What started off in 1980 as a database of information and hypertext linking by Tim Berners-Lee, someone whom we don’t recognize often enough for his contributions, has evolved in the past 33 years to become this pervasive and almost omnipresent thing that we call the World Wide Web. Most (if not all) 33 year-old human beings can hardly claim to have made such progress in their lifetimes.
The Internet, now a term used interchangeably with its more old-fashion counterpart, the World Wide Web, continues to evolve in ways still unexpected. It is a living and growing thing and its expansion continues to bring about threats to things of old – brick and mortar stores, print as a medium, record stores, you name it.
One thing the Internet boasts that is markedly harder to achieve in real life (IRL) would be the promise of anonymity. Of course, one must not be naive, and recognize that as politicians become more aware of the power of the internet, this anonymity may gradually cease to exist, but as of this present moment, a sufficient amount of it is still available to those who should crave it.
Let’s just take the phenomenon of trolling, for instance. 10 years ago (or maybe even five), the word certainly did not hold the same meaning it does today. (Did the word even exist?) Urban dictionary now defines it as:
“Being a prick on the Internet because you can. Typically unleashing one or more cynical or sarcastic remarks on an innocent by-stander, because it’s the Internet and, hey, you can.”
This notion of “because you can” is a very dangerous one, often propagated by the belief that one’s actions hold fewer or no consequences on the Internet. This belief, though widespread as ever, has begun to become increasingly untrue. This then brings on the question – should we condone a platform in which people are less often than not held accountable for their actions?
IRL, I would think twice before calling anyone a slut but somehow online, on forums with equally vicious and acerbic commenters, I may firstly deem it acceptable as per norm to engage in such behaviour. Secondly, hidden behind my username and avatar of not-me, I feel empowered, because I know that even if I do call someone a slut, I can shut down my computer, walk out the door and no one will judge me.
Nobody’s going to think “woah there’s the bitch, she called that chick a slut” – a response which I would definitely have gotten if I were to have hurled the insult in her face with fresh spit from my (physical) mouth.
IRL where I am held accountable for my actions (at least by facial recognition), I am less likely to do something that I will not want to live with. This is why when people bitch IRL, it still happens behind [your] back (covertly and therefore hushed in severity), whereas online, I could bitch about you to your (online) face but you would never have to know it was me. I could even defame you to the other anonymous members of the World Wide Web right to your (online) face and get away, scot-free.
The acknowledgement of this twisted power has led to an increasingly toxic online environment, one where more often than not, destructive criticisms abound.
So then begs the question of – how can we change this? The obvious answer would be the removal of this cloak of anonymity.
If you want to stand against the government, do it out in the open. If you want to tell someone that you disagree with their opinions, tell it to them in their face without your mask. Be responsible for whatever comes out of your mouth, physical or not.
Some proponents of anonymity say it is a right to choose to withhold one’s identity. It is part of free will, and freedom of speech. I must be able to say whatever I want to say, and having my identity associated with my statements may curb this freedom, especially in countries with more oppressive governments. The upside to this is of course that anonymity may serve as protection for the morally righteous who speak out against universally acknowledged wrongs.
However, the downside, which may in actual fact be larger in magnitude, is that those who speak to harm end up getting away scot-free, with no consequences. Let’s not even get started on Internet bullying.
In any case, is anonymity an effective voice against oppression? Would Aung San Suu Kyi have made her mark on Myanmar if she hadn’t risked her life by speaking out without masking her identity? Martin Luther King Jr.? Nelson Mandela? These people believed in their ideals and were held responsible for these beliefs. Even in this digital age, we can quote Julian Assange as an example of this.
I firmly believe in free speech, but the answer is not in making the same statements in anonymity. It is instead making an active effort to challenge oppression, not just speaking about, and removing the perceived need for such anonymity.
However, we often throw around the term freedom of speech all too often. Freedom is a two-sided thing, as I have learnt from my secondary school literature teacher’s analysis of The Handmaid’s Tale – there is “freedom to” as well as “freedom from“. Insofar as we demand freedom to speak, when it comes to speech that harms, we must be aware that we may be stripping someone else’s freedom from harmful speech. John Stuart Mill’s Harm Principle states that the actions of individuals should only be limited to prevent harm to other individuals.
Claiming that the government’s new Internet licensing rules are a curtailment of freedom to speech, we often fail to realise that perhaps we also need protection from our own poison.
The Internet is full of mindless hatred against the government, and such emotional baseless thoughts and comments may in fact be seen as negative-propaganda – the same stuff but in favour of an opposing ideal. Senselessly pushing for the overthrow of our ruling party is not very different from senseless pushing for the ruling party. Both are very dangerous. We often acknowledge the danger of propaganda but are unaware that we may sometimes be doing the same thing – propagating our mindless hatred.
In this age, this is further facilitated by our ability to hide behind anonymity. We can slam the government as much as we like from behind our fake Facebook profiles, I can make derogatory comments with no substantiation, and I will, simply because I can. And that is the mentality that anonymity affords us.
We probably should recognise the need for “freedom from”. The Internet has turned into an extremely toxic environment as we morph into acid-throwing menaces hidden from recognition by our generic usernames. We argue for increasingly vague concepts like freedom without fully realising or even considering the subsequent effects of what we are arguing for.
If we aren’t careful, one day we may end up drowning in our own shit, simply because we can.