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Anonymity: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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Anonymity is a strange concept when you think about it.  As people we often like to know whom we are in contact with and who is involved in our lives.  It’s possible now that you can communicate with someone halfway around the world, who you have never met and who you really truly do not know the identity of.  The idea that someone unknown to us sits behind a computer screen and interacts with us can be rather unsettling.  Sometimes we picture the anonymous users as creepy, disfigured old men preying on young girls, or young teenagers pretending to be older than they really are.  We picture these people to be sitting in a dark stingy basement, lit only by the glow of the computer screen, alone.  In reality, many of these anonymous users are average people who seek refuge online, away from their everyday lives.

Why anonymous?

The Internet is a great source for seeking information, connecting with others, and voicing an opinion on an open forum.  In order to do some of these things, many may create false identities under a pseudonym or even remain completely anonymous all together.  In a study conducted at Carnegie Mellon University on why people seek anonymity on the Internet, the results concluded that there are two important factors that may lead people to form their Internet lives with either a different identity or none at all.  These two factors are “their prior negative experiences, and their desire to manage the boundaries between their online and offline worlds.”

 As for the first factor, anonymity can be used as a sort of defense mechanism and safety shield from online predators.  Different sources and websites can obtain personal information that is shared online.  This information leak can more readily cause individuals to steal identities in terms of credit cards and banking information.  Some interviewees in the study disclosed they had been stalked online from the information they provided on social media sites.  Creating false identities or remaining nameless is used as a protection mechanism for themselves in their physical form as a result of previous upsetting situations.

 Regarding the second factor, the individuals wanted to create a division between their real lives and their lives online.  For example, a college student in the job application process wouldn’t necessarily want all her online activities seen by future employers.  Instead, she might create a pseudonym to protect her real life identity, but still be allowed to partake in online activities.  These may include writing raunchy fan fiction or a blog about radical opinions that might have employers questioning her character.  This allows for this girl or any other person to display the part of themselves they choose to.  They can exist in different social spheres without ever needing to intertwine the two or multiple versions of the self.

In a personal example, a friend created a twitter account in high school and posted relatable things for teens.  This twitter account was created under the name Teen Things, as not to connect her directly to the page in fear that others from school might discover her secret.  As a girl who was bullied in school, she created the pseudonym as a way to protect herself from possible bullying that might have ensued had she used her real name.  She was able to avoid the bullying she feared by remaining under her anonymous pseudonym and only chose to reveal her identity once she graduated high school.

The Good Turns to Bad

Remaining anonymous online or using a pseudonym can be beneficial as in the examples above, however, the problems arise when those individuals start to abuse their power.  One result of this abuse of nameless power has become a major problem especially with young teens, known as cyberbullying.

 Cyberbullying is unwanted aggressive behavior that takes place over electronic media such as cell phones, tablets, social media sites, websites, chat, text messages and more.  The behaviors associated might include spreading rumors or lies online, sending mean messages, posting pictures without consent, or tricking others in order to reveal personal information. It is especially prevalent among teens and young adults, the age group most likely to use the media most.   Cyberbullying is much like regular bullying, but often worse for the victim as it becomes inescapable.  Sometimes, online bullies fully own up to their torture tactics by using their own identities to harass someone.  The anonymity factor added to many websites and social media sites creates an even worse condition for the victims.  Now they become bombarded with attacks, rumors, name calling, all from unidentified individuals.  There is no one to point the blame to put a stop to it.  Social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and ask.fm are especially susceptible hosting sites to online bullying.  Ask.fm is a site that allows users to ask questions with the option of remaining anonymous, much similar to that of the controversial site, Formspring.

This anonymity that social media sites offer allow bullies to target peers without the risk of being caught.  Many cases of cyberbullying and resulting suicides have been highlighted in the news recently, including the death of 12-year-old Rebecca Ann Sedwick.  Sedwick jumped to her death off of an abandoned cement plant as a result of incessant online taunting.  She received a barrage of hateful text messages through kik and ask.fm applications including some that read “Why are you still alive?” and “You’re so ugly.”  The constant torment just proved to be too much for the young girl who felt she had no other choice but to give in to the individuals that bullied her.  Just a few months earlier, 14-year-old British teen Hannah Smith killed herself after receiving a bombardment of anonymous hateful messages on ask.fm.  Smith’s parents then took on the task of passing around a petition to get the British government to intervene on behalf of the well being of young people and make policy changes to prevent bullying.

Thankfully not every story is as tragic as Rebecca’s and Hannah’s are, but these instances of bullying are not rare occurrences.  Approximately 70% of teens witness some form of bullying online, myself included.  There is not a given day that I go on Twitter where I don’t see some sort of argument or hate messages.  I witness my friend get bombarded by unwarranted messages on ask.fm telling her she’s “too fat” or “looks like a cow.” Sometimes the hate messages are even directed towards a celebrity.  We are surrounded by these images on a daily basis.

Tackling Cyberbullying

More and more people seem to be jumping on the bandwagon to prevent online bullying.  It’s hard to control the speech of bullies through anonymous websites like ask.fm, especially when the identity of the person is unknown.  It makes it difficult to reprimand or assign consequences to the individuals who choose to use their anonymity in a hateful manner.  As a possible solution to help combat hate, a new computer code has been developed that detects commonly used derogatory words to spot any potential bullying.  MTV has already put the code in place to screen messages on it’s site, A Thin Line, a space created that allows teens to talk about their digital abuse stories.  Mr. Karthik Dinakur, creator of the new system, describes that terms like “slut” and “fatty” in a comment would be flagged for review.  While it is a new computer system, Dinakur and others are hoping other sites will adopt it as a preventative measure to get at the heart of bullying.

 As for other solutions to combat hateful messages, there aren’t any federal laws in place to prevent them.  The Internet is a vast place where anyone can write what they feel as a form of freedom of speech.  It would be awfully hard to combat every single comment made; however, legislation should be made that would limit some of these occurrences.  Anonymity would be much nicer if bullies did not hide behind it to create a hostile environment, but rather as a way to foster new ideas.

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