by Geoff Gillette
My father is very fond of saying, “Opinions are like @&*holes, everybody’s got one.” Colorful phrasing aside, he certainly has a point. Every human, from the age when they can first express discontent, has the ability to let you know their opinion on things. Their life, their current situation, even the world at large.
Living as we do in a Free Society, people are free to share their opinions and thoughts in a variety of ways. We can have discussions sitting at our favorite bar or at a club meeting or the library. We can stand outside an employer we believe is using unfair labor practices and hold up signs giving that opinion. These things still happen, but most people nowadays choose to share their opinions digitally, safe from harm behind their computer screens.
And therein lies the danger. Because, as I've said before, "Anonymity breeds contempt."
The debate over anonymity as it pertains to free speech has been going on for years, and it is unlikely to end any time soon. But the reality is that online anonymity is toxic. The level of discourse in society has taken a nose dive since people began to have the ability to say whatever hateful things come to mind (whether it be about race, religion, politics, sexual identity or whatever) with zero accountability.
Take the Justine Sacco incident. This young woman sends out what she claims was a joking tweet from the airport regarding ebola and her trip to Africa. In the hours it takes to fly to her destination, the tweet has gone viral, prompting thousands of comments, including death threats against her.
Did she deserve to be pilloried over stupid and (intentionally or not) hateful comments? Of course. In life there are consequences and people should be held accountable for their actions.
But what about the hundreds of anonymous online trolls who threatened her with rape? With her death and the deaths of her family? Where is their accountability? Their rage is understood, but if they were standing in the same room with this young woman, would they still be talking of rape and murder when there is knowledge that they too will be held accountable? Pretty unlikely.
Numerous cases of suicide have been documented where the person who took their own life was the subject of systematic bullying and abuse through social media. All done under fake names and behind a cloak of anonymity. Anonymity gives people the power to reinvent themselves, to be online anyone or anything they want. Which includes letting their inner sociopath out on a regular basis to bully, threaten and hurt with impunity.
Companies like Facebook, Twitter and the like have policies in place to protect the identities of their users, while at the same time having other policies which don’t allow users to have fake names? Which of those takes precedence? And why, when a situation like bullying or abuse is happening does that not provoke a response from these social media giants? Especially when Facebook’s own founder Mark Zuckerberg invokes the Charlie Hebdo attacks as a means of underscoring Facebook’s commitment to free speech without violence. Where is that commitment when the violence is achieved through the very free speech he is claiming to protect? Is he really so naïve as to believe that words don’t matter?
I understand that people want the ability to vent their anger without fear of reprisal. That’s what friends are for. Not a billion similarly anonymous humans who could be hurt by your vitriol. If you’re afraid that what you’re going to say is going to cause your friends to shun you, then perhaps you should rethink what you were going to say in the first place.
And let’s not forget those who devote their time and energy to creating chaos online, posting hateful things just to see a reaction and just in general make mischief. Of course I’m talking about trolls. There is an entire subculture of those who seek to disrupt conversation just for the fun of it. This helps nothing and just further unravels the fabric of civil discourse. There are some who are working to create ‘safe zones’ online. Places where individuals can go and have conversations without the fear of trolling and attack.
It is a sad fact that there seems to be a disconnect between allowing for free speech and protecting individuals from anonymous hate. I don’t believe the founding fathers had anonymous blogs in mind when they penned that section of the constitution. It would be interesting to see their reaction to the state of free speech today and whether it looks like anything they envisioned.
Tell us in the comments, should free speech be protected by anonymity or should people be accountable for what they say?