Justification of Pseudonymity and Anonymity in Cyberspace
A firestorm is described as “a rapid discharge of significant quantities of messages carrying bad word-of-mouth and complaint behaviour against a person, corporation, or organisation in social media networks…within a short period of time, potentially leading to tremendous waves of indignation” in the 2019 research of Online Firestorms in social media. Starting with the premise that “online anonymity diminishes inhibitions, enhances self-disclosures, and hence encourages online aggressiveness,” this investigation tested this theory. It suggested that those who choose to conceal their identities are not bothered by risks or limitations.
Abigail Dubiniecki, a Data Privacy Lawyer and Specialist, is keenly aware of the need of protecting personal privacy, but she contends that a lack of responsibility is the true problem. “There are respectable and responsible users of the internet who have good reasons for posting anonymously.” When it comes to prioritising one’s own safety, she concurs with the conventional wisdom. Without proper protections, this might stifle free expression, especially among political dissidents and people on the run from danger.
Those who aren’t afraid of taking chances shouldn’t feel the need to hide who they are. To this, Jeff Doctor chimes in by noting that “pile-ons” on Twitter are a typical form of protest, and that for individuals who are cautious not to be the primary character on social media, this fact has a self-regulating effect:
The worry that something could get cancelled isn’t always unwarranted. Case studies on how Black and Indigenous people may “talk back” to those in authority can be found all throughout Black Twitter, and to a lesser extent, Native Twitter. Doctor says that social media sites like Twitter provide the disadvantaged a voice by highlighting “daily injustices throughout the world.” The concept of shame plays a central role in many branches of law and serves as a powerful social norm that influences individual behaviour. A concept of “cancel culture” or “pile-ons” requires consideration of power dynamics and the nature of norm deviation.
He adds that anonymity is neither universal nor absolute, citing the way in which law enforcement “privileges” some individuals over others and provides those individuals with a voice because they support the existing quo. Doctor is persuaded that having moral values that differ from the present quo has implications, but he acknowledges that this opens up a rabbit hole of ideas about power and governance.
“Even if I believe there is no reason to ‘hide,’ I don’t have the freedom to express my opinions as I see fit on the internet. My “brand” (or “internet identity”) is deliberate and adapts to the context. Any theory of reduced inhibitions must account for power dynamics.
In addition, Doctor argues that “by its very nature, all activity online is tracked, recorded, and potentially surveilled either now or in the future, but this isn’t applied fairly.” Even while this is an incontrovertible result (which will not be challenged in this essay), it stands to reason that this has far wider consequences, especially for people who wish to preserve their authentic identity online.
In her book Identity Woman, Kaliya Young talks about a woman named Kathy Sierra, a blogger and game developer who, after receiving death threats online in 2007, quit her tech job and disappeared from the blogosphere. After that happened, many started talking about establishing blogger codes of behaviour to end this kind of harassment and assault against women.
We wouldn’t be where we are now if the earliest reports of harmful online behaviour toward women were taken seriously and offenders who were identified were put to account. They didn’t.” The hacker and self-proclaimed neo-Nazi and white supremacist who used the alias “Weeve” to spread false rumours about Sierra had avoided punishment. The identity of Weeve was quickly revealed, as Young puts it; everyone soon realised who he was. He threatened to kill Kathy again and over again. Nobody, not even leaders in the tech industry, advocated for criminal charges to be brought against him. If he had done something like that, he would have been sent to jail. I was there when they announced that Kathy had not shown up for the conference due to death threats. It had an impact on my life as an IT professional and a woman. Instead of being stopped, he was let alone to execute additional terrorist actions.
The Social Norms Theory establishes the parameters within which individual conduct is expected to fall. People tend to generalise from extreme examples of conduct to the norm since they are the most striking and easy to recall. As a result, some people could start conforming their actions to those of the “general public.”
The 2019 investigation into social media blazes began with the theory that users would behave more aggressively if they were able to hide their identities. However, this was debated, and the findings showed “that in the setting of online firestorms, non-anonymous persons are more aggressive compared to anonymous individuals.”
Accusers should not remain anonymous while holding “public actors” accountable for actions motivated by “lower order moral standards,” as both Doctor and Dubiniecki have argued.
Those already at a disadvantage are much less likely to benefit from this.
This point is supported by Denise Paolucci, who sent me to this study:
Recent literature and case studies disprove the Online Disinhibition Theory’s claimed significant impact on user behaviour. The majority of current research indicates that long-term, stable pseudonymity is the most abuse-resistant system: “people appreciate the reputation of a persistent, long-term pseudonym just as much as the reputation of their wallet name (which, after all, you may share with thousands of people).
According to someone who has worked in Trust and Safety on online platforms, the consensus amongst her peers is that “required verification or any system where users are expected to use their wallet names either has no difference in the abuse rate or makes abuse worse,” and that a large portion of the worst abuse online comes from people who are using their wallet names or otherwise have verified their identity.
To paraphrase, “the root of online abuse is typically a dispute between several groups with conflicting values or ideas, and in those communities, expressing such opinions isn’t ashamed or reputation-damaging.”
Paolucci alludes to the white nationalist demonstration held in Charlottesville in 2017. She claims the majority of the event’s organisers and participants hid behind their offline identities. As the author puts it, “Plenty of individuals are willing to speak and do the most despicable things conceivable online under their wallet identities, and needed verification will do nothing to prevent that.”
Justification for Openness and Independent Checking
Transparency is essential for journalists and others whose identities are vital to their work. It’s getting harder to tell what’s true in a world where phoney accounts can be made in seconds and identities may be assumed by anybody. This is often left up to the discretion of the user, who may not have access to the information they need or possess the requisite expertise to make an informed choice.
Young emphasises that the reward will be worth the “effort, rigour, commitment, and balanced approach.” She argues that there is room for compromise and that speed bumps might be used to make it less enticing for malicious actors to exploit an inadequately constructed platform. The design of a social media platform can be improved by considering unintended consequences, such as privacy and security threats, from the start (using a tool like One Dot Everyone, which scans potential outcomes), and by doing so alongside the investigation of potential replacements for verification of user identities. Human rights impact assessments and privacy impact assessments will also help a great deal in reducing dangers.
Young casts doubt on the verifiability of the procedure. Who gets to judge if a person is who they claim to be? Her expertise in the identification field suggests that a trust framework be built to manage the challenges of ID verification. However, this does not answer the question of who or what is ultimately accountable for establishing verification standards.