I still believe in internet anonymity – even when you’re being mean to me

We hear a lot about trolls and the trolling they do in the news these days. A sub-class of human previously restricted to the mysterious world of specialist messageboards and forums about dodgy TV shows nobody watches any more, the troll has now been brought front-and-centre, blinking uncertainly in the shimmering light that is Twitter.

The adoption of Twitter to the bosom of the mainstream has finally done for social media what Facebook could not and would not: it’s made it okay to talk to absolute strangers, even if you’re not an ‘internet geek’.

Twitter, whether it likes it or not, is now a regular feature on the news bulletin – be it thanks to a celebrity making an announcement, having an argument or acting weird or, as is now more common, some arsehole threatening to rape someone or plant a bomb outside a columnist’s house.

Those who partake in trolling — of which there are very many complex levels from mild ribbing to the above-mentioned  ‘death threat’ with a whole sub-genre of sexism, homophobia and vague paedophilia in between — are often thought to ‘hide’ behind the anonymity the internet affords them. Although IP addresses are freely available to any body who can be bothered looking for them, the fact that it’s usernames and not full Sunday names which accompany each bilious entry allows us a freedom that we are in turns proud of and disgusted by.

Every so often, there are calls for procedures to identify internet users to be more transparent and robust. Sites like Google and Facebook largely have ‘real name only’ policies, Arianna Huffington, the founder of Huffington Post, who I also blog for, has now announced that commenters on HuffPo will no longer be able to speak their mind anonymously – full ‘Wait until I get you home’ monikers will accompany every contribution. This could mean bad news for the very few wannabe trolls who bother to log in to tell me how pathetic I am.

There has been applause and outcry in equal measures in response to a ‘real names’ approach to posting on the internet. On one hand we remove the opportunity for trolls to post faceless vitriol with little worry about the effect it has on the object of their ire. I imagine menacing posts about cutting somebody’s throat or planting a bomb lose their thrill for the poster if their name is easily retrievable, easing the path to retaliation and/or punishment.

Casual racism and homophobia would, perhaps, shuffle off elsewhere from its natural habitat at the bottom half of articles in the leading newspapers and all would be well again. There is nothing quite so powerful as a barrier to online nastiness as having your full name attached to it, take it from me.

But when crusading against the vicious, masked internet assassins, we forget the other side of anonymity: the ability to speak one’s mind without fear of recrimination. Internet posters don’t just spout random opinions and then take their leave — they engage, interact, reply. They try to bully those who don’t toe their line. People on the internet like to disagree with each other, and things can get very heated. An online pseudonym doesn’t just give you carte-blanche to be as unpleasant as you like; it protects you from those who are.

In a world where a name is instantly retrievable on Google and almost everyone ‘has Facebook’, an invisibility cloak of some sorts gives the ‘good’ people of the internet the chance to speak frankly about what they believe in — be it attacking racism, talking about the positives of immigration or impassioned essays on horrifying real-life experiences.

Naysayers claim that as long as you don’t post vitriol on the internet and are totally truthful, you have nothing to worry over when it comes to a removal of internet anonymity. But I disagree. For all those who post on the internet, there are thousands, millions more just watching, like a coiled spring, awaiting outrage. Maybe your musings on the situation on Israel or gay marriage or women’s rights in Saudi Arabia may seem fairly balanced and innocuous, but there’s every chance someone out there doesn’t like what you’re saying, and wants you to know it. Remove your mutual veil of online facelessness and your detractor may find other ways to make life difficult for you. And how will they do that? Well, with your name freely available for all to see, he or she is spoiled for choice. A heavy-handed example, yes, but we shouldn’t encourage the opportunity. For every 100 people who just shrug and think ‘what an A-hole’, there’ll always be one twisted mind willing to go the extra mile in the name of internet justice.

Why should the few maniacs who think it’s OK to threaten to cut someone’s head off spoil it for everyone else? Anonymous posters can invite discussion, shine light into the darkest corners, help overturn oppression and prejudice. Why remove that power just because some people use it irresponsibly?

So, internet warriors, do your worst. In some ways, it is almost flattering that someone would take the time out to log in (or in cases of extreme desire to express, sign up!) and type furiously away, their tongue no doubt hanging out of the side of their mouth, just to say that you suck.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but I’m hard-pressed to take offence at what humm1ng8ird1876 has to say, even if they’re lobbing outright homophobia my way or calling me a… well, take your pick. After all, they don’t know my name either.

Anonymity is a gilded cage which protects us from each other. Let the key stay lost.

This is an updated version of a post which appeared in Huffington Post last year.

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  1. I think the trolls are pure cowards. They are probably these ugly, stinky, miserable people who spend half of their lives on the internet and because of that don’t have any friends. These are also people who wouldn’t tell you what they think of you in your face. I feel sorry for them.

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