For millions of us, internet is that place. On the web, you can be your own creation.
You can be anonymous.
- The situation in which someone’s name is not given or known
- A situation in which a person is not known by or spoken of by name
Anonymity can help you express your innermost thoughts while you feel safe hiding behind the cloak of invisibility. Right?
Or maybe there’s something more to anonymity and how it affects our psychology.
Centuries ago, Plato wrote about how anonymity plays with the human mind. He mentioned the Ring of Gyges in his Republic -the ring grants the power of invisibility to its owner.
Here’s how the story goes:
Gyges had a shepherd ancestor who lived in Lydia. Once there was an earthquake and he discovered a new cave in the mountainside. When he entered the cave, he saw that it was actually a tomb with a corpse of a man on a bronze horse. The corpse wore a golden ring, which was taken by the shepherd. The ring gave him the power to be invisible. He used the power of the ring to seduce the queen and then to murder the king. He soon became the king of Lydia.
Plato observed that the power of invisibility turned a normal man into a thief or a criminal. Knowing that one will not be caught has the ability to turn them to the darker side. Plato argued that morality comes from disclosure and without full accountability, everyone would behave unjustly.
Does this observation hold true for online anonymity? Do we behave differently when we use pseudo names and hide behind TOR or VPNs?
How Online Anonymity Affects Human Psychology
Anonymity and The disinhibition effect
We all say or do things in the online world that we wouldn’t normally in the real world. We feel less inhibited and are able to express ourselves openly. More so, if we’re using an account that doesn’t use our real name or other identifiable details.
This is often called as disinhibition by researchers.
It has a good side.
People can share personal things about themselves. This can include secret fears, emotions, or wishes. They can be kind and generous anonymously. This is benign disinhibition.
And, it has a bad side.
Anonymous people might use rude language, display hatred, or send threats. They can send pornographic or violent imagery to others to create a sense of shock. This is toxic disinhibition.
Lowered self-evaluation and restraint
Philip Zimbardo of Stanford University conducted an experiment in 1969 where he dressed some students in plain lab coats while others in identity concealing hoods.
They were told that if they press a button, it would administer an electric shock to their “victim” in another room. The ones who wore hoods and were anonymous were twice more likely to press the button.
This experiment showed that anonymity led to lowered self-evaluation and allows people to act in disregard to the societal norms. In short, anonymity might lead to bad behavior.
Anonymity Increases Dissociation from Real World
Emily Finch, a criminal lawyer and a cybercrime researcher, suggests that some people perceive their online life as a game that is different than their real life. According to them, rules of their real life don’t apply to their online life.
They sometimes create these “imaginary” characters that exist in another universe and they feel free in the online world where there are no responsibilities of the real world. This dissociation creates a divide between their “two lives”.
Anonymity and Personality variables
As discussed earlier, anonymity creates disinhibition. Whether it’s toxic or benign depends on the needs, feelings, and underlying character of an individual. People have different personalities and thus the same level of anonymity might bring out toxic or benign disinhibition characteristics in different people.
If someone is kind-hearted by their nature and not just pretending, they will remain to be so in their online interactions. However, if someone is forced to be kind (due to societal norms or by law), they will show their true character when they hide behind the cloak of invisibility.
Anonymity might help explore one’s true self
John A. Bargh, the professor of social psychology at Yale University, asserts that in the offline world, people are stuck in their roles and responsibilities and are unable to escape them. These roles are assigned by their families, peers, and others that interact with them.
However, when they visit the internet, they get a place where they can be their true selves and express their feelings and opinions. Since the internet has an anonymous nature, the costs of disclosing compromising or negative aspects of one’s life are lowered.
Bargh and his colleagues performed several experiments and concluded that the characteristics that define a person’s true self were clearly visible on the internet than in the real world.
