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Froma Harrop
NationofChange / Op-Ed
Published: Sunday 18 March 2012
“Some defenders of Web anonymity hold that not only was the Gay Girl blog not evil, it was a potential force for good.”

The Real Problem With Online Anonymity

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Who is writing that brilliant, stupid, nasty, brave and/or dishonest online comment? We haven't a clue, because the author hasn't shared his or her name, hometown, gender, age and/or nationality. Or even worse, the author pretends to be another real person. Scammers, misfits, crooks, creeps, criminals and nice people all venture through cyberspace without identifying themselves. We can only guess what they're up to.

Web anonymity is often a force for evil in the civic conversation. There is the celebrated case of the blog known as "Gay Girl in Damascus." Followed by many and quoted by some journalists as an authority on events in Syria, the gay girl turned out to be a 40-year-old married American man writing from Scotland.

Some defenders of Web anonymity hold that not only was the Gay Girl blog not evil, it was a potential force for good. Maybe the author wasn't really a lesbian in Syria. The blog did help real gay men and lesbians by giving them a forum in a country where homosexuality is shunned or worse.

But did it? How could gay Syrians know that they were really communicating with other gay Syrians? A forum participant may have been a heterosexual teen in Dallas or a table of drunken friends in Seattle having fun at another's expense. "He" or "she" could have been a homophobic resident of Damascus, luring local gays into a dangerous trap.

Even cyber-sophisticates can play the chump. Consider this comment on a piece about online anonymity that appeared on the techie website GigaOM.com. Someone going under the name "David" discusses Cocoon, a web browser plugin that, its ads say, "protects online privacy." Then we read: "Full disclosure. I do work for them." Well, thanks for leveling with us, er, David.

Provocateurs can set up blogs purporting to support a political view with the intention of undermining it.All they have to do is insert false statements that will turn off or utterly confuse certain readers. For example, one of the president's political foes might write, "Barack Hussein Obama is a good Muslim, and anyone who criticizes him for that is a bigot."

News organizations are beginning to demand that their online forum participants identify themselves. (That's why some have moved comments to Facebook.) But many cyber-libertarians resent any rules. They see an end of online anonymity as the dream of tyrants everywhere.

"Governments, in particular, absolutely loathe the idea that people can speak without being identified," media columnist Dan Gillmor wrote in The Guardian. He darkly warned, "I fear there will soon be widespread laws disallowing anonymous speech, even in America."

Gillmor can sleep soundly because the authorities ultimately can't control cyberspace — the arrest of several "Anonymous" hacking gang members notwithstanding. Of course, there are times when saying important things may physically endanger the speaker. Honest folks might fear being identified in discussions on sexually transmitted diseases. But online bullies often hide behind anonymity simply because they are cowards.

What are civic-minded people to do?

They can't censure online speech, nor should they try. But they can start teaching themselves and others what makes forum comments valuable. One mark is that the author is willing to stand behind his or her statements with that person's real name. Without a name, credibility is up in the air no matter how smart the comment sounds.

As for the sweaty mobs of posters going incognito as they drop poison on others, they are simply gutless. Forums should put a yellow stripe beside their words.

"Every scarecrow has a secret ambition to terrorize," the Polish poet Stanislaw Jerzy Lec wrote. And so what if he does?

COPYRIGHT 2012 THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL CO.

Copyright Creators.com


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ABOUT Froma Harrop
Froma Harrop’s nationally syndicated column appears in over 150 newspapers, including The Dallas Morning News, Houston Chronicle, Seattle Times, Denver Post and Newsday. The twice-a-week column is distributed by Creators Syndicate, in Los Angeles. Harrop has written for numerous other publications, ranging from The New York Times and Institutional Investor, to Harper’s Bazaar and Metropolitan Home. Previously, she covered business for Reuters Ltd., in New York, and was a financial editor for The New York Times News Service. A Loeb Award finalist for economic commentary, Harrop was also honored by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. Over the years, the New England Associated Press News Executives Association has named her for five awards.

