Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Anonymity has its time and place

January 26, 2011
By A. Gaffar Peang-Meth

Anonymity has its time and place. The U.S. Supreme Court recognizes it as "a shield from the tyranny of the majority" -- not a bad thing! American forefathers' Federalist papers were written under a nom de plume, "Publius."

But in this Internet age, many anonymous postings are uninformed, misleading and ignorant. Some are venomous attacks to hurt and discredit.

On Nov. 29, 2010, Facebook product design manager Julie Zhuo's New York Times article, "Where Anonymous Breeds Contempt," cited psychological research that has "proven again and again that anonymity increases unethical behavior."

Zhuo contended that in the online world of total anonymity, "People -- even ordinary, good people -- often change their behavior in radical ways." She dubbed it the "online disinhibition effect."

Zhuo says "trolling" -- the posting of inflammatory, derogatory or provocative messages in public forums -- has its roots dating back to the 4th century B.C. Classical Greek philosopher Plato told the parable of the mythical ring of Gyges, which gave its owner the power of invisibility. A habitually just man with the Gyges ring would become a thief. For Plato, morality comes with full disclosure -- without accountability, a man behaves unjustly.


Zhuo's piece brought letters from readers.

Aden Fine, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, spoke of "the long American tradition" of anonymous speech and the benefits of permitting people to express themselves without revealing their identity. He admitted, "There will always be people who abuse anonymity, but people abuse all sorts of
things that we wouldn't want banned. Anonymity permits people to say things that they might not otherwise say. That's a good thing, even if we don't always like what they say."

Zhuo argued that before the Internet age, when someone spoke in public, his audience would see who was talking; anonymity was then "a rare thing."

Zhuo said the "knowledge that what you say may be seen by the people you know is a big deterrent to trollish behavior."

"Instead of waiting around for human nature to change, let's start to rein in bad behavior by promoting accountability," she said. Curbing "uncivil behavior" through "raising barriers to posting bad comments is still a smart first step."

Ed Tant of Georgia, a columnist for The Athens Banner-Herald, said that just as printed newspapers require letter writers to sign their submissions, online comments should use the same rule. He quoted former New York Times publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger: "Along with responsible newspapers we must have responsible readers."

David Evans of Massachusetts contended that had those exposed by WikiLeaks known that their names and writings would be revealed, their messages would have been refined or not transmitted at all.

Evans cites President Abraham Lincoln's words to Congress in 1862: "In times like the present men should utter nothing for which they would not willingly be responsible through time and in eternity."

Darienne Gutierrez of Washington, D.C., supported everybody's right to free speech, "but it seems that the Internet has opened the doors to a worrisome accumulation of irresponsible speech." She backed Zhuo's call for the Internet to replicate real-world social norms and agrees that "users should be held accountable"

By requiring Internet users to identify themselves, "Maybe that will make them think twice about what they are about to write," Gutierrez reasoned. She quoted Lincoln, who said, "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak up and remove all doubt."

A balance is needed

On the same day of Zhuo's article, juxtaposed was the Times's David Brooks' "The Fragile Community," on WikiLeaks, which drew several hundred letters from readers.

Mark Moorstein of Virginia, commented Brooks' piece "presents an interesting moral dilemma inherent in Internet speech," evident in Zhuo's point that anonymity permits Internet users "to abuse and to defame," and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange's view that "public accountability always trumps private speech."

Moorstein argued, "Ultimately, we can't have a functioning society without a balance of privacy and accountability." He said: "We can't exist as a society" if everyone has a right to know everything about everyone, or if no one has a right to know anything.

Moorstein called for a balance -- "not on any absolute principle, but on an evaluation of the public and private intentions of the speaker, his good faith, and the consequences of the action." He viewed Zhuo as "correct," that public accountability encourages morality; and Brooks as "right," that public accountability -- especially concerning the safety and protection of our society -- can go too far, and that "Assange has gone too far."

I am rather bemused to read vicious anonymous postings that are totally irrelevant to the subject examined. To insert irrelevant, even mean-spirited commentary into a discussion is far from being indispensable to civil debate of the issue in hand. It is tantamount to what Plato said: "Wise men speak because they have something to say; Fools, because they have to say something."

I am reminded of Austrian psychiatrist Alfred Adler's definition of an "inferiority feeling," sometimes apparent by a tendency to blame someone else: "Behind everyone who behaves as if he were superior to others, we can suspect a feeling of inferiority which calls for very special efforts of concealment. It is as if a man feared that he was too small and walked on his toes to make himself seem tall."


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