Anonymity helps with mental well-being
A study conducted on young men (age 16-24) found that the subjects had low probabilities of seeking professional help for their mental issues. However, they showed a high likelihood of using self-help strategies and getting help from the internet.
This study was published in 2012 and is significant because young people often face mental issues but are unwilling to seek professional help.
According to a report by the World Health Organization, there are about 300 million people all over the world who have mental issues but don’t want to get professional help. The main reasons for denying or not seeking help are public stigma and lack of awareness.
Another study was held in 2009 and the subjects were UK military personnel in Iraq. The researchers compared symptoms of mental issues by forming two groups. One group provided anonymous information and the other had to mention their contact details.
The research team found that the personnel providing anonymous results were more likely to report possible PTSD symptoms than those who had to fill in their contact details.
Presently, several researchers are trying to find ways in which people can seek mental health help without any obstacles. Since people find it uncomfortable to reach out to their close ones regarding their mental well-being issues, online anonymity can be a key player in the world of global mental health-related issues.
Why Do the Naysayers Want Anonymity and Encryption Eradicated
Anonymity Increases Trolling
As you might already know, trolling is when someone posts provocative, derogatory, or inflammatory content on public forums or social media. It’s not a new concept. Wherever there will be a chance of going anonymous, there will be trolls.
For example, Gamergate was a “movement” in which gamers started giving death threats to female game developers. They attempted to dampen the voices of female video bloggers, developers, and gaming enthusiasts, including Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu.
Not long ago, Saturday Night Live star Leslie Jones faced online trolls who harassed her and forced her to leave Twitter.
Jessica Valenti, a feminist author was forced to leave social media as trolls sent rape and death threats targeted towards her 5-year-old daughter.
Jonathan Weisman, New York Times editor, was attacked online by anti-Semitic trolls and was forced to go off Twitter.
It seems that when people aren’t able to express their sexist, racist, or homophobic nature in the real world, online anonymity helps them open their floodgates of hatred.
Anonymity Promotes the Ugly Side of the Internet
Psychologists have proven several times that anonymity promotes unethical behavior.
In an experiment, 1,300 kids were given a chance to steal Halloween candy. The kids that were in the anonymous group stole the most candies. The kids that went stealing individually and provided their contact information stole the least candy.
This attribute of behaving unethically in the real world can be reflected in the online world as well. When people don’t have to provide their identification, they can show their ugly side.
Sometimes, online anonymity can bring out the worst characteristics in us (toxic disinhibition).
Cyberbullying is a serious issue. Alexis Pilkington, a Long Island teenager, committed suicide after being cyberbullied. And even after her death, trolls continued to post hateful comments on her online tribute page.
Thankfully, now there are laws against cyberbullying. The harassment laws of many countries now include electronic communication as well.
In another case, a former Vogue cover girl, Liskula Cohen, was trolled by an online blogger. The model went to the court and forced Google to reveal the identity of the blogger. Google complied and the blogger was unmasked.
This might have been avoided if the blogger had used a VPN. Since VPNs hide the identity of users, it becomes nearly impossible to trace back to them.
Anonymity and Encryption Help Criminals
Data breaches and cyber-attacks impacts several users. The year 2017 saw leaks, attacks, and hacks on hundreds of millions of users. One way to stay protected against such attacks is by using strong encryption.
However, not everyone agrees on that.
Some law enforcement agencies argue that encryption and anonymity make it difficult to catch criminals and to fight terror. This means the authorities try to control user communication and decipher the encrypted messages and read them wherever possible.
The Law against Encryption and Anonymity
According to a Freedom House report, the UK, Vietnam, Thailand, Russia, Hungary, and China have implemented or passed some laws that require individuals and companies to break the encryption whenever they are requested by the government.
In 2017, Australia pushed the Five Eyes countries to adopt methods that would allow the breaching of secure systems by breaking encryption.
While these laws are made with the intention to protect citizens, they do weaken the encryption, making everyone more vulnerable.
