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Anonymous digital identities: To be or not to be?

One thing I dislike and like at the same time about the web is being anonymous. While I am always honest about my identity when I make comments or write on the web, I can understand why some people choose to be anonymous. My profile is open and I am able to be tracked to my place of employment and even contacted directly. I was contacted by a vegan South African due to my blogs on ethical farming here on Thought Leader and we have had a decent discussion behind the scenes after an initial terse email. It also led me to write the last farming blog of the triad.

Many people choose to remain anonymous on the web. I understand that one may choose to use a false identity (but perhaps a more honest one) as a way of discussing deeply personal issues such as mental illness, sexuality or personal conflict. The web can offer a wonderful resource to do so. There are excellent depression and mental health websites that allow the often voiceless to open up and say what is on their mind. People can speak frankly without fear of embarrassment or repercussions. There are gay chat groups that allow closeted men a chance to express secret desires, and so on. Whatever one wishes to discuss there is probably an online forum to do so.

Yet, most people on the web choose to be anonymous in order to say hurtful, hateful things that they would never utter in public. Some of these are the internet trolls: a double meaning of trolling in the form of fishing where a line is cast and one waits to see what hits it and that of the undesirable and dumb mythical beast that lives under a bridge. It is used online to refer to those who write for a reaction more than a specific point and for those that utter hateful comments to upset or intimidate.

On Thought Leader there are some people who write comments under fake names and take extreme positions to make a point or just to insult people. I also know of commentators here who lie about their race and pretend to be some other group as if that makes their position for or against something like affirmative action stronger. Identity politics get used instead of reason to push an ideological or political position.

Some of the regular commentators that post remarks and rants from behind fake names write as often as the official bloggers do and sometimes the comments’ section is far more substantive than the blog it is supposed to be about. There are of course some commentators that appear to use real names, although I think some of these are fake as well as they seem to be untraceable via Google (etc) or other internet forums. I hate to mention names as it would give them satisfaction, but they do post as often as the official bloggers do. Some argue that anonymity is important in a democratic society, yet seem to use their anonymity to justify xenophobia, violence, extreme nationalism and to spout hatred.

Being anonymous also does not hide as much as people think. As someone who reads and writes a lot I often find it easy to identify at least something about the writers. I can often place a ball-park figure of age and education level, often gender as well as whether they are a first-language speaker of English.

I can also often guess who is writing multiple comments under different names. It is somewhat surprising how many people do use multiple names. Sometimes this is done as they use a name to express a point or subject position and not done to deceive, but often it is to hide who they are as they prop up their ideas with fake support for bad ideas.

Elsewhere on the internet people have secret blogs that are used for rants and private wonderings that they perhaps could not write openly about due to shyness, modesty or just a desire to be unknown. It can be enjoyable to write anonymously and there are times I would love to be able to comment freely without having to worry that the words may haunt me later.

I am also reminded of the oft repeated joke of someone up all night debating because someone is wrong on the internet. Look at YouTube videos that are filled with asinine remarks, hate speech, bigotry and chauvinism of all sorts. But of course the internet is a funny forum of free speech that is not subject to peer review or editors restraint. Of course there are the grammar trolls who seek out bad grammar instead of anything to do with the actual blog.

I also enjoy when the flippant remarks made trigger a side-fight that carries on the wrong forum. Such as the pro-gun lobby debate on a blog about Ukweshwama. The changing of the topic is a favourite task for the ill-informed at times. If you cannot comment on what is before you, change the topic. I often see attacks against bloggers based on things they have not discussed such as when someone claims that I do not care about people because I wrote a blog about dogs.

So for the regular commentators on Thought Leader I would like to ask why the fake names and identity? What are the various reasons for your anonymity?

Author

  • Michael Francis

    I have returned to South Africa. I now teach Economic History and Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. I am happy to be back after a couple years away. I had been teaching anthropology at a Canadian University, but Africa called and I returned.