On virtual sock puppets and anonymity online

Recall the very common school classroom scene where the teacher is writing something on the blackboard and someone throws a paper plane aimed at the board. The livid teacher turns back, looks at the class, and asks who did that, and the class is silent?

Or the frequent scene in a crowded auditorium/room where someone in the crowd shouts a sarcastic quip aimed at the stage and the people on the stage have no idea about who shouted?

That’s more or less how anonymity works on social media.

The most common type of anonymity on social media involves the use of a pseudonym, a fake or no photo/display picture, and nothing specific in the bio that could lead others to know who the person is.

The opposite of this scenario is someone who uses their actual first name + last name and others can Google that combination to identify that person on a platform like LinkedIn.

Anonymity itself could be defined in a few specific ways.

Security researchers define anonymity as being ‘unidentifiable within a set of subjects’.

But ‘identity’ is not that linear. Some may use only the first name and nothing else – they are still anonymous. Some may use pseudonyms and mask their identity but leave traces of where they are from in the location (perhaps inadvertently).

Identity is also tied to behavior patterns that may emerge not from just one or two posts on social platforms but over a period of time when someone checks a set of past posts by going to that anonymous profile. Even as the individual behind that behavior pattern is unknown/unidentifiable, people may be able to slot that character into some bucket.

The deeper question is this: why do people want to remain anonymous on social media?

The most frequently cited reason for anonymity is to be able to speak the truth against repressive regimes and thin-skinned, vindictive Governments. But no matter how someone may try to hide their identity while commenting online, Governments, with enormous resources, may be able to trace the person through assorted modern methods.

The other common reason for seeking online anonymity is to get the ability to not let the views they are sharing be tagged to the real person in the offline world.

This is where the problem begins. When the anonymity seeker knows that their real-world self (at home, workplace, neighborhood, immediate social setting) would not get impacted or colored by what they are sharing online, they seem less inhibited and more open to being bolder in both what they share and how they frame such opinions.

When such views are being shared by people who mask their identity, and particularly when it is about others who have not chosen to be anonymous online, there is a conversational imbalance that harks back to the crowded-room setting I referred to in the beginning.

One can argue that ideally, the identifiable people only look at the content of the opinion (or comment/reply) from the anonymous social handles and that they chose to remain anonymous and unidentifiable should have no bearing on the conversation.

If I look at my own experience, I do interact with quite a few social media handles (on Twitter) that seem anonymous but who also leave a lot of real-world cues about their actual presence, work, location, and interests. I also choose to ignore a lot more conversations from many anonymous handles where I simply cannot locate them using any means and where their identity seems cautiously guarded.

It’s also true that not all anonymous handles tend to be abusive or hold extreme views that are framed abrasively. It’s possible that such anonymity has been engineered because that person is merely lurking on social media and is not serious about participation except for the occasional banter. At the same time, most angry, abusive, abrasive, pointless, and obfuscatory conversations/replies I notice (personally) are from anonymous handles possibly making the best use of the anonymity.

And more importantly, even if someone gets to know the identity of the person who is being vile, abusive, or sharing extreme views (say, by looking up on LinkedIn on where they work, which organizations they had been in, in the past, and so on), they have absolutely no way of using that information in any meaningful manner beyond simply judging that person or categorizing that person slightly better.

That is… unless they decide to tag the person’s employee (this happens very often online, as a method to hold abusive characters online accountable), or family members (if available/traceable), or in many cases, going to the extent of brands associated with that person (happens more often with celebrities who endorse brands).

Even then, the tagged entities may decide to not do anything about it, and simply leave it as a freedom of expression (unless, of course, the stated online opinion is also illegal, or slanderous, and so on).

All this while, I was referring to anonymity by choice – that is, people choosing to be anonymous online, for whatever reason. Usually, most social media platforms and websites that encourage online conversations ask that people identify themselves (as part of the sign-in process: age, location, gender, workplace, and so on) as basic criteria involving civil behavior even as people consciously opt to mask real identity information and get in.

But what happens when platforms actively encourage that participants remain anonymous? That is, the platforms themselves may know who the real person is (as part of a sign-up process), but the same platforms hide any identifiable information when allowing such people to participate in online conversations or comments.

Consider a platform like Glassdoor where anonymous reviews are the norm. Glassdoor mentions in its community guidelines that, “to safeguard privacy, we do not allow you to identify yourself or include any contact information (about yourself or others) in your posts”.

So how do they know that an employee is/was really an employee in a particular organization? Again, from the community guidelines:

“At Glassdoor, we aim to verify as much of our data as possible. Considering the reality of our digital age, however, we’re unable to fully confirm our users’ identities, the truthfulness of their contributions, or their employment status. Through our Terms of Use, we do require users to certify their employee relationships to companies when posting any content. We also require email verification from a permanent, active email address, or a valid social networking account.”

More than abuse or holding/sharing extreme opinions, a bigger issue here is around misinformation and disinformation, already a massive problem around the world in the current media/social media ecosystem.

Similarly, another online community like Fishbowl thrives on anonymity.

In terms of accountability, the platform says, “Every user is verified during the sign-up process, through their name, title, and place of employment – creating trust amongst users and context for conversations generated on the platform.”

On identity, the platform explains: “Your posts can be made privately using only your Company name or Professional title if you choose, but your presence on Fishbowl is public.”

And of course, there’s Reddit, a platform famous for anonymity! Steve Huffman, Reddit’s co-founder, said, “When people detach from their real-world identities, they can be more authentic, more true to themselves”.

What this—as also posts made by people who choose to be anonymous/unidentifiable on other platforms by creating pseudonyms to mask identity—means is that they evade judgement by public opinion and only upon a legal mandate can they be held accountable if they cross boundaries of civility.

In simpler terms, if a person who chooses to be anonymous on Twitter shares some fake information about you that affects your reputation in varying degrees (from the mild: ‘that person is abusive and violent’, to the legally problematic: ‘that person is a ___ offender and has harassed ___ people’), your only option is to go the cops and use that complaint to get the platform to take action. The platform itself won’t be able to verify if you are right, or the anonymous handle is right, and won’t take a stand unless they are legally forced to do so.

Since the other person is anonymous, you cannot use a less tedious/cumbersome approach, like appealing to their employer, family, friends, etc. to make them accountable for the disinformation. This goes back to the classroom/auditorium example – all you see is a lot of people who look the same and you are not able to identify who threw the paper plane/shouted a comment from the group.

Recently, a new Indian social network called ‘Zorro’ was announced. The platform, co-founded by Abhishek Asthana, the founder of the digital marketing agency Ginger Monkey, and also famously known by his Twitter pseudonym @gabbbarsingh, bills itself as a ‘pseudonymous social network’. As one of the investors explains, “There is always a risk of being trolled and targeted for the content you share. Hence there was a pressing need for a pseudonymous platform where people can have free-wheeling conversations without the fear of being judged”.

Source: Livemint

Given the tendency of people to behave in undesirable ways when their real-world reputation is not affected by what they say online or how they say it, the proliferation of both pseudonymous social media handles and platforms that, by design, encourage pseudonymous profiles, may amplify the already existing issues around online disinformation and fake news with accountability that can only be forced through cumbersome legal intervention and no other means.

The original concern about anonymous virtual accounts at crossroads with repressive regimes/Governments and hence being at risk is a bit outdated already given that most Governments are now capable of forcing online platforms to hand over as much detail about users as they can and using sophisticated tech. interventions to trace individuals.

But till there is a legal or Government intervention, virtual sock puppets could wreak havoc with the reputations of people who have chosen to participate in online conversations as their real selves and would have no socially mediated recourse, and only the most cumbersome legal recourse to help them. In an online confrontation, it’s almost like one side has their eyes covered by a cloth and their hands tied to the back, while the other side has a bazooka in hand.

The crux is this: you cannot rationally or emotionally appeal to a virtual sock puppet/pseudonymous online entity. You cannot shame them into backtracking their disinformation. You cannot do anything on your own. You need to convince someone else (either in the social media platform company or at law enforcement) to take action on your behalf.

Cover picture courtesy: La Mama, Australia

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