Countries such as Russia, Saudi Arabia, and UAE already legal mandates for retention of data and forced decryption by technology companies.
Governments want companies to maintain logs of user communication and provide them the logs whenever requested by the authorities. This move is often resisted by private companies. Privacy enthusiasts feel that this would compromise the privacy and security of users all over the world. This will also reduce the economic viability of companies providing online security solutions.
Instead of demanding complete disclosure of user information, the law should find the right balance with traceable anonymity. While the general public’s anonymity should be maintained, the law should be able to catch the people who hide behind the cloak of invisibility and harm or abuse others.
Clearly, when we discuss the psychology of anonymity, it is an issue where it’s hard to be one-sided.
In Defense of Anonymity
Sure there can be dark and slimy things under the rock of anonymity. But does that mean we should destroy anonymity and create a space where it’s possible to identify every person to prevent crime?
There are governments all over the world who say that there should be a ban on encryption and there should be no anonymous websites. The truth is that anonymity is also used to protect the victims in cases of crime.
There can be cases of domestic violence, stalking, military defense, banking security, or human rights. Encryption can help provide anonymity to the victims of crime.
Constant surveillance, as often promoted by the governments across the world, is detrimental to society and hinders our ability to visit the internet free from being judged and post our views and opinions. It also gives us creative liberties where we can seek others’ feedback without being judged.
Anonymity promotes freedom of expression
Anonymity might have some vices. But it comes with a number of virtues as well.
Everyone has some unpopular opinions – views that we hide from everyone. The anonymity of the internet gives us the freedom to express those opinions.
There are several governments with draconian laws. Citizens of these countries cannot openly express what’s really happening there. Encryption (using a VPN) provides them a much-needed cloak of anonymity so they can get their voices heard.
If the government is able to trace back to them, these users will get into trouble for speaking against the government or its policies.
With anonymity, people are free to express their views without being afraid of the people in power.
For example, an LGBT teen might need the right counseling to help them cope with the pressure they feel. They might not be comfortable opening up to their families, especially in countries where LGBT people are sentenced to death.
In such cases, they can take to an online forum and discuss their issues without getting bullied. Teenagers might not have people in their real life to discuss these issues with. Online forums can be a huge respite for them.
There are human rights workers working all over the world. In repressive countries, they need to hide their identities and spread the message of freedom to their audience. Encryption is important in these cases.
Women rights are not equal in all countries. In repressive countries, women can use a VPN and go online to share their opinions and discuss women health issues and domestic violence cases.
Activists don’t have to fear violence if they know they are anonymous. Whistleblowers can write or speak against wrong policies of the government if they get an option to communicate privately and securely.
Anonymity is important for political liberty
If we look back into time, anonymous and pseudonymous authors have made vast contributions in the political discourse of the US.
There wouldn’t have been the American Revolution without the anonymous pamphlets. The papers that were published using pseudonyms shaped the US Constitution.
Writers who have delivered thought-provoking or controversial speeches have often used the cover of anonymity to avoid prosecution.
Cato’s Letters were an influential collection of essays about political liberty and freedom of speech. They started appearing in 1720 and were written by Thomas Gordon and John Trenchard, using the pseudonym, Cato. These essays were probably the most influential work in the American political scene of the 18th century.
As it’s visible from these examples from history, dampening anonymity will violate the right to free speech and can hinder the growth of a country.
Banning anonymous speech can have several negative consequences. If publishing anonymous and pseudonymous text is allowed, it doesn’t make sense to disallow it on the internet.
Anonymity can allow for a much safer and relaxed internet experience
A study was conducted in the Carnegie Mellon University and 34% of the respondents said that they want to be anonymous online because of some previous negative experiences when they showed their real identity online.
The study revealed that such negative experiences can have an impact on a person’s perception of how using real identity online can pose a threat to their well-being. These subjects believed that anonymity gives them the freedom to be themselves on the internet.