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12 comments on "The Real Problem With Online Anonymity"

David Brookbank

April 06, 2012 9:53pm

I prefer identifying myself with my comments. Do I fear reprisals and threats? Yes. In fact, I have been physically attacked on the street protesting the war in Iraq (May 4, 2004, corner of Hamilton and Mission, Spokane WA) and have been openly threatened on the comment pages of the Miami Herald and letter to the editor page of the Spokesman-Review. I drive a car with homemade bumperstickers very frontally denouncing US imperialism and US war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, resulting in frequent aggressive gestures, speech, and maneuvers intended to intimidate me in this military town (home of Fairchild AFB and one of the military "survival" school used to reverse engineer survival techniques to refine US torture methods). Not all political speech can and should take place online. Some of the most powerful political speech is offline. I will continue to identify myself.
David Brookbank

Christie

March 20, 2012 11:31am

Anyone who wants to perpetrate the kind of phony blog represented by "Gay Girl in Damascus" will find a way to do so, rules or no rules. Meanwhile, those of us who have any of myriad reasons for wishing to post anonymously in many situations will most likely be reduced to silence.

The civil libertarians have it exactly right. I'm disappointed that Nation of Change seems to be suggesting otherwise.

BozoAdult

March 19, 2012 2:15pm

They want to know your identity so they can retaliate if you don't adhere to the "official story". It's as simple as that.

infandous

March 19, 2012 5:42am

Want even more false info out on the web? Don't allow anonymity. The government hates anonymity for one reason; they want to target and track everyone and everything. Eliminate it, and freedom dies.

BozoAdult

March 19, 2012 3:00am

Web anonymity is essential.

Employers can and will discriminate based on political alliances.

fortune ringquist

March 19, 2012 1:49am

amen.

luckylongshot

March 19, 2012 12:39am

While the web is full of disinformation this situation is still better than allowing anonymity to be breached. We live in a society where a small elite control the mainstream media and the news we get to hear is the discourse they want us to hear rather than the truth. This means that the independant and critical media that is essential for democracies to function effectively is now a myth. The web at least allows the truth to come out. It was invented by hippies who envisaged it as helping allow protest and free speech and this role should be protected.

fortune ringquist

March 19, 2012 1:32am

Thank you very much. People do not seem to see how dangerously close we are to losing it all. Free speech, freedom of the press, right to bear arms. The right to know. well if we lose our anonymity, we could be searched out by our govt. or special groups, and suffer the consequences of speaking out against their ways. And now that obama (and yes i am meaning to be disrespectful) went and signed secretely our internet freedom away with other european countries, we will as of july be censored. which means it will soon be no different than media news. we will only hear what the govt. wants us to hear. but tell your senators, congressmen, mayors, and everyone else that each state needs to take control and put to use our 10th bill of rights, allowing us to stop the feds from making us go by their unconstitutional laws that they are passing, taking our rights away from us. We don't have to take this from them.

Jimwww

March 18, 2012 6:40pm

Web anonymity isn't so often a force for evil in the civic conversation as it is a force calling for people to be more discerning and better informed. Anonymity makes a fool of the uninformed and causes them to marginalize themselves by believing in stupid things. It is a good thing for such fools to be marginalized.

fortune ringquist

March 19, 2012 1:46am

oh and i suppose that you believe that if/when the govt. puts computer chips in all our children that it is to be able to track a child in case of an abduction, not because they can track and control them themselves. wow. and you call them fools. i blatantly put my name on this comment because i am crazy and don't give a rat's a-- if the govt. knows that i think they are more corrupt than the maffia. and MR. JIMWWW, let me ask you this: is JIMWWW your real name??????

dwdallam

March 18, 2012 2:40pm

We wouldn't need to do any of this if we taught students logic starting in 1st grade. They could then see for themselves that the statement: "Barack Hussein Obama is a good Muslim, and anyone who criticizes him for that is a bigot" is unsupported and thus a necessary target of skepticism.

SaulT

March 18, 2012 2:01pm

All they have to do is in­sert false state­ments that will turn off or ut­terly con­fuse cer­tain read­ers. For ex­am­ple, "All they have to do is in­sert false state­ments that will turn off or ut­terly con­fuse cer­tain read­ers. For ex­am­ple, one of the pres­i­dent's po­lit­i­cal foes might write, "Barack Hus­sein Obama is a good Mus­lim, and any­one who crit­i­cizes him for that is a bigot." "

;-)