Anonymity confers power without responsibility

I recall some time ago having an animated debate with an acquaintance over a policy of the newspaper for which I then worked. It concerned the letters to the editor column, and the rule that anonymous letters would not be published.

But, she argued strenuously and without apparent irony, there is so much more you could say if you did not have to reveal who you were.

Precisely. And don't we just see that now with all the howling foul-mouthed bigots, big-noters and bullies who hide behind the curtain of invisibility on the web and spray anyone and everyone with whom they either disagree, or with whose actions or opinions they take exception.

With the worst of these people, there is no question of dialogue, nor discussion; there is no desire for debate; there is no quest for reason nor rational discourse: merely crude diatribes delivered from the comfort and safety of their computer screens.

They want to be right, and they want to use the kind of might that anonymity allows.

For anonymity confers power without responsibility: the power to insult, to demean, to inflame, to abuse and to attack other people's dignity.

You do not have to be answerable for your views, nor to the people you might offend, nor do you have to substantiate or defend your opinions.

In some sectors and among some users, the online world has become the preserve of haters and cyber-fascists.

The latest public figure to fall foul of this trend is a sports coach. Pat Lam is the coach of the Auckland Blues Super-15 franchise. He has had a distinguished career as a former Auckland representative player, as captain of the Samoan national team, and as a respected contributor to the game in Europe. He is a New Zealander of Samoan descent.

As a coach, he is doing it tough this year with a team that has been on the wrong end of a series of narrow losses.

The Blues have played better rugby and they will again. And, as coach, he must shoulder some of the responsibility and the heat that comes with a losing side. After all, this is professional sport and many things follow when a team is not performing, including a fall-off in attendances with the attached monetary ramifications.

But last week the tall, rugged loose forward, who would not take a step back to anyone on the rugby field, nor any untoward lip, was moved to tears by the bigotry of disaffected followers of the franchise. I won't call them fans, because that would be to demean the term.

While the exact nature of the insults remains unclear, it seems that it was reference to his family and his ethnicity that upset Lam the most. I think we can assume that included some pretty ugly and overt racism.

We need to look again at the whole business of anonymity on the web. For a convention has grown up on almost all comment sites, blog-sites and online forums that anonymity is the order of the day.

The argument justifying it seems to run like this: anonymity confers a freedom of expression that cannot be enjoyed when the denizens of cyberspace are identified as the alter egos of real people with jobs, with families, with mothers and fathers, with teachers, mentors, employers, with lovers and children.

Further, the contribution to debate and ideas and expression that this generates will in the long run outweigh the disadvantages that may follow from those few who choose to abuse these freedoms.

This was and is a mistake. The Pat Lam example is just one of many. All over the world, people log on and lose their inhibitions. They get in touch with their basest impulses. They flame and troll to their hearts' content, with never a thought for - or fear of facing - the consequences.

Why? Because, it seems, we have allowed it to be so. But there are signs the empire of rational and polite discourse is striking back.

The law is beginning to take an interest is the cavalier destructiveness of some self-expression on social media, for example.

But it should not be left to the lawyers. There will come a time when a critical mass of informed and decent citizens say enough is enough and demand that operators of websites and social media sites and online forums insist people stand up and be counted for their opinions; and when the anonymous, cowardly cyber-fascists are forced to slink away with their tails between their legs.

Simon Cunliffe is deputy editor (news) at the Otago Daily Times.


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