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Anonymity revisited

By Scott Tibbs, January 30, 2009

"Cursed be he that smiteth his neighbour secretly. And all the people shall say, Amen." - Deuteronomy 27:24

Imagine someone is shoplifting from Wal-Mart. Do you think the shoplifter is going to walk out the door with the stolen item in plain sight, or do you think she is going to conceal the item so that no one knows she is stealing? Clearly, the shoplifter does not want to get caught, so the item will be concealed. You see, shame loves the shadows. Most people, when they are doing something shameful, will try to conceal that shame from others so they are not held accountable for it.

This leads me to a subject I have addressed before: anonymous speech on the Internet. After the usual disclaimer that anonymity is not inherently bad and can offer an opportunity for honest dialogue that may be hindered by using one's real name, anonymity is used in a sinful way more often than not. After all, it is much easier to engage in character assassination, malicious personal gossip, personal attacks and general filthy language when one does not have to worry about being held accountable by name.

It seems that public discourse (not just on politics and religion, but even extending to sports and entertainment) has been greatly coarsened over the last fifteen years. While politics has always been a blood sport, the anonymity allowed by the Internet has given people the "courage" to say things that they would never say with their real name attached to it. It is arguable that the greatest downside of the Internet is that it offers so many opportunities to hide one's identity. The impersonal nature of the Internet is a problem too, because it is easy to say something through a computer screen that one would never say face-to-face.

I attach my real name to my writings and postings, and that has not come without real-world consequences. But when one wishes to post under a pseudonym, an honest examination of the motives for doing so is necessary. Is it because of a legitimate concern about retaliation? Would you be ashamed to have what you say attached to your real name? Those who choose to be anonymous would do well to hold themselves to a higher standard than those who do not, especially when attacking someone who is in plain view.

One of the worst examples of anonymous posting I have seen comes from the local Republican mole (or moles). The mole's signature move is attending meetings (usually the Friday Lunch Bunch, a gathering of local conservatives) and then running to various internet forums to gossip about what transpired and about the people who attend. I have said before and I will say again that this is one of the most vile, despicable things I have ever seen in politics: to pretend to someone's face that you are a friend (or at least an ally) and then spew venom from behind a fake name.

When you write a letter to the editor to most newspapers, you are required to sign your first and last name to the letter. The newspaper will also screen for content. The local Herald-Times has this policy, and also a policy that they will edit or reject letters out of concern for taste and libel. I do not expect blog comment sections or forums to implement the same rules (especially since I don't on Multi-Level Political Debate) but the ultimate responsibility for the atmosphere on a blog or forum is with the administrator. A few selective bannings and consistent ground rules (and blog hosting services that actually enforce their terms of service) would do a lot to clean up discourse on the Internet.