by Geoff Gillette
Many people champion the cause of Internet anonymity, saying that being anonymous is empowering, giving people a voice that can express their opinions without fear of reprisal. There is certainly some truth to that theory, especially in countries with oppressive regimes or in smaller settings like schools where being different or espousing an unpopular opinion can lead to all manner of issues.
The problem though is that anonymity (or the perception of anonymity) can cause more problems than it solves. And the Internet seems to be popping up new apps and websites that capitalize on anonymity on nearly a daily basis.
Recently a middle school in Manhattan Beach, California got a lesson in the dangers of anonymous posting that caused the school to be shut down for two days.
The school in question is Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach. Using the anonymous online app Yik Yak, an individual posted threatening comments about the school, which resulted in a shutdown. When nothing happened, a second and third threatening message appeared which led to a second day of no classes.
I’m not singling out Yik Yak, which by and large is just another social media avenue for tweens and teens to communicate as they migrate away from more mainstream channels as Facebook and Twitter. It is a geo-local means of communication where you will only see or create posts related to a 1.5 mile radius around the poster. Many teens use it as a back-channel of sorts that allows them to freely speak their minds without fear of discovery.
Empowering, yes, liberating, definitely. But as John Dalberg-Acton said, “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” And in this case, the empowerment that comes with anonymity has both a corrosive and corruptive effect.
Case in point would be bullying related suicides attributed to another anonymous posting app, ask.fm. The Latvian-based website was designed to allow users to anonymously post questions to one another. Yet it has morphed over time into a breeding ground for bullying and predatory behavior. Add instantaneous picture posting sites like Snapchat and Instagram to the equation and you have a situation where youngsters can be cajoled or bullied into sending compromising photos of themselves, which leads into deeper and darker waters from there.
Most of these examples have trended toward younger users, but they are not the only ones affected. Look on the comment threads on nearly any news or entertainment articles and you will see a proliferation of vitriol and the loss of common decency, all because the person can post whatever random screed they want behind the shield of a screen name. The comments can range from the ubiquitous “blame Obama” to the most hateful racist, homophobic rants imaginable. That is not freedom nor power, it is cowardice. The fear of being called out for your opinions.
Just bear in mind, that shield you hide behind doesn’t really exist.
Earlier I mentioned the “perception of anonymity.” That perception goes hand in glove with something we’ve mentioned before, “the fallacy of privacy” on the Internet. Unless you have the requisite skills and training to cover your tracks, there is no true anonymity on the Internet. For the casual user, anything you post can be traced back to you. In the case of the Mira Costa High School threats, police can use search warrants to track down the user who posted them. In the ask.fm bullying and subsequent suicide, one of the bullies bragged about it on Facebook, which led police to their door.
So parents, your path should be two-fold. In regards to your children, have frank discussions about the dangers and consequences of anonymous sites like Yik Yak, Ask.fm, Kik and others. And as role models and adults, show your children how to express themselves without resulting to hate speech or threats. Show the coming generation that civil discourse and the ability to disagree has not gone the way of the Betamax.
Do you monitor your child’s online activity? At what age do you give them Net-freedom?