Some respondents even had to face life-threatening situations when they showed their true identity online. This taught them to be anonymous online and not reveal their details to anyone on the internet.
Anonymity Saves Lives
There are several repressive societies that do not follow the human rights standards because of the laws or social norms. People in these societies are not free to express their opinions using their own real identity.
One such country is the Islamic Republic of Pakistan where there are several cases that make people want to hide behind the cloak of anonymity.
Mashal Khan was a blogger who posted his views online. He was a young student who was lynched openly in his university by an angry mob, blaming him for posting blasphemous content.
Another case is that of Qandeel Baloch, a celebrity, who was killed in the name of “honor killing”. She had allegedly posted content on social media that his conservative brother did not approve of and murdered her.
There are also news reports on journalists being forcefully abducted by the Pakistani military. The country is notorious for the rising cases of disappearing human rights activists.
People who live in such countries depend on anonymity tools to get their voices heard. If that anonymity is taken away from them, the real state of their conditions will never surface and the world will not know the kind of repressions they face.
Anonymity projects like Tor help people hide their true self and post online content in high-risk situations. There are people whose lives depend on Tor. Whistleblowers and human rights activists in repressive countries depend on Tor and VPN services.
Crucial For free journalism
Freedom of speech is related to journalism. Fearless and unbiased journalism gives power to freedom of speech.
In today’s digital era, things become more complicated than just accessing classified files. As many governments use mass surveillance techniques, it gets difficult for journalists to report things without risking their security.
Anonymity is very important for the survival of the freedom of the press. When we hear about chilling cases such as the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, the importance of anonymity becomes even more evident.
Khashoggi was a critic of the Saudi government living in Turkey. On October 2, 2018, he went to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul where he was killed.
Journalists have to pay heavy prices for speaking against the wrongdoings of the government, which is why anonymity is very important to them.
Eradicating Anonymity Is Not Such a Good Idea
The online world that we frequent and love will cease to exist without anonymity, even if the current level of anonymity or security is not impenetrable or absolute. The ability to communicate incognito with others has its good and bad sides but the net result is positive.
Anonymity is important for preserving an open and free internet. Yes, the loss of anonymity might make some people more civil in their behavior. But it might curb someone from expressing their pain or circumstances.
Anonymity is not just important to political rebels or journalists under threat, it is also important to:
- A medical patient seeking health advice on online support forums, trying to help cope with the illness
- An LGBT teen looking for advice on whether or not they should come out to their families and how
- Someone seeking help for their mental issues without letting anyone know because of the social stigma
- A woman seeking help on domestic violence, learning about the laws that can favor her
- A wife who doesn’t want her husband to know about the gift she is picking for his birthday
- A husband who watches porn, hiding from his religious wife who doesn’t want him to watch R-rated stuff
- A gamer who wants to play with other gamers all over the world but doesn’t want to get racial slurs because of the country he belongs to
- An individual who wants to tell the world about the problems they are facing in their country without coming in the eyes of the government
- A partner looking for erotic tips to spice up their sex life
- A soldier sending newly discovered information back to the base without being watched by the enemy
- A blogger mentioning the state of their society and how it needs reforms
And the list goes on. You might find yourself on this list. Users who don’t want their online life tied to Google searches of their names would value privacy. If you don’t want a data broker to log everything you ever said or typed, you might just be a privacy enthusiast.
Anonymity affects each of us in some way. Without the ability to do the things mentioned above, we won’t be able to use the internet like we intend to.
Anonymity in Practice
Anonymity has almost no legal protection. Several governments try to control the degree of anonymity and get hold of as much data as they can. While several initiatives have been developed to help netizens maintain their privacy and anonymity, they have often been limited by governments and laws in several countries.
Tools such as VPNs and Tor have been developed to offer a level of anonymity to users. But as governments try to break the secure networks, there is a need for user awareness and a will to fight draconian laws so anonymity can prevail.
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