It’s indisputable that Richard Dawkins has contributed a lot to science and critical thinking. But that doesn’t mean every idea he has is a sensible one. Take for instance, his recent apparent apparent dismissal of general anonymity:
In Saudi, Pakistan etc, anonymity may be essential. But in UK, US etc pseudonyms are used for no better reason than it’s become the custom
I can appreciate that someone like Richard Dawkins is likely the subject to daily attacks on Twitter and other forums for his strong attitudes and outspoken pursuit of verifiable fact, and I’d posit a guess that could very well play a factor in his thoughts on pseudonyms, but to me that’s not a real solution – or even a helpful one.
Much of the debate about anonymity online comes down to a single logical fallacy:
If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.
It’s a very banal and binary approach to anonymity. If you haven’t done anything wrong, then you should be able to self-identify at all times. Ergo, if you need or otherwise feel compelled to hide your identity, you’re doing something wrong.
Except, things are rarely that simple. I’m not of course saying that Richard Dawkins had reduced it to that level of simplicity – but he didn’t consider some of the broader scenarios.
There are three key reasons why people choose to use pseudonyms and otherwise pursue anonymity on the net. These generally fall into the following categories:
- Identity alignment;
Attack is to me, the detrimental use of anonymity. Most trolls and the bullies use pseudonyms and other mechanisms to disguise their identity so they can go on campaigns of vitriol and harassment. What’s interesting about most trolls and bullies online is that they’re cowards, and often self-identified. They know that what they’re doing is wrong, but for one reason or another, they enjoy it and revel in the perceived power that anonymity grants them. This is an illegitimate use of anonymity online. I’m all for trolls and bullies having their anonymity stripped away and being legally dealt with – but that shouldn’t condemn others.
Protection comes in two forms – physical and life-style. In the rawest, and most profound scenario, people use anonymity online to protect themselves from physical harm. Dissidents in repressive regimes automatically spring to mind, but it goes further than this – people who have left abusive partners or families in even modern first-world countries will quite rightly use anonymity to keep themselves safe. One’s geographical location is not sufficient cause to determine whether one is or is not entitled to anonymity, and like the “nothing to fear, nothing to hide” argument, it’s overly simplistic. Danah Boyd put it so eloquently when she said:
The people who most heavily rely on pseudonyms in online spaces are those who are most marginalized by systems of power. “Real names” policies aren’t empowering; they’re an authoritarian assertion of power over vulnerable people.
Danah Boyd: ‘Real Names’ policies are an abuse of power
Yet, as the word marginalized in Danah’s statement suggests, protection isn’t just about protection from physical harm. It’s also about avoiding unfair discrimination – workplace, familial or societal. Consider someone who has to agree to make no public statements of political belief as part of their employment contract. That’s patently unfair in the broadest sense of the word but legally permitted. Anonymity allows a person to get around that requirement – they’re not in any way identifying themselves with their position, but they’re still able to make some form of political statement. Consider someone who works as a professional but has strong sexual tastes. Nothing illegal, but hardly something they want associated with their career. Not because they’re ashamed of it, of course, but because people are judgmental. Or consider someone who was pressured into marriage by family, but then later realised he or she was not heterosexual, and needed to pursue support.
If you’re fair and honest, you’d agree that all of those reasons are sufficient cause for anonymity. So long as they don’t tie their place of work to their opinions, everyone should be able to freely express their political opinions. Equally, legally permitted activities performed by someone in private with consenting adults should not affect their professional career. And of course, people who need to research or network without fear of stigmatisation should be able to.
Identity alignment is probably the broadest reason for anonymity, and to a degree, it’s actually not about being anonymous at all – something I think baby boomers and early Gen-X’ers don’t necessarily understand. I have an aunt – her name is Janice, but through some quirk of circumstances when she was growing up, her nickname became Polly. Having called her “Aunty Polly” the entire time I was growing up, I still think of her as Polly, not Janice. In fact, most people that know her, including her sisters, think of her as Polly, not Janice.
Computers, and the Internet in general, have just simply broadened that identity alignment scenario. Whereas some people would become known more by their nicknames than their real names, online pseudonyms become a strong mark of identity for many people. They’re not hiding behind a name, they’re using the name they identify with more. Regardless of whether it was the first character name they created in a particular game, or a username picked for a forum that stuck across years of Internet use, the simple fact is that for many users of pseudonyms aren’t in any way associating themselves with anonymity – they’re clearly identifying themselves.
There’s no doubt that some people mis-use anonymity. But calling for it to be substantially reduced just because of a small percentage of offenders is a gross oversimplification of how, where and why people choose to use pseudonyms online.