Anonymity, Pseudonymity, and Identity

I spent many years in academia and schooling, maybe a few too many. Over the course of my education, I had far too much time to over-think sociological and philosophical topics. Because of this I wrote several essays trying to solve nearly impossible problems. In my head, problems relating to mundane social interaction, international relations, and social power dynamics, were all easily solved in under 10 pages. I thought every problem had an easy solution that millions of people, most more experienced than me, were simply ignorant to.

In one of my undergrad essays, for a course on Political Cosmopolitanism, my thesis claimed that anonymous communication was a relevant force in the internet age for removing one’s identity and equalizing the power gap between all participants of a conversation. The essay used examples from Reddit and 4chan, and discussed how anonymity reduced every social actor in a conversation down to one “meaningless” mass of non-identity. A user could be talking to anyone, and they needed to adjust the way they communicated accordingly. This was a superficial argument, it did nothing to address social power, privilege, and identity politics. I lacked the necessary research and experience to know why I was wrong, and my naivety still haunts me.

As an effort to redeem myself, I would like to use this week’s article to argue with my stance from 3 years ago, and once again explore the concepts of anonymity, pseudonymity, and identity.

“The Great Equalizer”

When discussing anonymity, I am referring to sections of the internet where “real names” are avoided, whether it be a choice to allow users to post without an identity or a choice of their own screen name. For a long time, these two were the de-facto naming policies of websites.

Both anonymity and pseudonymity allow a user to define themselves by their words and their actions rather than by their perceived identity. The assumption is that without clear attachment to a physical body and a name, an individual will be more free to speak their mind since an unpopular opinion carries no social consequences.

With anonymity, there is no permanence to an individual, hence a user could be talking to anyone. Users will adjust their attitude and speech accordingly, and because nobody knows the identity of other users it is difficult to be prejudiced another individual based on their gender, sexual orientation, race, national identity, etc. In theory, that is how it is supposed to work.

With pseudonymity, individuals can be identified and given prominence but they are not identified by their actual body. They could simply create a mask to hide themselves in plain view. It is not necessarily a perfect system but it is seen as a happy compromise between strict naming policies and anonymity.

It is a great equalizer because no “real identity” is known. Online representation can never be concrete, because every user knows that others can chose their personas freely – and simply reset their presence as needed. Words are ultimately what defines an individual – whether it be for a moment via anonymity or, with pseudonymity, a presence that emerges more than once. These systems provide a theoretical meritocracy and utopia for those who believe in this system – a libertarian sandbox where everyone is supposedly as equal as anyone else.

“The Unintentional Oppressor”

In my youth, I thought these were positive qualities. If you were a marginalized individual, or did not hold a mainstream opinion, you could speak your mind freely with little fear that someone will find and use those words against your “real identity.” I was not wrong in thinking that these these systems has positive attributes, but I erred when seeing the notion of “free speech” as a positive in and of itself. At its best, free speech is an inconsequential concept, while at its worst a dangerous one. The most obvious problem is that anonymous users have a penchant for abusing their anonymity. Whether found through stalking, death threats, trolling, and hate speech, if someone’s “real identity” is found out, anonymous users will show no remorse. If someone is not part of the homogeneous white mass, if they do not look like the others users, they will be told how “wrong” they are, repeatedly, and in a handful of violent ways. Having a system where everyone can “speak their mind” never becomes inclusive, and is nothing but a reinforcement of the status quo where those willing to abuse those privileges will be given the power to do so with the tacit approval of the majority.

Despite the claim that nobody has a “real identity,” most users assume that any other user falls into a status quo. The common belief is that every others user automatically falls into the demographic that holds the most power: cis, white, heterosexual, and male. This presumption must persist for the system to work, because any identity that exists outside of it changes the dynamics of conversation. When it is assumed that everyone shares an equivalent identity, it is more easy to believe that the power dynamics present in society have been erased. This is not egalitarianism, because it assumes everyone belongs to the same privileged group. No other types of people exist until they make themselves known. For example: there are no girls on the internet until there is a girl on the internet.

Therein lies the ultimate problem: these systems would only ever work if the users actually respected the ideals that came with anonymity and pseudonymity. When an individual exposes their real identity, especially one that does not fit within the status quo, users often try to violate that individual’s privacy. One needs to look no further than victims of the online hate campaign, GamerGate. If one user suspects another of being a girl, they might hound them relentlessly and try to force them to confirm that they are not part of the status quo. The user in question may be demanded for pictures proving that they are a girl, subject to random skype calls, or messaged direct sexual harassment. The phrase “tits or GTFO” is not limited to 4chan – it is the common internet experience on women everywhere. Anonymous users often feel entitled to proof without giving any context or concrete reason for why they cannot believe another human being at face value. (p.12) It is either “prove you are who you say you are,” or be seen as a liar. For one to confirm they hold the identity they say they do, they need to sacrifice their anonymity and pseudonymity – which makes them even more vulnerable to harassment.

When one is exposed as not being a cisgender heterosexual white male, they become an easier target for online attacks; which are a frightening prospect. Since the system is based on the premise that every user belongs to the same demographic, they often defend the abusers, deny the abuse, and then blame the victim when they are exposed. Abusers try to argue that individuals who are not anonymous are public figures, while being protected by their peers fighting for an irrelevant ideal. Anything goes, and nobody is responsible.

Towards a workable future.

While these systems are incredibly far from perfect, they are not without redemption. It will require effort on the part of developers and moderators to make better. For example, a system could track users on the back-end while allowing anonymity and pseudonymity to remain as a staple of user to user interaction. Much of the problem with current moderation policy is the misguided belief that these anonymous social interactions are self-regulating. This claim has been proven false, time and time again, and one needs to look no further than 4chan and Reddit to recognize it. Whether or not the users like it, moderation needs to be active, hate speech rules need to be enforced, and criminal activity and threats need to be taken seriously. If moderators kept at it, they could create safer and more inviting message boards.

There will be a backlash at first, but the era of the “community driven and abused” internet needs to end before message board administration commit to more drastic to more draconian policies that are even more harmful to marginalized individuals. I know users will scream out “1984! Big Brother!,” but if 4chan and Reddit continue to gain a harmful reputation as safe-havens for terrorists, racists, and misogynists, more extreme options such as “real name” policies will continue to gain clout. Communities have proven unable to govern themselves, so moderators need to step up and enforce those communities – or slowly watch the notion of anonymity disappear entirely in favour of “real name” policies.