Anonymity and Abuse: An Addendum

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In recent weeks I have begun a series of four blog posts that discuss discrimination and harassment in cyberspace, its perpetrators, and its consequences.  The first post, “Identity and Ideas,” is available here.  The second post, “Anonymity and Abuse,” is available here.  Given the upcoming holiday, today’s short post simply provides a few additional thoughts about anonymity.  The third and fourth posts will appear after the holiday.

I appreciate the thoughtful comments that my previous posts generated.  My purpose today is to respond to two reactions relating to anonymity.

First, many people claim that they need absolute anonymity in order to speak freely.  As I mentioned in my previous post, I have no inherent problem with anonymity; indeed, I think it can often serve a valuable function.  My issue lies with those who use anonymity as a means to engage in identity-based online harassment of the kind that silences historically marginalized groups.

Having said that, I tend to think that many people overstate their need for anonymity.  As I have throughout this blog series, I’ll use myself as an example.  I write under my own name.  I’m an untenured professor.  That means I have no long-term job security.  I don’t have an extensive financial safety net.  I graduated from law school with over $200,000 in student loans, which I will be paying back for decades.  Every time I post something on the Internet, there’s backlash in the form of crude comments, emails, and phone calls.

By writing under my own name, I expose myself to criticism from other people, including other legal academics, who disagree with me.  Many of them have the power to shape my career.  By writing under my own name, I experience tangible personal consequences.  These range from hateful phone calls to the persistent and disquieting idea that the author of an aggressively sexual comment could be someone who attends my school or lives in my apartment complex.  I am well aware that my personal circumstances make me more fortunate than many people, and for that I am grateful.  The fact remains that writing under my own name has risks and downsides, and yet I still do it.

It’s certainly true that if you hide behind your anonymity to engage in identity-based online harassment, then there may indeed be costs to posting under your real name.  If your contribution to online discourse consists of statements like “haha man i’d love to facefuck that AZN bitch,” then, yes, your employer, family, and any real-world friends you might have probably would not be particularly impressed with either the style or substance of what you have to say.

Of course there are people who have good reasons for anonymity.  Those expressing political dissent within totalitarian regimes provide one example.  Avoiding the real-world repercussions of saying sexist and racist things is not, in my view, a good reason.  And as I’ll discuss in my next full post, it’s possible to protect the former without sheltering the latter.

Secondly, I have encountered an argument that goes something like this: we should tolerate anonymous racist and sexist speech online because, to quote an acquaintance, “it’s good to know how much sexism and racism is out there.”

I understand the abstract appeal of this line of reasoning.  But in practice it’s a remarkably privileged argument to pursue.  Most women and people of color already know there’s plenty of sexism and racism in the world.  So saying “it’s good to know how much sexism and racism is out there” is really a demand for those of us who are targeted by sexism and racism to put up with its damaging consequences in order to educate the blissfully ignorant folks who will never have to put up with identity-based attacks themselves.  Such an argument minimizes the harm to targets of identity-based harassment while privileging an alleged benefit to people who are oblivious to discrimination — and who are apparently too lazy to educate themselves in any other manner than by passively observing anonymous online slurs.

I might find this argument marginally more persuasive if there were any evidence that the only way to raise awareness of racism and sexism was by passive observation of online harassment, or that those who gained awareness subsequently devoted themselves to activism against such harassment.  I know of no such evidence, and so, as an empirical matter, I remain unconvinced.

After the holiday, my next full post will continue with a discussion of appropriate social and legal responses to identity-based online harassment.

- Nancy Leong

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