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The Real Problem With Online Anonymity

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Who is writing that brilliant, stupid, nasty, brave and/or dishonest online comment? We haven't a clue, because the author hasn't shared his or her name, hometown, gender, age and/or nationality. Or even worse, the author pretends to be another real person. Scammers, misfits, crooks, creeps, criminals and nice people all venture through cyberspace without identifying themselves. We can only guess what they're up to.

Web anonymity is often a force for evil in the civic conversation. There is the celebrated case of the blog known as "Gay Girl in Damascus." Followed by many and quoted by some journalists as an authority on events in Syria, the gay girl turned out to be a 40-year-old married American man writing from Scotland. 

Some defenders of Web anonymity hold that not only was the Gay Girl blog not evil, it was a potential force for good. Maybe the author wasn't really a lesbian in Syria. The blog did help real gay men and lesbians by giving them a forum in a country where homosexuality is shunned or worse.

But did it? How could gay Syrians know that they were really communicating with other gay Syrians? A forum participant may have been a heterosexual teen in Dallas or a table of drunken friends in Seattle having fun at another's expense. "He" or "she" could have been a homophobic resident of Damascus, luring local gays into a dangerous trap.

Even cyber-sophisticates can play the chump. Consider this comment on a piece about online anonymity that appeared on the techie website GigaOM.com. Someone going under the name "David" discusses Cocoon, a web browser plugin that, its ads say, "protects online privacy." Then we read: "Full disclosure. I do work for them." Well, thanks for leveling with us, er, David.

Provocateurs can set up blogs purporting to support a political view with the intention of undermining it. All they have to do is insert false statements that will turn off or utterly confuse certain readers. For example, one of the president's political foes might write, "Barack Hussein Obama is a good Muslim, and anyone who criticizes him for that is a bigot."

News organizations are beginning to demand that their online forum participants identify themselves. (That's why some have moved comments to Facebook.) But many cyber-libertarians resent any rules. They see an end of online anonymity as the dream of tyrants everywhere.

"Governments, in particular, absolutely loathe the idea that people can speak without being identified," media columnist Dan Gillmor wrote in The Guardian. He darkly warned, "I fear there will soon be widespread laws disallowing anonymous speech, even in America."

Gillmor can sleep soundly because the authorities ultimately can't control cyberspace -- the arrest of several "Anonymous" hacking gang members notwithstanding. Of course, there are times when saying important things may physically endanger the speaker. Honest folks might fear being identified in discussions on sexually transmitted diseases. But online bullies often hide behind anonymity simply because they are cowards.

What are civic-minded people to do?

They can't censure online speech, nor should they try. But they can start teaching themselves and others what makes forum comments valuable. One mark is that the author is willing to stand behind his or her statements with that person's real name. Without a name, credibility is up in the air no matter how smart the comment sounds.

As for the sweaty mobs of posters going incognito as they drop poison on others, they are simply gutless. Forums should put a yellow stripe beside their words.

"Every scarecrow has a secret ambition to terrorize," the Polish poet Stanislaw Jerzy Lec wrote. And so what if he does?

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