Why internet anonymity is not the menace you think it is


On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” is as true now as it was when Peter Steiner made a cartoon about it in 1993. The world of internet provides a perception of anonymity. In the wake of several cases of cyberbullying involving death threats, trolls and violent responses capable of creating religious and social strife, there have been demands from several quarters to pierce this veil of anonymity.

In Plato’s Republic, there is the tale of the ‘Ring of Gyges’. Once you put the ring on, you’re invisible and anonymous. Plato asked whether those who put on the ring will be civil and moral. He did not think so. What are the ramifications of the ring of Gyges we all wear on the internet?

More than one hundred years ago, Gustave Le Bon in his book “The Crowd“—based on his experience with the Paris Commune of 1871 and the later period of social turmoil during the 1890s—expressed his belief that “isolated, the man may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd he is a barbarian”.

Since then, the belief that anonymity is a root of antisocial behaviour has stood firm in popular minds. Philip Zimbardo later in the 20th century through his famous Stanford prison experiment proved that “anonymity should reduce inhibitions of behaviour”.

Several discussions that followed the #MeToo movement and those involving religious and political issues cross the limits of decency and civility. Several individuals and organizations have been forced to close down the comments pages of their sites because of the deluge of hate mails that have poured in.

Despite many instances of its misuse online, anonymity has significant virtues and therefore, must be preserved.

In his famous book Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification, Timur Kuran explains the interesting concept of preference falsification. The preferences that an individual ends up conveying to others is what Timur will call one’s public preference. It is distinct from the person’s private preference, which is what he would express in the absence of social pressures. By definition, preference falsification is the selection of a public preference that differs from one’s private preference.

All of us subject ourselves to preference falsification. Pressure groups within any society will impose stiff penalties on anyone challenging the commonly held beliefs. So, the views and behaviours that are expressed by most of us in public are not always the real beliefs that we actually hold deep within in our hearts. Such public acts of hypocrisy to avoid public strictures is a universal phenomenon of human behaviour.

Whenever a controversial change is discussed, there will be many who will take a public stance supporting the status quo. On the surface, it might look as if the vast majority favours the status quo, while the truth might be different. However, things may be different if there was an opportunity for people to voice their opinions without any public censure. The anonymity of the internet provides an individual the opportunity to express his or her views without public consequences.

As a policymaker or a corporate leader, one often needs to know the real beliefs and concerns of the people. Traditional research techniques which generally involve face-to-face interactions are ripe for preference falsification. What we hear is not the true expression of the respondent’s inner beliefs, but a modified, censored version of what one wants others to hear. No wonder that anonymous comments on Glassdoor are often more candid than exit interview revelations.

Daniel J.Solove, professor at George Washington University, in his article in The New York Times, points out that anonymity on the internet has often made people nastier and more crude in their speech. According to him, anonymity allows people to conceal their identity and all the ugliness they hide beneath their polite facades. While this may be unpleasant, the real question is, is this is the true opinion?

If it is, then the perception of anonymity has served its purpose. It has given opportunity to people to express their views and beliefs, even expressions of hate and anger.

People do not have any other avenue to express their genuine innate emotions. Thanks to the internet, policymakers and corporate leaders will have at least one avenue to know the real emotions of their constituents. A deeper content analysis of these responses will help unearth the factors that lead to emotional outbursts just the way that administering effective medication requires a thorough understanding of the micro organisms involved.

Yes, the law enforcers should have the ability to cut through the anonymity and trace the source of a message if needed, like in cases that involve clear violations of law, terrorism, child pornography and fake news etc. where the intentions are clearly malicious. And while this facility does exist for the law-enforcing authorities, there is still no case for law-abiding citizens to worry about voicing their genuine views anonymously.

We should not forget that anonymity is at the core of many of our democratic processes. The sign of a true democracy is the secret ballot—the ability of the voter to express his preference anonymously without any sort of social consequence. So, for all its flaws, anonymity on the internet must still be preserved if digital platforms are truly to be avenues for truthful self-expression. That will be the true sign of a modern democracy.

Biju Dominic is the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm