Anonymity and Online Identity – by “George O – YLT2012”

Shakespeare was well ahead of his time—yet again—when he wisely said that “All the world’s a stage.” Did he foretell private government secrets being broadcasted on Wikileaks and Kim Kardashian’s personal thoughts on Israel being splashed on Twitter feeds to cause uproar on our contemporary international stage? The Internet has made everyone and everything so connected and shared that one action or one thought can spread like wildfire on the web. Take Sophia Grace’s rendition of “Super Bass” as an example, and her two-week meteoric rise to stardom when she became the darling child of the new Oprah, Ms. Ellen DeGeneres herself.

She looks happy, to say the least. But not everyone can be as talented, cute, and frankly, lucky, as this young British girl. Well, maybe that is, except her cousin, Rosie, the hype girl, who’s also enjoying meeting the biggest stars and exploring Disneyland on Ellen’s dime.

The point I’m trying to make here is that the Internet does not just create stars instantaneously—it also creates monsters. People become envious, defamatory, bad-mouthed individuals when cloaked with anonymity on the world wide web. They begin to say and do things they would never do in front of another human being. It could be something as small as an insult in a Youtube video comment on Sophia Grace’s 6,798th visit to Ellen, to something as significant as an entire blog dedicated to blaspheme an ordinary person with big dreams (see Civilizing The Internet where a woman dedicates her blog to slander an aspiring model). In the latter article, Rosemary Port, the defamatory blogger, and her lawyer try to quash a subpoena seeking to expose her identity by claiming she was protected under free speech, asserting that her words were akin to Hamilton and Madison’s Federalist Papers. Yeah right. The judge, of course, did not buy it, and Port’s identity was exposed after Google released her information. The model’s lawsuit against her was dropped and Port got cyberSLAPPed, that is, her internet anonymity was taken from her, and the world saw her for the monster she was.

But the question of anonymity and defamation need not apply only to obsessed stalkers. It can also apply to you, yes you, who may write a short reply on a small forum thread. Anonymity on the internet has bred a slew of defamatory gossip in sites like juicycampus (RIP), formspring, and even the Ivy League equivalent, Ivygate.  When alone, posters write spiteful insults and divulge the most private details of normal people on a forum for the whole world to see. Do you think the blurry posts in the forums below really count as protected “free speech”?

These trash talkers though are empowered only through their hidden identity—they write to hurt others under the belief that they are truly hidden and anonymous. They claim their right to free speech and latch onto the fourth amendment to prevent any type of search and seizure that seeks to expose their true identity.

The conundrum here is that on one end, our culture has grown to thrive on juicy gossip tidbits because it gives us a glimpse of someone else’s life that we may not be exposed to in our daily routine. It makes us interested, it motivates us to read the “sluttiest girl” thread and maybe we even up-vote it, because we learned something private, scandalous, and all of that makes us feel better about ourselves. We can comfort ourselves feeling that our own privacy and secrets are still safe, while our peers find themselves under the bright lights of the world’s stage. Feelings quickly turn though, when the stage flips us on and rotates to expose and defame us. We begin to take the insults personally and feel the world closing in on us when our reputation we took so long to build is chipped away by an anonymous comment (The Future of Reputation discusses this issue in great detail.)

The solution to this problem of loving gossip and avoiding gossip of oneself comes down to two possibilities: one, we can continue to fight gossip by publishing more gossip of others for vengeance. After all, our secrets would not be so bad if everyone else’s secret was out there and maybe even ours would pale in comparison to the next juicy tidbit.  Eventually, though, this approach would snowball into tons of gossip pages that would hurt so many people and cause significant damage to unstable people. Instead, we can take the second approach: as the model Liskula Cohen did, we can cyberSLAPP defamatory posters to show that Internet anonymity is a privilege and not a right. It is a privilege that should be used to protect journalists and their confidential sources like those here; this privilege should not be used to protect blasphemous and envious individuals who spit hate on people who are not pubic figures and do no warrant such malicious words. Let us reframe our thinking about anonymous Internet usage to encourage users to become more mindful of the content they broadcast to the world. For this to happen, the legal framework must adjust to the technology and allow for expeditious cyberSLAPP process where people do not have to go through the lengthy process of filing lawsuits to expose the monsters of the Internet.

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