SciTech

Pugwash: Anonymity on the Internet is both a blessing and a curse

Credit: Eunice Oh/ Credit: Eunice Oh/

On Feb. 4, Facebook celebrated its 10th birthday. The beloved social networking site has allowed over one billion people to be a part of a giant web of communication. In a recent interview with Bloomberg Businessweek, Mark Zuckerberg suggested allowing users to log in anonymously. “It is somewhat of a burden if you are always under pressure of a real identity,” Zuckerberg said during the interview.

Anonymity can release the burden of identity by not tying people to the things they do or say online. In one sense, not revealing one’s identity allows more freedom of speech. Anonymity is helpful in avoiding consequences that may come along with an individual’s actions, such as stalking or bullying.

Yelp, the popular business review site, is a good example of an online space where anonymity allows for more honesty when critiquing businesses. Most people will not go up to their local barber and tell him that the haircuts he gives are terrible, but they might say something to the same effect if they are able to post their thoughts online under a pseudonym. Anonymity can also remove unwanted connotations that come along with identity. For example, female authors, such as the Brontë sisters of the 19th century, wrote under aliases so that people would take them more seriously. Anonymity is powerful in the sense that it decreases the consequences associated with speaking out and allows people more freedom to say what is on their minds.

However, detaching one’s actions from identity can be dangerous. Anonymous communication changes normal social interaction. Because restraints on speech are loosened, people are more willing to speak out. They do not have to think about how they will present themselves because their actions are not associated with their identity. Usually, when we communicate, we subconsciously monitor and adapt to behaviors of others around us. Anonymity in online interactions eliminates this tendency, making bad behavior more likely.

Anonymous is an international activist group in which unnamed members unite under a common cause, usually against the government, religious groups, and corporations. Under the veil of anonymity they can plot international protests and movements without consequence. Anonymity is a key characteristic for the group. The actions of the group cannot be tied to any individual. There is no way to persecute everyone, and there is no way to find an origin to the group’s actions. Also, because there is no individuality, the group can be omnipresent by not needing to rally around a leader. Although Anonymous believes their causes are morally justified, their actions are often illegal. For example, in protest of PlayStation 3 hackers being sued, Anonymous hacked Sony’s servers in 2011. Anonymity has given this activist group a lot of power; however, it is not clear whether they are using it for good.

What will happen if users can create anonymous Facebook accounts? These accounts could create an environment where people are free to share even the most extreme ideas. Or the environment could be conducive to the negative and rash behavior that can occur when people detach their actions from their identity.