Does anonymity make us meaner?

Using anonymous crediting on the internet can cause serious problems

Serious problems can result from anonymous posting

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Serious problems can result from anonymous posting

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As children, we all learn the basic rules of interaction- use your words, share, take turns- with a heavy emphasis on “the Golden Rule.” It’s the crux of childhood, the expectation that we treat others how we want to be treated, and in turn, they’ll do the same. This idea has been around since Jesus’ day, and is even a crucial teaching in the Bible, according to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, a peer-reviewed academic source for philosophy. We rely on this unspoken social decree in all settings, and should it disappear, chaos may very well descend on a world trained to obey this ancient expectation. While this social Wild West has not yet reached our world, it’s crept into another- the Internet.

Legally, the Internet is notoriously unregulated. While you can’t shout “fire” in a movie theatre, you can say just about everything you want online. Socially, there are few expectations- don’t hack, don’t leak information, and follow the Golden Rule. However, on the Internet, that last idea is a bit more abstract. Once you log on, you aren’t the same person you are in real life. We all hide behind screen names and potentially falsified profile pictures. Nobody is obliged to legally be themselves, and some platforms provide an even further cloaking, such as the choice to be fully anonymous on websites Anonymous messages are a popular way of expressing love or hate to somebody, especially on the social blogging platform: Tumblr.

This mask can give shy people a chance to gush to popular bloggers, but in other times can become a tool for bullying and hatred. In the fall of 2014, I made a joke on my blog, and was receiving around 600 hateful messages every hour. Messages ranged from scoldings to full-blown death threats. It took two people to clear half of the messages, and even then, they kept pouring in.

Most people who sent threats were under an anonymous label. I couldn’t block them, I couldn’t even report them. They were nothing more than ghosts in the Internet’s eyes. Real people had vanished into thin air, becoming nothing more than a grey icon with every hateful message sent from ‘Anonymous’, and nothing more. Eventually, I figured out how to disable the anonymous function with the help of Tumblr’s FAQ, and suddenly, the constant monsoon of hatred began to slow to showers. With names and faces now attached, they were no longer in control. They were people, people who wanted to be treated the way they treated others. Under the guise of anonymity, they had the freedom to have two separate personas. One who treated others the way they wanted to treat them, and another that upheld the Golden Rule.

Anonymity gives us the power to change our being. While there are ways to find the people behind the masks, it takes lot’s of work and knowledge regarding the workings of the web. Everyday people struggle to uncover their assailants, and it gives anonymity more of an edge.

Nobody has to be honest on the Internet, and nobody has to be kind. We can make up anything from our names, to our genders, as seen by the notorious act of catfishing. In 2013, New Orleans Saints player, Manti Te’o, took his story of lying on the Internet to USA Today. The article details Te’o’s heartbreak in learning that the woman he had been talking to online was in fact the figment of somebody else’s imagination. Many others have come forward with their own stories, inspiring the popular show Catfish to track down these betrayed individuals, as well as the ones who have decided to fabricate an identity, with no consideration for a real person’s feelings.

While ghosts exist on the Internet, so do people. Every time we log on, we’re faced with the choice of whether to remain a human or hide behind a mask. This choice affects us in many different ways- what language our ads appear in, what kind of people enter our circle, who likes our photos- but the most profound impact is our attitude. Human beings feel a responsibility to respect our fellow man, but ghosts have no obligation to anyone.

The next time you type your password in, consider whether you’ll want other people to treat you the way you’ve been treating them.

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