The Power & Cowardice of Anonymity

In an age where people are respected for creating a positive and perhaps influential and inspirational digital footprint, why are so many individuals still clinging to online anonymity…or worse, abusing anonymity to gain power?

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Photo by Justin Ling CC Wikimedia Commons  Guy Fawkes mask for hacktivist group Anonymous’

The Masks We Wear

We all wear a mask when we’re online, but it’s up to us how we carve the features. What parts of ourselves or what human characteristics do we want to portray?

I’m still amazed at the amount of feedback and free speech platforms that enable individuals to anonymously berate and slander individuals and institutions. Many students and teachers are familiar with the Rate My Teacher platform, and in the international circuit there is a similar platform called the International School Reviews. For many, this platform serves as a space for sharing experiences of living and working abroad. While teachers searching this platform try to look for trends, the feedback can range from reasonable complaints to completely absurd, over-dramatised and vengeful perspectives. Unfortunately many teachers rely on platforms like this to gain information about a school before they accept a job offer. While the reviews are often harsh, they are also anonymous, making it difficult to really determine the extent of the teacher’s experience. General anonymous platforms like this also devalue any accurate feedback about a school, because educators are forced to weigh each review with caution.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t end with online platforms. As we are continuously required to divulge more of our personal information online, the counter move appears to be apps that foster anonymity. While these apps may aim to protect individuals’ rights to free speech and privacy, they ultimately encourage and promote internet trollers and cyberbullies.

Recently, the Yik Yak app fell under major criticism as teens were irresponsibly using it to dare and bully each other.

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Photo Credit: kid-josh via Compfight cc

This Blog Post explores in more depth the vulgarity and misuse of the app at a US college campus.

My question is, why do so many individuals continue to hide behind anonymous apps that were not initially designed to be misused in this way? Last month Diana Graber of the Huffington Post investigated the issue further and spoke directly to the creators of the Yik Yak app. She wrote:

“We were naïve,” Buffington told me. “We designed the app primarily for college students. Using the app the way we intended it to be used requires a certain amount of maturity and responsibility, we were idealistic about who possessed that.”

The co-creators did their best to remedy the situation by placing age limits and blocks on the app in certain geographical regions and school districts, but the damage initially done had already occurred. Graber succinctly summarises ways to prevent future incidents like this from happening:

What Parents and Educators Can Do To Monitor Social Apps:

1) Prevent your under-17-year-old from downloading apps rated 17+. If they have an iOS device: Go to “Settings,” select “General” and tap “Enable Restrictions.” You can set restrictions for “Installing Apps” and “In-App Purchases” here (the slider should read off.)
2) Since kids are really good at getting around #1 (above), a better solution is to talk to your kids, set rules, and then get familiar or cyber-wise about what they’re up to online so you can see if your rules are being followed. If you need a little help with this (especially with younger kids) you might consider installing software, like SpectorSoft, that records and replays all of your child’s Internet activity and provides a detailed report.
3) Even better than #1 or #2 is to advocate for digital literacy or “cyber civics” lessons to be taught at your school. Understanding how (and why) to be safe and respectful online is an indispensable skill in our networked world. Besides, the best Internet block or filter in the world is the one kids carry around between their ears. Let’s teach them how to use it!

Number three clearly shows that ultimately it is up to schools and educators to teach students about becoming responsible digital citizens, and giving them space to practice these skills.

Despite the controversy, anonymous apps unfortunately seem to be on the rise. Tech Crunch recently described the newest app Cloaq (released just 2 weeks ago): 

The trend toward anonymous social applications may be on the downswing for some, but others believe there’s still a place for online discussions where users don’t have to reveal their real identity. Case in point: Cloaq, the anonymous app where users never had to provide an identifying piece of information, like a phone number or email, is today launching out of beta with a new twist. Instead of only socializing around user-generated content, the startup is now allowing users to have anonymous discussions about news articles as well.

I find this deeply concerning as we are removing all accountability from users of these apps. Providing a mask, or cloak, to hide behind will greatly impact the way humans interact and socialise online. Will anonymous trolling one day overshadow the power and inspiration provided through connectivism and networking communities?

The Anonymity Myth

Another recent article by Tech Crunch explores the myth of maintaining and remaining anonymous online. The main points include:

  • ‘Privacy’ Mode is Not Very Private
  • Cookie Blocking Prevents Many Commercial Trackers, But Leaves Big Openings
  • Tor and Encrypted Browsing Both Conceal and Highlight Users
  • Beyond the Mask of Encryption: Behavioral Giveaways

The final point discusses how unaware we are of our online behavioural giveaways:

While Tor and other privacy-focused technologies may protect you from revealing most of your personal details as you surf the web, how you behave online may ultimately expose your true identity. If you think of the web as a public meeting place, then privacy technologies are like a mask or disguise – people won’t be able to recognize your identity on sight. But other details, such as the way you walk or talk, may be enough to tip off a careful observer.

This final point brings me hope that one day we may greatly reduce, or even erradicate abuse of power on the internet. I wonder how much longer anonymous individuals will have the freedom to troll and bully others online. When will technology and governing policies catch up and make it impossible to speak behind the mask?

Our Profiles, Ourselves

We are moving towards an age where our online presence marks a major aspect of ourselves. Potential employers are relying on our online profiles more than ever to get a complete picture of who we are, and who they are hiring. Does it reflect poorly or negatively on us if we lack an online presence? Five years ago, I don’t think it would have been an issue. But now, I would question why a teacher, administrator or school has so little shared online. It either reflects they may have something to hide or nothing of value to share with the global community.

Platforms such as WordPress, BloggerSquarespace and eBooks like Twitter: A Cultural Guidebook make it so easy for any individual or organisation to build a online profile for themselves. If we are to truly consider the recommendations in Graber’s Huffington post article, we have a responsibility to model a positive online presence and an individual who has none may not be the best candidate for a job in 21st Century Education.