is credible. While we may rightfully credit social media platforms, and the underlying communication infrastructure, for the medium of anonymous messaging – and exposing especially human rights issues, the caveat is companies, regimes, political parties and individuals can use the same to ‘game’ the system.
The use of un-named sources in journalism has been contentious in the recent past with a number of high level court cases often siding on exposing the source in the public interest. Journalists in the US and other Western democracies have gone to jail rather than reveal an anonymous source. However, editors and journalists hail to an ethical code before publishing news based on deep background un-named sources, and have the resources to verify information, while on social media citizen journalists, and those who simply share and propagate information, rarely check accuracy or the actual source.
This is a nature of the internet and the social web. In itself the technology and platforms are neutral – it is us who impose the rules and standards. While many governments are seeking ways to curtail or circumvent anonymous speech, the value of anonymity far outweighs the potential dangers.